Weinman on TV: First seasons first

When to start watching when you're late to a series? Our expert says to watch the pilot, then skip a couple of seasons ahead

One question to watch out for, when recommending a TV show that has several seasons under its belt, is the question “When does it get good?” or some variation thereon. Except for shows that flame out after season 1, we often don’t think our favourite shows were at their very best in the first season. They’re not fully formed; the characters don’t act quite the way they “normally” would; sometimes we’ll even get character facts that would later cease to be canonical.

There are arguably three different kinds of less-good first season, though they overlap. One is a first season that simply isn’t good enough, and the show re-tools and becomes better afterward. Parks & Recreation is a famous recent version of this. Then there’s the first season that is good, even acclaimed, but doesn’t quite feel like the show we got to know. The first season of Breaking Bad took home an Emmy for Bryan Cranston, but to many viewers, it now comes across as more of a typical dark-side-of-the-suburbs story than the rest of the series. Not bad, just not necessarily the same show they’re enthusiastically recommending to people.

And third, there’s the first season that recognizably is the show, but in a rough or primitive form compared to what came later. The first season of The Simpsons is an obvious example. It’s not that it wasn’t good; those first 13 episodes were a smash hit. And by the end of the first season, the characters are more or less established as what they would be. But the show was slow-paced compared to what came later. It wasn’t until the third season that it achieved a super-fast pace and became the most densely-packed comedy in television history. Someone watching, say, season 2 of The Simpsons for the first time won’t find the show unrecognizable, just a little sluggish by comparison. (Though I should add that I’ve watched early episodes of The Simpsons in crowds and everyone laughed all the way through them, so there goes that generalization.)

The question then is, knowing that the first season is not the best, do we recommend that friends watch from the beginning, or do we encourage them to start later in the show after it gets good?

The answer isn’t always clear, even with shows that don’t have big story arcs and could theoretically be watched from any point. Sometimes the later episodes wouldn’t be as effective, I think, if we hadn’t seen the early episodes. For one thing, the first season of a show is often the most heavily derivative of other entertainment (not yet having a clear style of its own) and sort of provides a way in for a new viewer. The huge X-Files influence in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example; with paranormal-mystery fever at its height, the new show did a number of vaguely Chris Carteresque stories and scenes, because that was in at the time, and because it was the natural frame of reference for a show in this style. Someone who is already a fan of The X-Files might enjoy those influences in the early episodes of Buffy, even if the show becomes better as it develops its own style. The same applies to Fringe, which started as an out-and-out X-Files imitation, or the more Cosby-esque first season of Roseanne. To quote The Simpsons again, “The best way to be popular is to leech off the popularity of others,” and we may sometimes get a certain level of comfort with the early episodes of a show, where the links with other things we like are clearer. We may not fall in love with the show right away – it’s too early for that. But if we jump in with the “good” episodes, we might not know what’s going on even if we can follow the plot, because we don’t have a frame of reference for what the show is doing.

Early episodes also do the leg work for the later episodes, creating the conventions that the better episodes will break. A famous recent example is Community, where fans prefer the wild conceptual episodes that began with “Modern Warfare,” but whose conceptual episodes wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t already established some character traits and relationships (a high-concept episode can’t do that, because they exist in a heightened reality; characters tend to be defined by how they act in – by TV standards – normal situations). A lot of second and third seasons riff on the characterizations and ideas from the first season, picking the ones the writers like and turning them into running gags, or subverting them. There tends to be an assumption there that we’ve either seen the early episodes or are at least somewhat familiar with the conventions they established. Like on How I Met Your Mother Barney said “suit up!” constantly in the first season, and since then, it’s almost always appeared with some kind of twist or subversion. It presumes that we’ve seen the first season and know that that was his catchphrase.

Finally, first seasons might sometimes be more fun for the very same reasons they’re not as good. The first season of a TV series usually has story ideas that would be rejected later on: some turn out to be out of character, while others feel like rejects from another show and, in many cases, probably were. (A new show is the perfect place to try ideas that were conceived for another show but weren’t quite right. The first season of “Monty Python” contains a number of sketches, like “Nudge Nudge,” that the Pythons tried and failed to sell in their pre-Python careers.) This can sometimes be a good thing. First seasons can be rough, but they can also be exhilarating because they do things that wouldn’t be done later; they’re sometimes the most experimental seasons, and if you get tired of seeing the characters act more or less the same way every week for years, it can sometimes be exhilarating to watch the first season and find them acting “wrong.” It’s like Seinfeld – the first year of shows is very unpolished, but it arguably has the greatest variety of stories and jokes, so even though it’s not as good as some of the later seasons, it can be fun to watch as a palate cleanser after the later episodes start to run together in your mind. Watching the first season after becoming familiar with the rest of the show can sometimes be a fun vacation into an alternate universe with your favourite characters.

Of course that still leaves the question of when to start watching a show, or when to recommend that your friends start. I’m a believer that starting a show in the middle (even a serial) doesn’t usually spoil the effect of the series, so if I genuinely find that the early episodes are not great, I’ll recommend skipping ahead. Even then, though, it’s more about what we want out of a show than whether it starts out bad or becomes good. I usually tell people to watch the pilot of Mary Tyler Moore and skip to the third season, because the much of the writing in the first two seasons is a little old-fashioned and focused on dating problems. However, I know a number of people who prefer the softer, friendlier style of the early episodes and find the early seasons to be the one where the people are the most fun to hang out with. If the show turns out to be good, the first season may not be so much “weak” and more “not what we want.” After all, it’s rare that a show overcomes a truly bad first season to become good. More often they just overcome a derivative first season and provide us with something that we find more original.

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