It’s a dilemma.
You start watching a show. You have the best of intentions, but, for any number of reasons, can’t quite get into it. Something isn’t grabbing you, and you’re thinking about bailing.
But when’s the right time to hit the exit? How many episodes do you give a show to earn a regular – perhaps years-long – slot in your overstuffed viewing schedule? The pilot? Perhaps the first couple? The first season?
I’m currently watching the Showtime miniseries Guerrilla. Or perhaps more accurately, I started watching Guerrilla. I got four episodes into its six-episode run a month ago, and though I’ve never consciously decided to stop watching, I can never get myself fired up enough to finish it. There’s always something else: Orange is the New Black started, so of course that took precedent. There was obviously Twin Peaks. Then Preacher came back and Bloodline was still sitting there, plus Game of Thrones returned, and there was The Defiant Ones and GLOW and and and…
In a pre-streaming, pre-VOD world, there’s a pretty good chance I’d have lost my chance to watch Guerrilla at this point. It would have had its initial run, been repeated a few times, and then disappeared until its DVD release six months later. Maybe I’d have DVR’d it, but even then you were dealing with limited real estate. The thing now is there are no such limits, no maxed out hard drives, no scheduling of any importance. Everything (largely) is available at all times, on all devices, for ever and ever and ever.
Deprived of these get out of jail cards, you’re forced to confront the dilemma head on. Guerrilla will be sitting there, unwatched, until I make a decision to either finish it or cut it.
So we return to the when. If I’ve heard good things about a show, an unremarkable pilot seems too early to judge, but if I’m already unsure (The Bastard Executioner) I have occasionally bailed here. A few episodes seems more reasonable – give the show a chance to find its feet – but there are comparatively few shows I can recall leaving at this point (Sense8 springs to mind).
I feel an obligation to finish the first season whenever feasible; to see the show’s vision through. That’s why I soldiered through the first season of FX’s The Bridge remake, even though I didn’t love it, and Hannibal season one for the same reason, and Low Winter Sun and Tyrant. In the first two instances, my commitment was rewarded with follow-up seasons that are among my all-time favourites. I went from admiring how well Hannibal was put together but not loving its early procedural-ness, to hanging onto every Bryan Fuller-related titbit in hope of the fabled fourth season. The second (and final) season of The Bridge was equally revelatory; an under-seen masterpiece that got better and better the further it distanced itself from the Scandinavian original, in favour of a Sicario-like dive into the war against the cartels.
I wouldn’t have seen the later seasons of either if I hadn’t stuck around early on.
But that’s becoming less tenable, or necessary, all the time. If you don’t love a show now, chances are there’s another waiting in the wings you will. If a show doesn’t grab you from the opening titles, there’s another that surely will. Such is the abundance of Peak TV.
That’s where Guerrilla falls. I don’t love it, and there’s always something I like better waiting in the queue.
This problem is compounded by the fact that no one’s really talking about Guerrilla. I don’t know how it performed ratings-wise, but it never broke through culturally in a major way. It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that a bit more buzz would have been enough to keep me watching through the final two hours, though there’s nowhere near enough space for even every great show to get the watercooler spotlight it deserves.
Even if, as I do, you watch a veritable tonne of television, you’re still likely not watching everything you might want (and that in itself is only a small fraction of the total TV being produced). It’s redundant at this point to say we’re spoiled for choice and the options have never been better, but this conveyor belt of excellence makes the decision to cut or keep a show ever more acute.
This all feeds back to the creators and writers of the shows as an ever-rising bar to get over. Audiences used to have more patience, back when they had fewer options. Nowadays there’s barely room for a wobbly pilot, god forbid a shaky first season, because that hard-won audience is already on to the next thing. Such was the case of Halt and Catch Fire, and despite two brilliant further seasons, the tech drama has struggled for an audience ever since.
It’s hard to say whether this is good or bad, or how it impacts show creation going forward. Many of our greatest shows didn’t leave the traps at peak brilliance, building over seasons as we spent time in their worlds. The Breaking Bad pilot is great, but it’s no Ozymandias. It couldn’t be. Ozymandias wouldn’t be Ozymandias if it happened in the first season. Limited series are a different beast, more akin to movies in some ways, but none that help Guerrilla’s case much.
Maybe I’ll get around to finishing off Guerrilla at some point then. Maybe I’ll watch the second seasons of Fortitude or Outcast or Wayward Pines. Maybe I’ll return to The Man in the High Castle, or try Chance or Sneaky Pete. Mind you, I’ve still got to watch The Crown, and that has actually broken through in a major way.
More likely the onslaught of new and returning shows (I count 19 of interest between now and the start of September) will keep them mostly at bay. I’ll probably never decide to drop them. They’ll just sit there, unwatched, pushed ever further down the queue: the unintended victims of Peak TV.