Skip it: Why it's OK to start a TV show in the middle

Life is short. But television, these days, acts as if you had all the time in the world.

The longtime TV critic Alan Sepinwall recently wrote about what he called the “It Gets Good” problem: the tendency of series in the binge-watch era to take ages to find their voice, establish a premise, get the plot rolling. Your friends rave about a show but warn, “It doesn’t really get good until Episode 6!” Or Season 2. Or 3. BoJack HorsemanThe Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire are all great TV — eventually.

The problem (a high-class one, admittedly) is that there’s more good TV these days than time to watch it. When you’re asked to invest ten hours in the hope that you’ll eventually like a series, it becomes like a rent-versus-buy calculation: Will the equity be worth the down payment?

Of course, that assumes that you watch the entire series. That’s what critics do. But what civilians ask me more often lately is: Couldn’t I just skip ahead to the good part?

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If you jump into ‘Game of Thrones’ cold for Season 7 to see Ed Sheeran’s cameo (left) with Maisie Williams (Ayra Stark), you’ll need several Wikipedia tabs open to understand it (HBO)

My duty as a certified TV professional is to say no. Would you walk into a movie 45 minutes late? A work of art has integrity. Its flaws are as important as its strengths. OK? Watch the whole thing!

(Waits for the purists to leave.)

But yes. Yes, you can totally skip ahead. And it may be the better part of sanity and time management to do it.

It’s not always advisable, of course, and there are trade-offs. If you really want to jump into Game of Thrones cold for Season 7, you’ll need several Wikipedia tabs open, or at least a very patient viewing companion.

But as Sepinwall writes, many creators demand too much patience of viewers who are conditioned by marathon binge-watching. When a series like American Gods spends almost all of its first season table-setting, it’s reasonable to say: OK, give me a call when you’re a TV show, and I’ll catch up with you.

There’s a kind of Protestant-work-ethic guilt attached to skipping. People don’t want to watch the wrong way, the lazy way, the dumb way. And critics like me have contributed to this neurosis, praising the “challenge” of ambitious series as if reviewing hiking trails. No pain, no gain!

This may be a side effect of how good TV has become. The more we realise that TV can be art, the more it takes on the highhandedness of art: The mandate that a work be absorbed in the order, and under the conditions, intended by its creator.

Some partisans of Twin Peaks: The Return, for instance, argue that it’s an “18-hour movie” and that you should withhold judgment until you’ve seen it in full, a demand that denies human nature. David Lynch recently described his ideal screening parameters for his show, as if setting out guidelines for a museum installation: “I recommend getting whatever screen you’re looking at as close to your eyes as you can get, and use headphones. Turn the lights down, and then you have a chance of getting into a new world.”

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Fans of ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ featuring Naomi Watts as Janey-E, argue that it’s an ‘18-hour movie’ and that you should withhold judgement until you’ve seen it in full

Sure. It would be a fine life to watch the eight episodes of Twin Peaks Season 1, then the 22 of Season 2, then Fire Walk With Me, followed by an immersive binge of The Return in a dark, subterranean screening room, crowned by high-fidelity audiophile headphones.

But do what you gotta do. I believe your life will be better if you watch some Twin Peaks rather than none — The Times’ “Watching” site has a guide to just that — even if you watch it on an iPhone standing on a subway platform, as I have done, may Laura Palmer forgive me. And if you’ve never seen a frame of Twin Peaks, you could still watch Episode 8 of The Return — an astounding visual poem on the genesis of evil — like a piece of experimental video art.

It’s also misleading to treat most series, even the greats, like fully formed wholes set down according to careful design. TV is an improvisatory art, in which shows shoot a pilot and then beta-test themselves out in public. (A classic example, Sepinwall notes, is Seinfeld, which became great around Season 3.)

This summer, I’m rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my children. It’s one of TV’s all-time best, but the first season isn’t — so we skipped it. I’d advise the same with Justified, a great show that starts out as a decent anthology. Comedies can easily be hacked — start The Office or Parks and Recreation in Season 2 and you’ll quickly know if they’re for you.

There are exceptions, though it’s subjective. If you want to skip the slow opening episodes of The Wire, you probably just don’t want to watch The Wire.

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 If you want to skip the slow opening episodes of ‘The Wire’, you probably just don’t want to watch it

I wouldn’t suggest skipping any of The Leftovers, either — I’m in the camp that believes that the first season was excellent, just inconsistent. But if waiting ten hours for the best parts is what’s holding you back, for God’s sake jump to Season 2. You will not go to fan jail for this.

If you start a series in the middle, there may be references that confuse you. Google them. Find a fan site. Ask a friend. And later, if you’re hooked (whispers), you can go back and watch the beginning.

Yes, watching part of a series is a half-a-loaf approach. But when TV serves you one 21-course meal after another, sometimes half a loaf hits the spot.

© New York Times

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