This summer has offered a wide array of new fare for the American viewer. When the average viewer chooses a summer show, they are usually looking for something light and fluffy, with enough depth to provide a compelling storyline, but nothing too deep and dark that might depress us. This summer, with current events escalating in the Middle East and Ukraine, we are especially in need of light, fun fare.
Surprisingly, all three of the summer shows I decided to try this year were on NBC network. During the year, I watch nothing that is aired by NBC, a network that seems to focus on reality/competition type shows and daytime soap operas. So I was pleasantly pleased by my own choices.
The most appealing shows to me, when I decided back in June, were The Night Shift, Welcome to Sweden, and Working the Engels. The cast of The Night Shift was the main motivating factor: Jill Flint of early Royal Pains, Ken Leung of Person of Interest and Lost, and Brendan Fehr who played Booth’s brother on Bones, just to name a few. Welcome to Sweden had Amy Poehler to recommend it, plus I have an ongoing love affair that started with my first Ikea experience 10 years ago. I was cautiously optimistic about Working the Engels, but thought I would give it a try. I loved Azura Skye in her brief role in Buffy Season 7, and Andrea Martin was a riot in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. However, as a daughter of a legal professional, I am always skeptical of shows that dabble in that field.
Generally, I use the first 5 episodes of a show as a sort of trial period. If I think I might be interested in show, but I’m still withholding judgement, then I decide to watch or not by the end of the 5th episode. My reasoning is as follows:
1) Pilot: the pilot episode, while made to give the network a taste of the whole show, often bears little resemblance to the ultimate product. Filmed six months or more in advance, the pilot often contains actors in main roles who never again appear (case in point: New Girl), and sets and motifs that disappear within the first month (case in point: Bones). I find the pilot of a show unrepresentative of the body of the show in general. For instance, New Girl‘s pilot was quite possibly the funniest bit of television I have ever seen, but the rest of the show has fallen off considerably from there, and now mainly consists of people yelling at each other. In the same vein, I often instruct Buffy virgins not to watch the pilot at all, or to watch it with an extremely open mind. The rest of the show is better, I promise.
2) The second episode is written after the show is picked up. The writers haven’t seen each other in a year, or have possibly never met before at all. They don’t know the actors yet. They’ve mostly forgotten what happened in the pilot. Generally, the second episode is written in a fit of fear of losing the job they just got without any sort of forward planning or writing towards a story arch. The second episode is treading water.
3) I find in general 3rd episodes are often surprisingly good. The third episode of a series may end up being the best episode of a show for a long, long while. For instance, “Water” was the 3rd episode of Battlestar Galactica,* “A Boy in a Tree” was 3rd in Bones, and “Walkabout” was 3rd in Lost. These episodes are all at least in my personal “Top 20” lists for these shows, if not “Top 10.” In Downton Abbey season 1, the third episode is the one with the visiting Turkish diplomat. Forgive my oblique description, but I’m attempting to avoid spoilers. Those of you who know, know what I’m talking about and it’s a pretty big deal. So why not stop after the 3rd episode? Because sometimes it’s too good, too good to be true. For instance, Once Upon A Time had an exceptional third episode in “Snow Falls,” but we all know how I ultimately felt about that show. No, unfortunately, 3 episodes is not yet an accurate barometer for long-term show success.
4) The fourth episode is interesting. Often, this is when the show writers are attempting to further a long-term story arch. Fourth episodes can be similar to the second in that it may again feel like treading water. Or it can be the foundation for something much bigger coming later in the season. A perfect example of this is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fourth episode “Eye Spy.” At the time, Akela Amador seems interesting, and her eye technology disturbing, but we think at the end of the episode that everything is wrapped up. We are disturbed, but we sense no lasting consequences. Little do we know the importance of this episode until months later, in “T.R.A.C.K.S.” (Again, I am attempting to avoid spoilers, please forgive my obliqueness.)
5) Finally, we reach the fifth episode of the series. Now, the show is starting to find its rhythm. The writers have gotten to know each other, and gotten to know the actors a bit. The long term arches have been created, and you see an episode that contains both the episodic arch and marks along the continuing over-arching stories. We’re getting to know our characters better. We have an idea of where the writers are heading, where the story is going, and what the characters want. Now, we have a very good idea of what the show is going to be like for the rest of the season, if not the whole life of the series.
This drawn out process has become a fool-proof way for me to choose new TV shows to watch. Of course, the show will also need to get some Heart at some point, too!
The first of the summer verdicts are in, and the rest will follow soon. I am unashamed to say I’m loving The Night Shift. I watched the 8th episode and realised I had totally passed my 5 episode bench mark. The show had immediate heart, and I cared deeply for the majority of the characters within the first two episodes. I also really enjoy the themes about army versus civilian life, especially against a south-central Texan backdrop. I found myself questioning my own sanity for like it given its increasingly soap-opera type relationship networks, but I realised I should give myself a break: it’s a summer show! What better time to indulge in a little unimportant relationship intrigue on television? Mostly, I’m just sad there wasn’t an episode last week.
I am also now three episodes into both Working the Engels and Welcome to Sweden. While cautiously optimistic about Welcome to Sweden, I think the 5th episode of Working the Engels will be my last. I am unimpressed and mainly disgusted. The show has already resorted to stripper pole humour. But I have hopes for the future of Welcome to Sweden, though I’m worried about the survival of a show that relies heavily upon subtitles. They are easy to read, however, and so far the show has me in stitches.
Final verdicts on the sitcoms in about two weeks! Look for my post.