Why Can’t First Episodes Just Be Good?

25 Jul

This past week, Dan and I had one of those tired, lazy nights (much like every single other night) where all we wanted to do was lay on the couch and watch something mindless. The drama didn’t end there, guys – nothing was on! It was a nightmare. But then we remembered that not only do we have cable and DVR, but we also have On Demand and Netflix. So instead of throwing ourselves off of a bridge, we opted to try watching something new that everyone and their step-grandmother says is the best show ever – Friday Night Lights. Now, don’t get all worked up because you think I’m going to say that I didn’t like it – I thought it was okay and I will definitely give it another chance. But more about that later.

I actually just wish every show was the "Cosby Show."

I actually just wish every show was the “Cosby Show.”

I believe I’ve mentioned my famous lack of attention span before. The sentence I probably say more than any other is, “Wait, who are you talking about?” because I only really start listening to stories once they get interesting, and by that time I’ve completely missed the main points – the who, what, and where. The why and how is when I usually start tuning in, and that’s really unhelpful to me and to the storyteller. I was even one of those peculiar kids who didn’t like having stories read to them at school. It was just so boring! I can read the damn book myself, my tiny brain thought (I knew the word ‘damn’ because I had a teenage brother), and I can read at a much more rapid pace than this, for that matter. I can see the picture of the flower and the house. Move on. (I was also impatient). So my brain would wander and I’d start thinking about lunch time or who I would play with at recess, etc. And that is why, to this day, I know exactly what I will eat at every meal, days prior to eating it. I’ve typically had numerous hours to plan my menus out in great detail while I wasn’t listening to something else. This lack of focus pertains to most everything in my life, which is why there are a million amazing television shows that have been recommended to me, almost all of which I will never get past one or two episodes of. The phrase, “It takes a few episodes to get into” is the first sign that it probably wasn’t meant to be for us (‘us’ being the show and I, because loving a show is a two-way street). And if it takes “getting through the first season,” forget it, fella! I’ll never make it!! Are you kidding?

This leads me to ask the eternal question that everyone in the world spends a lifetime trying to answer: why can’t the first episode of a show just be good? Wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems? I can literally think of only one program that has successfully drawn me in after the pilot – The West Wing.

The West Wing

First of all, if you haven’t watched The West Wing, I am encouraging you to stop reading this right now and go do so. (Actually, why don’t you just finish reading. It won’t take that long). The West Wing has drama, it has comedy, it has politics, it has amazing acting, and it has President Jed Bartlet, who I basically pretended was our real president during the Bush years. Part of the reason that the pilot of The West Wing was so perfect was that each character was introduced in an incredibly smart way, thanks to the (most of the time) genius, Aaron Sorkin. I hate how viewers typically have to meet characters on a first episode. Here’s a typical scene from a pilot:

Guy (probably Matthew Perry): “Hey, little sister. Where’s that fireman husband of yours? Goofing around with that dumb friend of his, Jimmy?”

Girl (probably Amanda Peet): “Watch your mouth, big brother. Jimmy helped you get that job at the bar, remember? When our deadbeat dad wouldn’t give you the money because he was saving up to pay for his fifth marriage?”

[Silly Kramer-esque guy flies through the front door since it’s not locked because no one in sitcoms locks their doors, even though they always live in cities where people lock doors].

Guy: “Hey, Gary. Gary, are you wearing the same shirt that you bought on our spring break to Mexico when we were in college at UCLA? Isn’t that thing 10 years old now?”

Gary: “I’m wearing it because Sarah’s back in town.”

Guy: “Hot Sarah? Sarah who you loved all 4 years of college? Didn’t she move to Colorado after we graduated and marry Doug Henderson, the quarterback of our football team?”

Gary: “Turns out they got a divorce and she’s moving back home. I want to bring back memories of the old days so she falls in love with me.”

Girl: “Uh oh. Not again. You remember what happened the last time. I’m not bailing you out of jail again, Gary!”

You know that this is not only accurate, but that IT’S PAINFUL. No one talks like this, except on the first episode of a doomed television series.

Paul Reiser is pretty familiar with this.

Paul Reiser is pretty familiar with this.

What The West Wing did right was that they allowed the viewer to get to know each character separately first, then revealed their common denominator right at the end when we see them all gather in the Oval Office. They didn’t need to overtly explain their inter-relationships; the viewer is allowed to figure it out in an interesting way. And each character is written so brilliantly, even from the first episode, that you manage to fall in love with every one of them for different reasons, which is unique. It’s one of those shows where I can never pick a favorite character because they’re all so good. And then it ends the way every drama should end: with an over the top speech by Martin Sheen that makes you love our country. I think Martin Sheen won 200 Emmy’s for his role (which, by the way, was supposed to be extremely minor. He was only going to appear very briefly every now and then, but that changed almost right away and Sheen was regularly featured) and they were completely deserved. Sheen was so wonderful and President Bartlet is still one of my favorite characters of all time.

This monologue will make you jump out of your chair and do a slow clap:

The lack of a strong first episode is what kept me from watching so many supposedly amazing shows: The Wire, The Sopranos, Lost, Six Feet Under, just to name a few. There’s some drugs, there’s some mobsters, people crashed on an island, people die. That’s about as far as I got with each of them. I mean, looking back that’s kind of a strong summary for only having seen an episode or two.

Now let’s return to Friday Night Lights. While I’m not yet that into it, I can see the potential for liking it. Here was the downside to the first episode, which will give you a glimpse into why I don’t typically watch dramas, in the first place.

*SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ONE PERSON WHO HASN’T SEEN THE FIRST EPISODE OF THIS SHOW YET.*

I felt very ‘meh’ throughout the pilot episode, until the quarterback got hit and was lying unconscious on the ground. Now, I was not yet attached to this character, but it was emotional enough that I lost my shit. I went from normal person, pleasantly sitting on the couch with her husband watching a new show, to crazy psycho lunatic sobbing woman. I was muttering about how our son might get paralyzed someday (even though, if I have my way, he won’t even know that football exists in this world and he certainly will never ever be allowed to play it) and that thought got me hysterically bawling while saying something about how I won’t let anything happen to him… oh my god. It was a mascara- dripping-down-my-face nightmare and a half. Dan actually had to pause the show so we could take a break and go see that our son was, indeed, alive and breathing. I am clearly not well, people! But this is what happens to me when I watch sad things. Some people think it’s nice to see the harsh realities of the world slapping them in the face, but I want to be taken to a happy place. The world is already brutal, why would I want to see that on television? I didn’t use to be this way. In my past life, I was very cold and hard (that’s what he said!), but turning old has made me soft.

Football players holding hands? Now you're talking!

Football players holding hands? Now you’re talking!

What I wish would have happened is this: The quarterback would have been only mildly injured, like with a bad sprained ankle. As he hobbled off the field, he would say “Ouch! Ouch! I don’t think I’ll be able to finish the game, Coach. I guess you need to send Ricky in my place.” Then he’d walk over to Ricky and give him some brotherly words of advice like, “You can do it Ricky. I’ve seen you throw the old pigskin around in practice. You’re a natural! Get out there and believe in yourself! Miracles do happen, Ricky.” Then the coach would take them all to the locker room and give a motivational speech while some emotional indie song plays in the background. Scratch that – Martin Sheen would suddenly appear and HE would give the speech. Keep the sad music, though. If there’s time, maybe they’d break into song like Stronger by Kanye West and make it into a hybrid- Glee type thing. Then they’d go out there and have the exact same ending that the actual episode had because I liked that the quarterback made two giant mistakes and then was successful. It was suspenseful, yet satisfying.

Alternative ending: The quarterback falls to the ground, but then the whole thing pans out like the last scene in Jerry Maguire. Not the “you had me at hello scene,” but the last football scene when Cuba Gooding, Jr. gets up and starts doing flips and jumping into the crowd and then gets super famous and is FINALLY shown the money. It took long enough! (Side note: remember that very short time when radio stations were playing remixes of songs from movie soundtracks that included some audio clips from the actual movie? I was obsessed with Bruce Springsteen’s Secret Garden and would very emotionally speak along with the characters. God, I miss the 90’s so much sometimes).

I did manage to finish the episode without fainting or puking from sadness, so there’s hope for me. And I promise I’ll give it another chance. If someone can assure me that Martin Sheen becomes the assistant coach by the last episode, I may even see it through to the end.

5 Responses to “Why Can’t First Episodes Just Be Good?”

  1. Patrick Jones July 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    I can vouch for The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Stick with ’em. Also, Deadwood; if you can get past the pathological level of swearing, you’ll hear the poetry.

    • athed July 25, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

      I know. I have been meaning to watch all of these. I do like swearing…

  2. Miriam August 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    You can do it Alex! I believe in you! And Tammi Taylor will be your new Jed Bartlett. I can almost guarantee it.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] a year prior. I wasn’t that into it (please see my post about said dislike for first episodes here), but I certainly didn’t hate it. So I gave it a shot during my son’s 15th nap one day, […]

  2. The Leaves Change, and So Do My Scheduled Recordings on the DVR, Part 2 | broadcouching - October 23, 2014

    […] Never. Never is the answer to that question. […]

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