It’s not often that a person will delete multiple episodes of a series that have been collecting on his or her DVR, but it happens. Usually, the series gets deleted because room needs to be made for newer recordings, or to avoid the annoying “you have seven percent left!” warning every time you hit that red circle on your remote.
But a couple of weeks ago, I deleted just about the entire run of “Halt and Catch Fire” off my DVR, even though the DVR was only about 40 percent full. And I’ve got to tell you: it felt good.
It wasn’t even that difficult a decision: The pilot of “Halt” was OK, but like most critics observed, the sense that the main character, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) was like an early ’80s version of Don Draper left a cold feeling. Despite the fact that reviews of the show got better as the season went along, seeing that there were eight episodes waiting on the DVR gave me the overwhelming case of the “mehs.”
But that wasn’t the first time this summer that I dumped a so-called “event show” from my queue. “Tyrant” got three episodes before the delete button got deployed; “Extant” got two; “Under The Dome” never even made it past its season premiere. It felt like more than any other period of this supposed “golden era” of TV, I was dumping more shows than I was watching.
The only summer shows currently holding my interest are “The Bridge,” “The Leftovers” and “Masters of Sex,” with “Ray Donovan” in the “about to dump” category and “Manhattan” in the “may watch one more episode” bin. FX comedies “You’re the Worst” and “Married” are also hanging onto my list on an episode-by-episode basis.
“Of course you’re dumping shows in the summer,” you might say. “You should be outside having fun instead of watching TV.” It’s not that simple, however. It feels like a lot of the shows that were supposed to light up Nielsen ratings this summer are returning underwhelming numbers. “Dome” is hovering around 6 million viewers an episode after it averaged around 10 million last year; “Extant” was shifted to 10 PM and didn’t get a ratings boost; “Tyrant” is getting half its less than 3 million per episode audience from DVRs.
There’s enough evidence around to realize that this has been the Great Summer Show Dump of 2014. And there are a lot of reasons why, even with all of this original programming around, a lot of it isn’t being watched.
Expectations are high. In this “golden age,” viewers have been conditioned to expect that shows labeled by their networks as “events,” or series poised to be a tentpole show for the channel, will bring the goods right away. If they don’t, people are going to drop them. Dramas in particular aren’t really able to build and improve anymore, mainly because there are so many of them on the air; if they don’t grab viewers from the start, they’ll get dumped.
For example, the mediocre premiere of “Halt” turned a lot of people off, and they just didn’t have the patience to keep following a show about two people building an IBM knockoff PC in 1983 for ten weeks. Meanwhile, “Tyrant” suffered not only from a squeamishly uncomfortable portrayal of a fictional Middle Eastern dictatorship, but was hobbled by a lead actor (Adam Rayner) who goes through episodes with a blank look on his face.
People still have older shows to watch. How many people are still catching up with “Orange is the New Black” or “Game of Thrones”? There have been so many quality shows premiering in the last few years that there’s always some show that’s lingering on someone’s DVR or Netflix queue in the “if I only had the time” category. For me, that show is “Fargo,” which I’m a little more than halfway through as of this writing. I’d sure as hell rather watch that than another episode of “Tyrant.”
At one time, summer was the time to catch up on shows you didn’t get a chance to watch during the season. This was through the novel concept of “reruns,” young people — shows like “The Odd Couple,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” all benefited from them, to the point where summer ratings saved some of them from an early demise. Now, it’s hard to catch up on older shows when a slew of new ones are begging for your attention — unless, of course, you ignore the new ones.
Patience wears thin for shows that don’t fulfill expectations. Despite going from silly to ridiculous in its first season, viewers stuck with “Under the Dome” because they thought they were going to get an answer about said dome at the end of the season. When they didn’t, and they realized that the season two premiere continued the silliness, they left the show in droves.
It’s the same reason why “The Killing” (whose final season is on my “must watch” list) sank like a rock in the ratings, even though it’s leagues better than “Dome”; if you tease viewers to stay with you for the entire season in order to get answers, and then never deliver them, they won’t put up with your shenanigans for another year. (No wonder why Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta of “The Leftovers” are warning everyone in advance that they’ll never find out why the Departure happened.)
Summer used to be the time to rest. Remember that? Shows were in reruns, reality programming ruled, and it was a good time to rest your eyes, go outside and get ready for the onslaught of the fall season. But that hasn’t been the case in years; not only has the amount of scripted programming unfurled during the summer exploded, but now many of the shows debuting are potentially Emmy-worthy “must-sees.”
Sure, it’s a first-world problem, but at some point, you’d much rather be out getting an ice cream cone on a warm summer night than inside watching some heavy drama or mumblecore comedy. Maybe it is as simple as “Go outside and play.”
Is the TV viewing public suffering from burnout? Perhaps. The real test will come in the fall, when the broadcast networks spew out shows like “Gotham,” “Gracepoint” and “The Mysteries of Laura” (just kidding… no one’s gonna watch that last one) and cable brings us “Homeland,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Walking Dead” and other big shows. If the numbers maintain, then the summer was the rest period described above. But if they decline? Then every network, broadcast and cable, is going to have to rethink how they roll out their shows.