Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: How many episodes of a show do you watch before you’re comfortable reviewing it? All the screeners provided? Just “enough” till you form an opinion? Only one or two, etc.? The whole season?
The answer has become four. If they provide less, I watch all of them. But if they provide more, I stop at four, which is about the length of a feature film — somewhere between 90 minutes and four hours. Sometimes (rarely) I’ll watch more than four — it depends on how I’m enjoying it, or what’s happening in the story. But I’ve determined that four episodes is enough time for a show to prove or not prove itself; if it needs more than four episodes to tell the viewer what it is, it’s probably not doing it very well.
READ MORE: The Best ‘Concept’ Episodes on TV Ever — IndieWire Critics Survey
Short answer: I watch everything available, unless there’s some exceptional reason/need not to, and in that case I’ll say so.
Long answer: This is increasingly a problem. Lots of people know about Peak TV, the fact that there are more original series than ever. But unless you write about TV, you may not know that, on top of that, critics get more *episodes* of any given show than ever. Ten, 15 years ago, most shows worked on a production schedule that meant that, with rare exceptions, a critic would get the pilot of a new show to review, maybe one or two episodes after that if you were lucky.
Now, for cable and especially streaming series, it’s common to get six, eight episodes in advance, often the entire season. It doesn’t matter how industrious you are — you have only so many hours in a day, and watching that much for each review means that there are more things you will not be able to watch at all. If I get, say, 13 hours of “House of Cards” to review, watching it takes the amount of time it would have taken me to screen a half-dozen shows for review in the past.
I’m lucky that the Times has multiple critics, so I can be more absolutist: if I’m potentially going to pan something, ideally I should be doing it on the basis of as many episodes as I was given. But there’s inevitably a tradeoff. Either you will have more critics who watch fewer shows — and thus losing the broad scope that makes for critical connections — or we’ll have to accept critics basing reviews on smaller samples, or someone will have to invent a time machine.
I’m one person, reviewing and writing about television for a daily newspaper, so I have to weigh the best use of my time. It’s rare that I can watch multiple episodes before writing a review. Usually, one episode (maybe two for a sitcom) lets me form an opinion. The more shows I can write about, the better informed my readers are about what’s out there. If I keep watching a show and change my mind, or if I hear a lot of, “Hey, this one gets a lot better with Episode 7,” I might revisit.
When I started doing this job in a previous century, it was unusual to get more than one episode before a series debuted. (Even today, that’s still what we tend to get for network fall shows, which is kind of amazing in 2016-17.) So the job was half criticism of what I could see, half prognostication about what the show might be in the future, based on an absurdly small sample size. HBO started sending out three or four episodes before seasons debuted, and then threw down a gauntlet by sending us all of “The Wire” Season 4 in advance, in hopes that seeing the whole thing at once would lead to more positive reviews than before. They were right, and at the time, I remember agreeing with a lot of critics that it would be nice if that could happen more often.
Cut to 2017, where the combination of Peak TV and the number of outlets that can send us entire seasons in advance (or close to it) has made this a terrifying Monkey’s Paw situation. More information is always better when it comes to making judgments about new series, but there just isn’t time for all of it.
READ MORE: The Best TV Shows Critics Haven’t Gotten Around to Watching — IndieWire Critics Survey
I don’t have a hard and fast rule about how many episodes I’ll watch, with one exception: if I dislike a show enough to not finish the first episode, I just won’t write about it. And, honestly, if I’ve been sent multiple episodes and I’m dreading watching past the first, I also may not write about it. But if I have only one episode and a strong opinion already, I’ll write a review. If I have a full season and I’m enjoying it — and magically have a pocket of time in which I can just keep going — I’ll watch till the end. And sometimes I’ll get through between two and four and realize that, good or bad, I’ve seen enough to compose a review.
But ideally, more is better. There have been plenty of shows I was lukewarm about after however many screeners were provided, and then even an episode or two past that point, I fell in love. (The first season of “Sense8” was like that; had Netflix provided literally one more screener, I think the critical consensus would have been very different.) And there are instances where I like the pilot, but an additional episode or five is enough to warn me off (RIP, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). I just need to borrow Hermione’s Time-Turner so I can watch all that I have. Now excuse me; I just got an email from Netflix promising seven hours of a show I never heard of before are available!
That really depends on the show. I’ve done this long enough to remember when most TV shows, especially on network television, were so simple you could watch them once and completely understand their premise and ambitions. Sitcoms especially were easy to decode; 15 minutes in, you knew if it was funny or not and why. But much of today’s TV is built differently. It’s constructed for an increasingly savvy audience which views episodes multiple times and commiserates about each twist and turn. So it takes more time and more viewings to analyze. Particularly if I’m reviewing a show for radio, I will watch episodes at least twice; once to get the lay of the land, decide how I feel and determine if a story is there, and a second time to record specific soundbites for my story and confirm or refocus my original take. That changes if I’m reviewing a show overnight on deadline – such as the Emmy awards, or a crucial episode of a series that critics were not allowed to see in advance. In that case, I might only see the show once, or only review parts of the show again. And finally, though I hate to keep returning to it, I must mention my, um, experience (won’t say age again, LOL). In recent years, I’ve learned the value of being a bit more open-minded about my initial take on a show, which makes me more inclined to watch it a second time. Sigh.
It’s rare that I won’t watch everything available if I’m reviewing — in fact more often than not, I’ll watch what’s available more than once, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything. That level of immersion helps make me feel I’m really in the mindset of the show, which goes a long way towards helping me figure out exactly where I land on it.
This is my humble plea, by the way, for networks and studios to release as many episodes as humanly possible when presenting their shows for review. It always makes a difference, always, to watch many episodes, even a full season — while production schedules may make that impossible, the more access we get, the more confidence we see in the show being presented. I think about a show like “Powerless,” which only presented one episode for review before it premiered, but really grew on me after a few installments — if I’d been able to see the first few before it premiered, it might have gotten the show more positive press reception… and maybe the show would have survived to a second season. (Rest in peace, “Powerless.”)
I can usually tell immediately if I will settle in and enjoy a series in the first 15 minutes. But I prefer to have at least four to six episodes to get the full flavor of where the story is going and who the characters are.
I remember when History sent out the press kit with the first five episodes of “Vikings.” I binged them all one cold night on Christmas break. It was so well done, and I was sold on the entire premise and loved the cast. With just one episode I would not have thrown so much love and attention their way early on. It continues to be one of my favorite dramas.
When one episode is given for review purposes, in my opinion, it shortchanges the critic and the network for maximum insight and ability to relay the hype and hooks of a new series.
These days, it’s a crowded field, TV, with lots of diversions and distractions. There are excellent docuseries and unscripted TV series that can eat into a potential viewer’s TV allotted time. It’s never been harder for scripted to capture a loyal audience. I love anytime a network takes the time to invest in a thoughtful press kit (FX, Showtime, Nat Geo and Starz do this very well) with enough assets for us to do our job more thoroughly. I want to go on record that I hate reviewing a new show on a laptop with screener links. You lose a lot of impact that way, in my opinion.
This is an evolving concern for me and one that I battle with multiple times every week. My principle has always been to base reviews upon every possible episode presented to me by a network. Period. It’s not “the least I can do do” to give each show as much of a chance as the networks are capable of providing. The least I could do would be to watch one episode, review and move on. It’s literally “the most I can do,” but I feel like I owe it to a show to give it every opportunity. I’ve seen enough comedies settle into their rhythms after five or six episodes and I’ve seen enough dramas lock into a narrative structure or core character relationships after a few hours that it’s only fair and only instructive to give the shows that chance.
Often it’s not useful. I could have told you that “Flaked” was self-obsessed and tonally sour after one episode and watching to the end of the first season pre-review only got me get to a frustrating twist that undermined the premise of the show, but did so in ways it wasn’t fair to spoil anyway. But it remains my principle.
However, what was once an iron-clad principle has become more fungible just due to time and content volume. I love “The Leftovers” and I wanted to watch every second that I could, but getting a review up had to take priority, so although HBO provided seven episodes, I cut myself off at six. When networks send entire seasons, it has become a challenge. I watched every episode of “Girlboss” and “13 Reasons Why” made available before the season, but I stopped watching NBC’s “Game of Silence” after eight episodes when I decided that no resolution to its main mysteries would make me care and Freeform’s “Famous in Love” after five episodes because five hours of watching high school theater-level action and production values felt like enough.
So amidst Peak TV, I’ve had to do some triage for the first time, but I sometimes cut myself off because I love the show so much I can’t wait to rave about it and sometimes I cut myself off because what I’m watching sucks. Thus, my core answer remains that I will always try to watch every second sent to me, but I can no longer deny limitations of time and my own mortality.
I watch however many are provided unless I’m crunched for time or I really, really, really can’t stand it, but that’s rare. I obviously have thoughts while I’m watching, but I always want to get as full a picture as I can, especially for new shows. Less is not more in this case. There have been many times where my opinion has changed for better or worse as I worked through all the screeners provided. I’m also a completist, so there’s that too.
It will obviously vary from series to series, but my typical bar is four episodes. That gives a show enough time to get the boring exposition out of the way, establish all its characters, and let us know what the series might look like day-to-day. Sure, some shows will get better after four episodes, but in this day of SO MUCH TV, if I’m not into a series by four episodes, then I just don’t have time to watch it. Having said all that, I also reserve the right to dump a show after five minutes because sometimes you just know.
How many episodes should a TV critic watch of a new series? How many hours in a day are available beyond the usual 24? A decade ago when there were far fewer scripted series, I would try to watch all the episodes a network chose to send out. Usually that would mean one episode from a broadcast network and maybe four from a new premium cable series. Nowadays, not only are the broadcast networks routinely sending multiple episodes of a new series, but there are simply more new series than ever before. It’s a quandary. My preference is still to watch more than one episode of a new show — and ideally I’d watch all the ones made available — but from a time management perspective, that’s simply not always possible anymore. Usually shows that are easy to dismiss are the ones that get shorter shrift. For series that have potential but are confusing or incoherent in the early going (looking at you, “American Gods”) I’m more likely to try to make it through all the episodes a network makes available.
I generally watch all screeners provided. I have seen plenty of shows turn things around late in the game, and plenty of shows with a dynamite first couple of episodes peter out. I am nothing if not an eternal optimist, and I do my best to watch what I’m given.
That said, I don’t blame anybody who’s not being paid to do this for tapping out whenever. If I really want you to know that a show has gotten good, I’ll write you 500 pieces about it. And if you’re generally curious about my own rules for when I give up on a show (especially in the crowded, busy fall corridor, when networks often only send out the first episode or two), I have fortunately solved this question for everyone forever with these guidelines I published at Vox.
While largely in the “watch as many as the network provides” camp, I’m starting to come around to the practical limitations of the job. Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I adopted the completist route. One of my current favorite shows — “BoJack Horseman” — released six episodes for review in Season 1, and I’ve been working to make up for my mixed initial review ever since. I’ve gone so far as to refuse to review Netflix originals without seeing the whole thing. But I’m coming around to believing my scarring experience isn’t the exception that proves the rule; it’s just the exception.
As much as my Irish Catholic guilt drives me to protect my opinions from naysayers, there is rarely a right and wrong when it comes to liking a TV show. And that’s what I find myself striving for when writing a review: the right answer. Sure, anyone who watched the second season of “The Leftovers” and didn’t like it is objectively wrong, and everyone who loves “Red Oaks” is absolutely right. But watching 18 episodes of “This Is Us” did nothing to alter my disdain for its emotional manipulation, nor did the full season eventually prove its fans were in on something I’d been missing all along.
So as I write this on the dawn of reviewing “House of Cards” Season 5 after just one episode (all I was allowed to review) I’m trying to be OK with that. I’m trying not to read the comments and clarify any misinterpreted or unclear anecdotes, just as I tried not to be too soft in my thinking when crafting an argument around Episode 1. But mostly I’m trying to tell myself all the responses are OK no matter what, because opinions aren’t right or wrong. (Except if you don’t like “The Leftovers.”)
Other contenders: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (four votes), “Better Call Saul” (two votes), “The Americans” and ”Fargo” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.
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