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The Critic, The Viewer And The Episode Dump

A guy watching television.

I have substantial affection for both Hollywood Reporter TV critic Tim Goodman and the Fox executive who tweets as "Masked Scheduler." They're both amusing, resolute grumps at times, but great fun to follow on Twitter. So you can imagine how uncomfortable it was to see them have a testy exchange about the new episodes of Arrested Development (which, remember, was on Fox and is now not). Tim liked them, and was reacting to early criticism of the first couple of episodes.

He reminded people that there were many episodes to come that they hadn't watched yet: "The structure is clearly important to new AD, just as Hurwitz said. So let it all unfold each episode and don't worry about just one or two."

I immediately knew people were going to ask exactly the same question raised by Masked Scheduler, who said, "Wait a second Tim don't you p*** all over series after an episode or two rather than letting them unfold?" He hashtagged it "#doublestandard."

Tim went on to explain that he reviewed what the networks gave him, which is usually very little. But in this case, critics had all 15 and could therefore think about all 15. Tim said some things, Masked said some things ... as Kate Aurthur later wrote about at Buzzfeed, the entire Arrested Development situation didn't make anybody look great — not even show creator Mitch Hurwitz.

And it's too bad, because the conversation that Tim and MS were starting to have before it got heated was actually a great one, and it raises an issue that's going to come back and back and back: Is reviewing a dump of 15 episodes released all at once different from reviewing a single pilot sent out by a network? How is it different? If you know there will be 15 episodes but you've only seen one, does it matter whether you've only chosen to watch one or you've only been sent one? Does it affect the validity of your judgment? Does it just reflect how much effort you're putting in?

See, for me, they're both right. The fact that there are 15 Arrested Development episodes absolutely means that judging the entire series by the pilot is incomplete at best. And if we understand that that makes a review imperfect, or at least limited, then Tim is right that a critic who can wait until she's seen more of it come up with a more meaningful set of observations. But MS is right, too, that going by one episode is what we very often do.

Not always — cable networks, in particular, sometimes send out four or six episodes, or even an entire season, before a new show starts airing. Sometimes that leads critics to counsel patience, and sometimes it has the opposite effect: had HBO sent out one episode of The Newsroom instead of four, it almost surely would have gotten better reviews.

But this conversation reinforces the baseline fallibility of any review of a pilot as a stand-in for a review of a show. The show will ultimately be whatever the total run of episodes is — maybe four, maybe 13, maybe 100, maybe more than that. But a review of the pilot is just a review of the pilot. It can be honest, fair, objective, open-hearted, well worth reading, and not at all reflective of what the show has the capacity to later become. That doesn't make it unfair, it just makes it ... a review of the pilot.

It's not meaningless to review a pilot; sometimes, a pilot's aspirations are so low and its imagination so limited that it's clear nothing good is going to happen. That's how I felt about CBS's Partners last year, and NBC's Guys With Kids. Even if they became what they aspired to be, they'd have stunk — even if they were finger-quotes "successful," they'd have been awful. Plenty of pilots broadcast that they are being made without energy, without effort, without love, and without hope. Plenty of them beg from the beginning to be put out of their artless misery. When your pilot is terrible, it certainly affects the odds that your show will also be terrible. It just doesn't conclude the inquiry.

Compare that to something like Fox's New Girl, which was (for me) wildly out of balance in the first season: Jess (Zooey Deschanel) was too dumb, too inept, too emptily quirky to work as a character. But there were elements that were promising, and what it wanted to be was something smart and odd. That show in the early going wasn't working creatively (despite good ratings) but it seemed possible that if it worked better, it might become a good show, which it eventually did. I never changed my mind about the pilot; I'd say the same thing about it again if I saw it again. But as was the case with The Big Bang Theory, while the pilot remained unsuccessful forever (seriously, that pilot is awful), the show got better at what it was trying to do.

I talked to a comedy showrunner about this once, and he told me that even a terrible comedy will be a better terrible comedy after it's been on for a while. Things shift; that's why I tend to be tentative about comedy especially.

It would be disingenuous for networks to tell critics that it's unfair to reach conclusions about shows based on pilots, since that's a huge part of how networks pick shows. Obviously, the network knows more than the critic does about what's planned and has more to go on, but it's unfair to embrace an early conclusion that a pilot is good (consider the positive reactions to the pilot of Smash) and holler about an early conclusion that a pilot is bad. Good reviewing, to me, is not a matter of not reaching any opinion at all, but about being confident enough to let it shift without resistance.

Tim is also right that the way networks function, they encourage judgment-by-pilot by sending out pilots only. You send more, critics will see more. If you don't think the pilots mean anything out of context about where the show is going, stop showing them to people out of context. Show them in context. Show four. Show eight. Show whatever you have. Give people a chance to see the show the way you want it seen, and they're more likely to see it that way.

At the same time, if you've only seen one, understand that where that show will be in ten episodes will almost surely be different. Better, worse, more about this character and less about that one — it will almost surely be different. And for me, that's worth noting and building into my sense of my own limits and the limits of what I'm doing.

But if in fact television continues moving toward on-demand environments and more shows are released on the AD model, it's not going to be possible for everybody to watch everything before they say anything. Readers are curious; writers are eager; deadlines are merciless. Partly for creative reasons and partly for business reasons, it's not worthwhile to debate whether we should undertake a system in which nobody says anything about any show until they can move past reaction and thought all the way to drawing a conclusion about the entire show after it's had the full opportunity to expand to the edges of the creator's brain, because it ain't happening. It hasn't been happening for a long time — judging episodes as they arrive is what episode recaps are, and it's why they're satisfyingly fast and ultimately limited. And it's what audiences are doing, too. You can try telling an audience that sampling a show means watching it for at least ten episodes, but "good luck with that" doesn't begin to capture how hopeless that would be.

There's no point in bemoaning the imperfection of a pilot review as a piece of criticism, and no point in defending it as a logical necessity that's often the best of several flawed choices: it's both. What matters is circumscribing conclusions so that they don't seem to be more than they are. What we've seen is what we can judge, and the possibility that we'll change our minds later is why reviewing episodic television, which is a living moving shifting thing, is hard. And great.

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