So we’re watching Chuck last night, and the going gets pretty rough. The plot holes are so enormous, you could set up camp and build a small colony of frontierspeople inside of them, except they are barren wastelands of plot uninhabitable by even the heartiest frontiersperson. I’m feeling pretty nervous about it because I know it’s a very thin line, and when he picks up the iPhone and spends the rest of the episode reading it rather than watching the TV, I know what’ll be coming once the episode ends – my husband is no longer interested in Chuck. You are a quitter, I tell him, a narrative deserter, and just because a show has gotten bad (as, oh boy, Chuck certainly has recently), it does not mean it can’t get better. His counter argument is that once most shows get bad, they do not come back, and there’s no use waiting around on the barest hope of a brighter future to come.
There are obviously examples of shows that get bad and for whatever reason, do not recover. We all know the tragic stories, the sad shambling corpses of formerly entertaining programs lingering on long past their prime like miserable shark-jumping zombies. Gilmore Girls season seven. Prison Break, Heroes, Alias, Entourage. There are a number of reasons things can go wrong, including changes in the creative staff, pressure from networks, a resistance to imaginative or risky storytelling, a concept that’s meant to be small saddled with the burden of far too much time (oh, Prison Break, you poor bastard). But I would argue that some shows can and do get better, even in the face of some dismally low points.
Friday Night Lights – This is obviously the premiere example of how rough things can get on a show and still come back for an amazing third and fourth season. It’s also a good example of how quickly terrible subplots can completely derail the rest of a show (see also: the Coma Baby plot of Veronica Mars season two). The Landry/Tyra murder plot is so, so awful and was so thoroughly panned as soon as it happened, FNL spent much of the rest of the season trying to get through that damn subplot as quickly as possible and then force everyone involved to forget it ever happened. Not only did the show manage to exit out of that dark hole of implausible violence as gracefully as one could imagine, the show has since had the excellent judgment to avoid anything similarly out of character.
Battlestar Galactica – Sure, sure, it’s great when you can get a science fiction show to speak to topical issues of morality and terrorism in a way that forces people to talk about the intellectual potential of pulp genres. But for the most part, Battlestar’s New Caprica episodes were just treading water until the characters could get back into space (and back into shape, in the infamous case of Tubby Apollo). Even worse, although the explicit references to insurgency, colonialism and prisoners of war brought the show attention for being so politically relevant, it was some of Battlestar’s most heavy-handed thematic work. Those New Caprica episodes were about as subtle as poking out an eye (whoops, sorry Colonel Tigh), but once the show got back into space and Lee Adama lost all that weight, things were back on track.
The West Wing – This one is a complicated example, but worth thinking through. The show suffered one of the worst, most irrevocable changes a show can experience – the departure of its idiosyncratic, driving creative force – and that kind of departure is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a change any fervent fan will declare to be the End of the World, and when a show then immediately proves to be much worse than it used to be, it’s easy to write off the show entirely. I understand the argument, and I also believe that post-Sorkin West Wing never reached the same heights as it did in the Sorkin years, but I also think season seven of that show was a vast improvement. It could never go back to being a Sorkin show, but it did grow into its new identity as the Santos-Vinick race overtook the final Bartlet years. It would never be as fizzy or fascinatingly idealistic as the first few seasons, but it was still miles better than the dark days of Leo’s heart attack and the overt Macbeth references, and it was entertaining television.
Dollhouse – A different kind of improvement narrative from the previous examples, but one that probably happens more frequently. Shows begin, and they’re bad. Gradually, with practice and hindsight and feedback, they get better, and the change can be so drastic that the show is nearly unrecognizable. Dollhouse falls in this category, though like so many shows, the change came too late. I’d also list Cougar Town here, as well as Parks and Recreation, Community, Fringe, Sons of Anarchy, and of course, the troublesome Chuck.
I’m not trying to argue that Chuck may not be in trouble – from what I’ve seen so far this season, things look dubious. But the beauty of television’s episodic structure is that new beginnings and fresh starts happen all the time, and no matter how serialized or intricate a show may be, the very concept of an episode promises that things can change. It’s a whole new show every week, with different writers and directors, different guest stars and returning characters, new plots and character arcs. It seems to me this is a reason fans hold onto television shows even after they’re long dead (oh Smallville, you keep on keepin’ on), because the distinct separation of each piece of narrative means it’s easier to believe that the start of the next episode is also the start of a different, better version of the same show you’ve been watching for so long.
I don’t want to chide my husband if he doesn’t want to watch Chuck any more. Maybe it won’t get better, and he’ll have saved all of that time for Boardwalk Empire or The Walking Dead or (one day, because he loves me) Veronica Mars. But I do want to explain why I’ll keep watching, and why that choice makes sense to me.