Completism, Television FOMO, and The Three-Episode Rule

My father has a superpower: he can turn on the television to a syndicated show (generally featuring a branch of law enforcement) and just watch it for what it is. He’s not concerned with chronology. He doesn’t care if he misses an inside reference. He pieces together the characters’ backstories as he can. It’s a stress-free, casual way to watch television.

I have no such zen.

I’m a television completist. Part of this is mandated by the fact that I consume large quantities of heavily serialized series with complicated mythologies. (I blame Alias and JJ Abrams for this particular affliction.) But even with procedurals, engineered to be satisfying to the casual viewer, I can’t jump into the show in the middle of its run. It’s episode one, in on the ground floor, or nothing.

I’m comfortable with being late to the game. I didn’t get into Battlestar Galactica until after the first season. I deliberately avoided Scandal out of disinterest in the premise until enough people whose opinions I trusted labeled it insane but a must-see late in the second season. But, in both those cases, I went back to the beginning and binged on the already-aired parts of the show. There’s a definite benefit to subscribing to every streaming service under the sun.

However, even with an extensive streaming library at my fingertips, there’s only so many hours in the day, and there are always a few shows I regret not watching from the first. Bob’s Burgers and Archer are supposed to be some of the best adult animation out there, but with four and five seasons already complete, I simply haven’t found the time. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with nine seasons, is an even more daunting prospect. The Middle has one of the best comedic takes on the American class system since Roseanne – or so I’m told, since I failed to sample any of the first five seasons.

My two biggest regrets remain Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy. For any number of reasons, I didn’t catch either of these series when they first aired. I was hardly the only one; Breaking Bad’s first season finale only attracted 1.5 million (live) viewers, compared to the 10.28 million (live plus same day) who watched the series finale. (SoA has experienced less dramatic but still respectable growth.) I tried to get caught up in time for the final season of each, and in both cases, I failed. I missed out.

Because I know enough about the television industry, I’m not entirely left out of the watercooler conversations when I don’t watch a buzzed-about show, but that’s not my real disappointment anyway. What really bothers me is that I’m missing out on something legitimately good. That’s my television FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, for those of you who are lucky enough to not have ever heard that particular texting acronym before).

(Before you tell me that television is not life, and to go outside or read a book, I do both those things. Frequently. I also work and travel and spend time with other people. None of this precludes liking a good story told on TV.)

Therefore, in response to my own disappointment and neuroses, I have instituted the Three Episode Rule. I try to force myself to watch three episodes of any mildly interesting show before banishing it from my DVR. Three episodes, I think, is key: the pilot is all about pitching the network and often bears little resemblance to what will follow from week-to-week; the second episode is hard because it has to repeat most of the pilot while dealing with any tweaks in casting or premise; but the third should give an indication of the show’s future direction. I find this is especially the case for comedies, where the cast chemistry is often more important than the premise in the show’s success.

The Three Episode Rule has meant that I’ve watched some TV that’s turned out to be lousy – Intelligence and Dominion spring immediately to mind. But it also meant that I watched Orphan Black, Sleepy Hollow, and most recently, You’re the Worst from the start. All were shows that transcended their okay pilots and dubious concepts by that crucial third episode.

Sometimes I am so incompatible with a show that I don’t need the full three episodes – nothing was going to make me comprehend the couple at the center of Married this summer, and I couldn’t even get all the way through Legends’ third episode. And sometimes, even if other other people like something and it becomes a hit, I’ll still decide it isn’t for me – like The Blacklist. The Rule also doesn’t mean that I’ll watch absolutely anything. Dads was clearly not designed with viewers like myself in mind, and I can be confident that any new CSI or NCIS entry will not be my thing.

So what shows coming this fall do I suspect will fall under the Three Episode Rule?

On ABC, I’m suspecting it will be Selfie, black-ish, and Forever. I HATED the Selfie pilot, but the actors and the concept don’t disgust me. I want to like black-ish, as it has an actual point of view and is not a rom-sitcom, but the pilot didn’t wow me. And two episodes into Forever, I’m still waiting for it to go from a Frankenstein’s monster of other cop/forensic/Sherlock shows to having its own voice, but damn if Ioan Gruffudd doesn’t ooze charm.

Basically all of NBC’s new comedies (A to Z, Bad Judge, and Marry Me) fall under the “actors I enjoy, premise is lame” category – but Cougar Town did too, so we’ll see. Also, I’m pretty sure that Constantine will change enough from the pilot to make it almost irrelevant viewing. Over on CBS, I’m willing to give Madam Secretary and Scorpion a try.

As for FOX, I’m fairly confident I’m in (Gotham, Gracepoint) or out (everything else). On the CW, Jane the Virgin wins this year’s Sleepy Hollow award for “Poorly Marketed Premise” AND the Cougar Town “Worst Title” award – but, the early critical reviews have been raves for both the show and its star, Gina Rodriguez. I suspect that Jane will be this year’s pleasant surprise that will embody why I came up with the Rule in the first place.

Are you more a casual viewer like my dad or a compulsive like me? And about which shows this fall are you cautiously optimistic?