Why Even Good TV Can Be Hard To Get Through

As great as a lot of TV is nowadays, it can be awfully hard to slog through an episode of a show that you realize is technically good, but is just a boring viewing experience. This past season of Game Of Thrones really got me thinking about this idea, where a show can be doing everything right, yet I find myself disengaged and lost due to a number of reasons. The first season of  Game Of Thrones was good, I followed it all the way through and enjoyed it, yet always found myself struggling to fully comprehend storylines, which character was which and how the alliances all shaped up. Coming at a disadvantage not having read the books, I was really out in the wind in trying to fully comprehend everything. While I progressed through the season I realized that the show was technically good and executed well, but it was hard for me to fully give myself into it as I was constantly playing catch-up by trying to keep the dozens of characters, relationships and storylines in order. Finally parsing through it all when season 2 came around, I was a seasoned Game Of Thrones viewer who knew all the characters, how they related and where every location was situated on the map. A characters’ name would be mentioned, and I could immediately put a face to the name. Having understood the majority of the minutiae of Game Of Thrones, I could now follow along in both aspects of respecting it as a proficient series and also as one that legitimately engaged me and made me look forward to it every week. Season 2 was a rewarding experience because of the the groundwork that season 1 developed in allowing me to be introduced to the world. As in season 1 I was not always enjoying parts as I was trying to understand it all, with season 2 I was more able to enjoy the by being confident in my knowledge of the happenings in the show. Season 1 would probably play better for me now, but my experience with it drove this idea of good TV that is awfully hard to get through and comprehend, even while recognizing its competence.

There are several shows like this that I realize are good, but it’s quite the ordeal to actually make it through an episode, because it’s boring, bogged down in necessities of the period and wading through specific rules intrinsic to the show. I’m not sure if it’s just me or evidence to my “theory”, but a lot of these good shows that are hard to get through tend to be period pieces. Shows like Boardwalk Empire, The Tudors, The Borgias, and hell, even the beginning of Deadwood to an extent. I’ll take Boardwalk Empire as an example, though it can be applied to most shows that fall into its range. I like (not love) “Boardwalk” and think it’s a pretty decent show, especially after some interesting steps taken in the latter part of season 2. I don’t particularly enjoy watching it though, and never look forward to watching it on sunday night (when it was airing). It’s always like an hour-long black hole on sunday nights that I know I’ll have to suffer through. These shows seem good in retrospect where it’s hell getting through, but once you’re on the other side you appreciate some of its finer points (mostly because you’re done slogging through it). That’s where I find it hard to gauge my interest in these shows, I like Boardwalk Empire, I like The Borgias, but god if it isn’t hard to get through an episode.

I have a few ideas to why these types of shows are hard to get through, though I’m reticent to single them out to only period pieces, yet those are all the examples that pop up in my mind right now. Firstly, coming from our 21st century viewpoint it can be hard to overcome the hurdles of watching life in the 1920s, 1490s or 1870 because of how different it is. We have to learn a new set of rules when viewing a show set in a different time period, as customs and society operate much differently than we are used to in our current mind frame. These customs when integrated in the story and off of characters can be hard to comprehend when we have no clue what’s happening due to the alien subject matter. Secondly, these types of shows tend to be very wordy where long conversations occur between characters that can be so ingrained in the time that the slang can be difficult to understand and hard to follow the motivations. These types of shows are usually always dramas as well where every word needs to be hung on as it could be relevant to a plot point. Attention to detail and your full focus is required to follow these shows, and it can be tough to always be “on” and following everything that is going on. It’s not a secret why two of the most popular shows are, Two And A Half Men and NCIS where critical thinking and following every utmost detail is not important, and where you can just dip in and out of an episode or within a season and not be lost. Most of this “good” TV requires you to be caught up on all the story and remember it all. While this can be rewarding if it is as well executed as Breaking Bad or Mad Men, it can also be frustrating and cheap following all the required details that go inside the spiraling disappointment of something like the The Killing. Lastly, this type of TV usually operates inside a relatively specific formula of episodes, where they have the same beats, archs and goals that they cyclically accomplish. Once they find their niche, most are simply fine to work within it which creates fine TV, but nothing great to the levels of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, who constantly flip the script. Once a system is in place these shows can coast off this previously put upon idea and just create dozens of episodes in the same vein, that are fine, but nothing spectacular. This system eventually runs out though into tedium, and the spinning of its wheels (doing the same thing over again, not moving into a forward direction) with shows like 30 Rock and Dexter which should have been over long ago, but were once good in terms of 30 Rock and semi-decent in terms of Dexter.

I think comedy shows are mainly an outlier to this theory and have a stronger line between you liking them or not. Basically you’re much more likely to keep watching a drama that is hard to get through than a comedy. I don’t think comedies have this sheen like some dramas do where they are good but hard to get through. Comedies can’t hide behind much, other than if they’re funny, where the plot usually takes a backseat. So if something isn’t funny, you’re not likely to keep on watching it as it is very cut and dry, while dramas receive more leeway as the things they are trying to accomplish are stretched out and paid off over multiple episodes as stuff builds, where comedies are more here and now, either you like it or you don’t. There are probably are some shows that are “good TV that is hard to get through”, but through a slight twist. Instead of “hard to get through”, you may think it’s good TV that you recognize, but maybe not jiving with your sense of humour. I’m like this with 30 Rock where I realize a lot of it is good and funny, but I’m not the biggest fan of wacky and meta comedy with all the constant guest stars, so it turns me off sometimes and creates a disengagement.

There’s also a flip side, which makes my previous argument null and void though, Mad Men, the greatest show on TV right now. It’s a period piece, it’s slow, lots of talking and concentration on the inner-doings of the 1960s, yet I love it and it’s my favourite show. It is obviously executed on a higher level than current Showtime or HBO “period” pieces, but it still maintains many of the overarching similarities to these shows that should make it more similar, like setting, social differences, little action attention to detail and drawn out conversations and archs. Mad Men though is kind of uniformly modern in it’s 1960s that displays a sheen reflection of our current society and operates like a connection of short stories, that build up to something big that serves both drop-in and consistent viewers relatively equally. I think there’s a confidence and flexibility in Mad Men that puts it on a higher pedestal than these other shows and puts it in a league of its own, where, hey, it’s good TV that I look forward to AND it’s easy to watch. As mentioned above, Mad Men breaks a lot of the normal sense of formula and you never know what kind of episode to expect week to week. It’s an always changing and morphing show that ironically from its outset is never static and always moving, even it it looks like it’s slow and boring. Another show that would seem to fall in line with Boardwalk Empire and The Tudors in being hard to get through is Rome, yet I was addicted from the first episode and found it to be surprisingly easy to get through, when coming in I thought I was going to be bogged down in period specific banter that would put me at a lost. Basically, I’m saying that I’ve disproved my theory in regards to period pieces, so article this is now null and void…

When devising this article I wanted to write about shows which I liked, but don’t particularly enjoy watching, which I hopefully did. What I didn’t expect was that they would mostly all be “period” pieces, and that the bulk of this post would be related to these shows. Now, I’m not saying only “period” shows can be good yet hard to watch, but for some reason that occurs for me. I guess these shows are hard to get through for me (as evidenced above), but I’m sure there is some more “modern” shows like this for me as well. Maybe this is an ongoing idea and endeavour, but it certainly fascinates me, especially due to the amount of TV I watch, how I really do like certain shows, but man is it hard to get through their episodes sometimes. The nail on the head to this article, maybe, is that I would actually much rather perfer/be able to get through an episode of 90210 (the reboot, which is actually kind of decent in a weird way, but that’s an article for some time in the future) than an episode of Boardwalk Empire, or a universally thought of “good show”. If you put a disc of each in front of me and allowed me to choose based on my own enjoyment, I’d be watching Naomi Clarke and company gab and gossip before you could even finish the question.

I think when it all comes down to it though, we all have these shows, different to all, that you realize are good, but just can’t understand or find it hard to get through, for a variety of reasons, probably different than mine. Maybe mine just happen to be “period pieces”, where yours might be “teen dramas”, “political dramas”, or a certain type of comedy. I don’t think we really have a problem or anything per say, but I think these types of shows encourage us to be better viewers, where we have to work to more fully understand and appreciate a show, and which hopefully will be all the more rewarding for you in the end.