Every Monday at work, my coworkers get together and talk about the latest episode of Downton Abbey, which is a show I do not watch. They consistently complain about the plot, how boring it’s become, how dissatisfied they are with any number of events, and how the show should have ended after season 2. Yet simultaneously, they never fail to turn to me and say, “You should watch it!” I reply back, “Why should I watch it? You guys hate it.” And they say, “No, no, it’s really good!” And I say, “You said it should have ended after season 2.” And they say, “Yeah, but you should still watch it.”
Which I find to be interesting and confusing logic.
I have heard from any number of my friends that they are still watching shows that they think have peaked and can’t stand, but can’t bring themselves to stop watching. I like to call this the “I’ll never let go, Jack” phenomenon. This is true of books as well–so many of us start reading a book that, 50 pages in, we decide we hate, but feel compelled to finish anyway. Anytime I’ve done this with a book, the only thing I end up hating more than the book is myself.
So why can’t we let go? Nostalgia? A need to know what happens next, even if we don’t care anymore? A need to know how it ends? We can find those things out by Googling recaps; there’s no need to suffer through an hour of television every week, so why do we?
The answers may differ for everybody but my theory is that while nostalgia does play a giant part in it, I also think it’s because, deep down, we may still like the show despite the fact that it’s changed. Or at the very least, we desperately want to. And the part that we actually hate is that we like it now, or want to like now, even if it’s worse than the show we once thought was perfect. Perfection can’t last for 9 seasons. It can probably barely last for 5. Shows that continue on past their peak have run out of story lines to tell. They’ll introduce new characters and repeat the same kinds of things that made the show great with their original cast, but with a lesser impact because this very show already did it before. It can still be entertaining though, and you can still enjoy it in the moment, while simultaneously mourning the loss of when this show used to blow you away.
It’s our own expectations and standards that stop us from enjoying a show that maybe should have ended 3, 4, 5, seasons ago. Take Arrested Development for example. I’ve watched that series start to finish 3 separate times. I could quote to you any number of lines, as can so many people (probably anyone on the internet, actually). The show was sheer perfection, cancelled before its time, and worshipped and memorialized by so many that Netflix decided to bring it back as a Netflix original programming. Suddenly this show, which had seven years to build a cult following after its cancellation in 2006, was going to be revived and try and recapture the magic that made it so incredible in the three years it was under-appreciated on regular television.
The pressure and expectations placed on this new season of Arrested Development were more than all the money that’s always in the banana stand. Netflix released all 15 episodes of season 4 at once and many, including myself, barricaded themselves in front of their laptops and binge-watched the entire season. The response and reception was mixed, and many felt that the show lost what it once had.
But I, personally, thought the fourth season was absolutely brilliant. Brilliant! Each episode focused on a different character (mostly to account for scheduling conflicts with the actors), with the storytelling non-linear, often slightly disjointed, but brought together in the end for one cohesive story. The creators put so much thought into this timeline, and stuffed the episodes to the brim with fun easter eggs for the diehard fans. One could spend quite a long amount of time dissecting every episode to find the clues, where the stories intersect, and piece together a more linear timeline of events. The season should be watched multiple times, and its format opened the door to a new kind of internet storytelling.
But more than that, I was fascinated by where the characters went in this story. The original three seasons of Arrested Development focused on the Bluths: a broken family of millionaires who lost everything when the patriarch was sent to prison for treason. Main character, and only competent son, Michael, had to take over the family business and try and save everyone. The hilarity of the show was in the ridiculousness of these characters, whose antics made the fact that they were despicable people hysterically entertaining (in a Seinfeld kind of way).
But season four opens with six years having actually passed between the events of seasons three and four (the character arcs follow the events in between 2006 and 2012). The characters are still ridiculous, still despicable and selfish, but somehow this is less funny than it once was. Whereas the characters of seasons one through three were outlandish caricatures, when we find them in season four, they are suddenly much more human and sad in their failure to change anything significant about their lives. And watching these truly pathetic people flail through life, even if it was funny at times, made me sad. At first this sadness disturbed me, and I would finish an episode and think, “What the hell?!?” I would feel angry at Arrested Development and I, too, felt let down and was ready to say they failed.
But, for reasons of nostalgia, I kept an open mind. And the further I got into the season, the more I realized that this was the only direction I believe the show could successfully go. You can’t bring a show back after seven years, and not change the way you approach the storytelling or even change the characters themselves. For instance, regarding the character of Tobias: The running joke with this character was that he was a closeted gay man. I was surprised when, in the fourth season, Arrested Development almost instantly buried this storyline and chose to come out and say that Tobias actually ISN’T gay. And then they took his character forward from there. They chose to not solely rely on the same jokes that people have grown to memorialize in favor of trying to do something different. Which should be commended.
They also chose to put a more serious spin on the characters overall, but in the seven years since Arrested Development was cancelled, we as the audience have grown and matured, and it’s only fair (and I would say necessary) that the show and its characters grow and mature as well, even if sometimes it’s not funny. There were moments where I was actually perturbed by where they took the characters–GOB’s very dark, sad, and confused “gay” storyline; Michael’s lonely inability to let his son go once he’s at college; Maeby’s failure to move forward at all with her life because she’s stuck still trying to get the attention of her parents, who still continue to ignore her. And I wasn’t sure if I should be laughing at these things at all (I actually teared up during the Maeby episode). And while a lot of season four was hilarious, there was also something distinctly unfunny about much of it. But I liked that. I like a show that challenges me like that, and I like that Arrested Development chose to become that show.
Many would say (and I think have said) that a show as hilarious as Arrested Development has no right to become more serious. That’s not why people tune in. And I concede that the uncomfortable sort of comedy that makes Girls the show that it is and what Arrested Development chose to do is not for everybody, and there’s a certain betrayal that the audience might feel by that.
But it became very clear to me early into the fourth season that this show wasn’t, and never would be, the show that I had grown to love. Nor do I believe it could ever be successful falling back on what it was seven years ago (Arrested Development used to make Saddam Hussein jokes–these kinds of things aren’t relevant anymore). But that didn’t mean that the show still couldn’t be compelling, interesting, or hilarious and that I couldn’t grow to love this version of it as well. I simply had to accept that though I was watching the same characters, this truly was a completely different show. And once I accepted that, I could let go of my expectations or disappointment and see it as a wholly different beast, one that allowed the characters to grow as if seven years had passed for the both of use (oh wait, it totally did).
Now, I didn’t set out to write a review or critique on the fourth season of Arrested Development, so there is still so much to be said about that. But I think Arrested Development serves as a good example of the way that shows can change over time, and the need for shows to reinvent themselves to still be fresh. The way I see it, shows have two options: End when they’ve hit their peak, or try and continue and potentially disappoint the audience. Either way, I think fans will be unhappy, but loyal. After all, everyone I talk to still watches shows they loved and grew to hate. I urge these people to try and find some redeeming qualities in these shows, because if they insist on making themselves miserable by tuning in each week, perhaps there is some enjoyment still to be had.
All that being said, there are some shows that are just…truly terrible. For that…I have no answer for you. Viewer discretion is advised.