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The secret to making a better TV show: skip the first season

Gemma Chan plays Anita on Humans, a show that starts its story way too early.
Gemma Chan plays Anita on Humans, a show that starts its story way too early.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Imagine if Breaking Bad's story had started several decades earlier. Imagine if the series had begun by showing you how Walter White lost his job, became a teacher, and slowly came to feel more and more frustrated by his life. Imagine if season one had concluded with Walter only just learning he had cancer and deciding to cook meth. How much worse would that have been?

One of the most important decisions every storyteller must make is when to enter the story, when to start the telling. You want a moment of dramatic impact, a moment when everything changes, or when a character can begin their journey. For Walter, that moment was his cancer diagnosis and subsequent decision to cook meth, both of which occurred fairly early in the Breaking Bad pilot. For Game of Thrones, it was one character pushing another out a window, which happened at the end of the pilot. For The Americans, it was Elizabeth Jennings' past rising up to remind her of her true allegiances to the Soviet Union, just as her husband seemed more enamored of American life than ever before.

And yet so many TV shows — especially on cable and, weirdly, especially on AMC — fail to deliver such a moment, choosing to start their stories so early that the dramatic impact is minimized. And in so doing, they tend to produce long, convoluted first seasons that the showrunners swear are necessary setup for what's to come, but viewers tune out of in droves.

New robot drama Humans is a great case in point

Inside the Synth store on Humans

Let's head inside the Synth store on Humans.


Watched in a vacuum, the first two episodes of AMC's latest series, the robot drama Humans, are more or less enjoyable near-future science-fiction. If you've seen any robot story ever, you'll know the basic beats the plot is going to hit, but there's a certain pleasure to watching a formula play out, and Humans contains some interesting twists here and there.



In particular, its robots (called "Synths") cannot actively harm human beings, so the ones who have gained sentience and do wish to harm certain humans must do their best to make it look like an accident, creating a series full of passive-aggressive androids. It's bizarrely, darkly hilarious in a way that really works for the show.

But we don't live in a world without other robot stories. There are so many of them that we know where Humans is headed almost instantly. Some Synths will turn against humanity. Some humans will treat Synths like their own personal slaves. Other humans will argue for the emancipation of artificial intelligences.

But the first two episodes of Humans are set so far before this eventuality that we in the audience are left way ahead of the characters on screen. That makes us feel smarter than them, and that tends to drive us away, because we're wondering when they're going to catch up. In some ways, the first two episodes of Humans feel like the first 20 minutes of the recent film Ex Machina, just stretched out to 80-some minutes. As such, the show doesn't just feel a little slow. It feels poorly motivated, as if it has no idea where it's going, specifically because we know exactly where it's headed.

This level of familiarity might be fine if Humans' characters were fascinating or if the story were full of wild twists and turns. But neither of those things is true. Most of Humans' characters are bores, and the story unfolds with the stately pacing of the typical cable drama. It's basically a fine show, and fans of the genre will probably find something to enjoy in it. But it's definitely a show that likely would have been improved by starting with its season two premiere.

Other AMC dramas are good additional examples

Halt and Catch Fire is fun

This season of Halt and Catch Fire has been terrific fun, but nobody's watching.


For a great example of this, just look at two other AMC dramas: Halt and Catch Fire (which airs right after Humans) and Turn (which recently completed its second season).

Halt spent almost the entirety of its first season building to a bait-and-switch, promising that one character was a great genius before revealing that the true genius was actually another character. On the one hand, the show's patience with the audience was sort of thrilling; on the other, it chased viewers away, because there was nothing unique or exciting to latch onto. The second season has been a terrific, fun ride, but nobody's watching. That gamble on the audience's patience ultimately didn't pay off.

Turn, meanwhile, spent its whole first season slowly laying the foundation of the Culper Ring, George Washington's spy organization during the Revolutionary War. In fits and starts throughout season one, more and more of the Ring snapped into place, and by the season finale, everything was ready for a rip-roaring spy story. And, indeed, season two has been better in this regard. But that slow journey toward what the show had always promised was a bit of a turn-off.

So many recent AMC series are guilty of this. Even Better Call Saul took a handful of episodes to figure out exactly what story it was trying to tell. And there's nothing more detrimental to hooking an audience early than dithering about telling a story they already know the ending of.

Binge-watching may be the reason behind this

Because of the rise of binge-watching and the popularity of shows like Game of Thrones, more and more producers are thinking of their shows as novels and, thus, thinking of their first few episodes as the first few chapters in a book. But we tend to toss aside novels that are slow to grip us, after all, and we also have a very firm sense of the novel as a finite object, one that will be over within a certain number of pages.

We don't have that with TV. The best answer for how to grip audiences remains the same as it always has throughout TV history: make your pilot and subsequent episodes into riveting short films, then slowly weave your narrative tapestry. Think, for instance, of Mad Men, a show whose early episodes tell short stories set in its (fascinating) universe, before the show begins to pull all of those threads together. Or think of The Wire, which is careful to make sure every episode has a concrete goal for the characters to pursue, producing a feeling of momentum, no matter how slow-building it is.

Audiences don't need to know everything to appreciate a good story. They just need to know the absolute basics. We can learn more about Walter White's past over the course of the series; all we need to know for Breaking Bad's pilot to work is that he's frustrated, bitter, and very, very sick. Audiences are savvy. They can take it from there.

Humans debuts on AMC Sunday, June 28, at 9 pm Eastern.