A new TV season brings with it a revival of that age-old question: How do you know when it’s time to give up on a show?
Fortunately for you, dear reader, I — a professional television critic — have rules about these things, and these rules may also be useful to you. They’ve certainly been useful to me.
The trick is to be ruthless, but not too ruthless.
It’s important to remember that comedy usually takes longer to gel than drama. It’s also important to remember that many shows tend to find a sweet spot and then eventually fade the longer they stay on the air.
But before we get into all of that, we need to discuss the most important rule of all.
The No. 1 rule: You can — and should — ditch a show at any time, for any reason
I’ve found all of the below rules helpful in a general sense, but sometimes you’ll realize a show is just rubbing you the wrong way, or you don’t like the lead actor, or whatever. And if that’s the case, turn it off. Find something else. There are well over 400 scripted shows on TV these days. Surely one of them will appeal more. (You could also read a book or see a movie or — gasp — talk to your friends and family.)
But what about a show that hasn’t completely annoyed or bored or disgusted or otherwise offended you, but also hasn’t grabbed you? How do you know if it’s ever going to get there?
That’s where my more detailed rules come in.
For a case-of-the-week show: Give it two episodes
The easiest shows to treat harshly are case-of-the-week shows (sometimes called procedurals) — shows like CSI or Criminal Minds. In general, these shows are in a poor spot right now, due to a dearth of writers in the TV industry who excel at standalone episodes.
So my rule of thumb is to give a new case-of-the-week show the first two episodes. If both of them grab you, keep going. If only one of them grabs you, consider revisiting the show somewhere around midseason (when the writers should have worked out the kinks). If neither grabs you, the odds are the show just isn’t for you.
For a serialized drama: Give it four episodes
I’m increasingly hesitant to extend serialized dramas too much leeway, given how many of them are loading up on early episodes where nothing happens, in favor of dropping major revelations in the last few episodes of the season.
But there are so, so many serialized dramas that made major leaps in quality in their fourth episodes — including everything from The Wire to Syfy’s recent The Magicians — that I keep the "episode four" rule in place.
The reason for the fourth episode’s prominence is simple: Usually, the show has settled in enough to pull back the curtain just enough to give you a sense of the bigger picture. And once you can get that peek, you’ll have a better sense of whether the show is for you.
For a movie-style comedy: Give it six episodes
For all those comedies that don’t have studio audiences and rely on zippy editing and fast-paced dialogue to build laughs — shows like New Girl and Black-ish — you’ll usually have a good sense of whether things are trending in the right direction by episode six. Comedy is so dependent on the ensemble gelling, and that will inevitably take a little time.
It’s important to remember that this just means the show is trending in the right direction. Something like Happy Endings wasn’t yet as good as it would become in episode six, but it was clear the cast was clicking, and the jokes were getting funnier. The trend line looked positive, so I kept watching — and was very soon rewarded.
For a stage-style comedy: Give it a half-season
No style of TV takes longer to hit its stride than the comedy filmed before a live studio audience. It’s a big part of why the format, also known as "the multi-camera comedy," has slowly fallen out of favor — the age of Peak TV rewards shows that figure things out quickly.
But the live studio audience sitcom doesn’t just require the same ensemble gelling mentioned above. It also requires the studio audience to embrace what the show is trying to do, and it requires the show’s writers to determine how to best entertain that audience with the characters they have.
This leads to lots of experimentation — sometimes well into a show’s third or fourth season. That’s why I often extend the most leeway to the stage-style comedy. Sometimes you end up getting burned, but sometimes you get a show like CBS’s Mom, which gradually built something interesting in its first season, then finally became a consistently good series in season two.
For a dramedy: If you like the first episode, you’ll probably like the show
I have no idea why this is the case, but it seems to be true. It’s fairly rare that a dramedy will change radically from the show presented in its pilot. So if you like that first episode, you’ll probably like the show. Dramedies tend to be about exploring their characters’ depths, so if you find the characters intriguing in said pilot, you’ll probably be interested to learn more about them.
For longer-running shows: Well, it depends on how old the show is
The smartest bit of wisdom I’ve ever heard about TV shows is something I read from another TV critic as a teenager. (I wish I could remember who it was.) Most TV shows are good for five seasons or 100 episodes — whichever comes first. If a show starts trending downward after either of those milestones are hit, it’s very, very hard for it to come back.
There are exceptions. Major cast turnover can lead to revitalization, thanks to the writers sparking to the new characters. (This helped Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, M.A.S.H., and Law & Order remain relevant.) And animated shows seem to double both of those numbers, staying vital for 10 seasons or 200 episodes, whichever comes first.
But for the most part, the five/100 rule has never steered me wrong, especially with shows that don’t have planned end dates. For instance, there was plenty of griping about the sixth seasons of both Lost and The Sopranos, but the fact that those sixth seasons were planned to be the end made it easier to keep going. But the situation is very different if you’re struggling with The Walking Dead or The Big Bang Theory and have no idea when they might be wrapping up.
Our enjoyment of certain TV shows is often linked to their ability to surprise us. And the older they get, the less likely they are to offer up major surprises. Sometimes that’s fine, if the characters feel like old friends, but if you’re starting to sour on a show in, say, season eight, it’s probably best to cut your losses.
But the reverse is also true: If a show you once loved is in its third season and struggling to maintain your interest, it’s worth a little patience. It could simply be in a minor slump because it’s lining up more ambitious things to come. (The season three slump is surprisingly common, and is usually forgotten once viewers can see the entire season as a whole.)
All TV shows are relationships, on some level. And even the best relationships can fade or have their highs and lows. It can be tough to cut an old show that once gave you so much pleasure — but sometimes that’s the best call you can make.
Unless you’re a TV critic. Then you have to watch all of it. (Don’t become a TV critic.)