Upon hearing the news that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. earned its back nine episodes -- a full season order -- at ABC, my first reaction was, "Good. That'll give us more time to get to know this show." Even with its post-premiere ratings slip, the series is still pulling in solid numbers for ABC, at least by comparison to the average drama series airing on the network. Last Tuesday's episode brought in 7.87 million viewers, which for comparison's sake, is above what Scandal was averaging in its first season, and more than a million viewers less than what Grey's Anatomy is averaging these days. In other words, SHIELD is doing fine right now. But it's only three episodes in, and I'm thinking ABC will be looking closely at the numbers going forward before they make any decisions on the fate of the series beyond Season 1.
Watching this week's episode of SHIELD, it occurred to me that I'm not fully on board with this series. Ok, I'm committed enough to tune in each week, and even to look forward to it on some level, and that's mainly due to being a fan of Joss & Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, and Agent Coulson as a character. But beyond the surface level of interest, I don't really care all that much about these characters. I like them. And I know who I'm supposed to care about and what I'm supposed to be watching for. And while I do that, I'm enjoying the stunts and cool special effects as each episode's story plays out. Coulson's dream team of young and pretty agents is coming together nicely, and we're all on the lookout to figure out where Skye's loyalty is, but beyond that, these characters are somewhere between strangers and acquaintances to me. So why's that an issue? I mean, after all, we're only three episodes in. Under normal circumstances, "mild but growing curiosity and interest" would be about the right stage of investment for a new series, wouldn't it?
The problem is, if I were watching the first season on Netflix over the last two weeks, I'd already be done with the season and I'd probably feel familiar and comfortable enough with the characters to say that i really like this show. I say this, obviously, with optimism that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be one of those shows that grows on me episode by episode, until I feel like I know each character personally and can't wait to watch each new episode. Whedon's series have a tendency to have that effect on me, but it takes time for that bond to form. His shows require an investment. That hasn't changed. What has changed is the way we watch TV shows. And it's occurred to me that the more TV shows I marathon through via Netflix or some other On Demand means of TV viewing, the more impatient I'm becoming as a viewer to either love a show or discard it and move on.
Last month, our own Katey Rich talked about how she doesn't want to watch any of the new comedies yet, because she'd rather wait and see which ones actually get good. And I'm willing to bet she's not the only one with this thought process. It's hard to stick with a new show that's just ok in the hopes that it might get better. And it's pretty maddening to get invested in a first-season show only to have the network pull the plug on it because of low ratings. Never mind that some shows do manage to improve on their ratings in their second season -- especially if they're made available through a service like Netflix, where viewers can get caught up.
See Scandal as an example of that. Season 3's premiere last week broke 10 million viewers, its highest numbers to date and more than a million higher than its Season 2 closer. Did a million new viewers just happen to show up to watch the premiere this fall without having ever seen the series? Probably not. It's likely that many of them spent the summer getting caught up on the show. There's certainly an argument to be made for the benefit of Netflix to a network TV series. But that only takes us back to my original point. While Netflix catch-ups might account for the show's noticeably improved numbers, it's the people who watched that show from the beginning that kept it on the air long enough for it have any way to benefit from Netflix.
By comparison to binge-watching a good show On Demand, tuning in at a specific time to a specific channel and watching one episode a week of a new series takes effort. To say that watching TV takes effort almost sounds silly, I realize, as being entertained by a TV show doesn't seem like something that should require work, but if we look at a new series as the start of a relationship, then every episode is like a date. It requires at least some punctuality, preparation and attention, and you need to take more than one leap of faith throughout the early stages of the relationship. I'm watching S.H.I.E.L.D. now not because it's my new best-friend, but because I think it could be. I like it enough to want it to be. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but it's not going to happen in three dates. It might not happen until Season 2, for all I know. I didn't love Buffy until Season 2. Angel was Season 3.
So that brings me to the conundrum, especially when I consider Katey's comments about wanting to wait until later to decide what to watch. As a TV fan, is it my responsibility to tune in every week even if I'm not sure I love or ever will love the show? Or is it the network's responsibility to show a bit more faith in their series and maybe not cancel them after two episodes if they aren't instant hits? (RIP Lucky 7). At this point, I think it's a little bit of both. If every one of us waited for Netflix or DVD to watch the new series, we'd probably need to stop expecting to find new shows showing up on Netflix, because none of them would make it past their first few episodes in their original run. So we do need to continue to "put in the work" and watch these new shows live, having faith that they'll not only be worth the time invested, but that they won't be yanked by the network due to low ratings.
With the above said, the game is changing, which I'm sure isn't news to network television. But a little more patience wouldn't hurt when it comes to to scripted TV. It takes time for characters to develop, and it isn't always easy to determine a show's full potential by its pilot, or even by its first season. Viewers need time to love a series just as series need time to find their identity and their audience. With enough time, a series can develop into something truly engaging, and if it does, the viewers will come. We'll talk about it, we'll pester our friends to watch, and if you give us a way to get caught up, we'll log the hours and then we'll watch live because we can't wait to see what happens next. But we have to care about the characters and the story in order to get to that point, and we aren't going to care right away, as much as we might want to.
In the end, it all comes down to patience. As viewers, it's on us to be patient with new series and recognize their potential, even if it's been two weeks since we started watching and we don't know all of the characters' quirks and behaviorisms yet… or even their names, for that matter. And it's on the networks to recognize that our viewing habits are changing and it might take more than a few episodes, or even a season or two for a series' full ratings potential to begin to surface. Even for a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which already has a pre-established setting on which to build its story, patience is a virtue, and it may very well be the one that shapes the future of television.