Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The completist’s dilemma

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Bart's Comet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture that you once loved became a chore?”

At some point, almost without knowing it, we all became completists. Twenty or even ten years ago, the idea that you couldn’t dip into a show like, say, The Vampire Diaries without first working chronologically through the four previous seasons would have seemed vaguely ridiculous. When I was growing up, I thought nothing of checking in occasionally with the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation without any notion of trying to see every episode. That’s the beauty of the medium—we’re all naturally good at figuring out stories in progress, so it’s possible to to start watching midway through an unfamiliar show and catch up fairly quickly with the narrative. (David Mamet, who advises writers to throw out the first ten minutes of every script, notes: “When you walk into a bar and see a drama on the television, you’ve missed the exposition. Do you have any trouble whatsoever understanding what’s going on?”) Yet between Netflix, various other streaming options, and the rise in intensely serialized storytelling, many of us have gotten to the point where we feel like we need to watch an entire series to watch it at all, so that committing to a new show implicitly means investing dozens or hundreds of hours of our lives.

This hasn’t been a bad thing for the medium as a whole, and it’s hard to imagine a show like Mad Men thriving in a world of casual viewers. Yet there’s also a loss here on a number of levels. It makes it harder to get into a new show that has been on the air for a few seasons: as much as we’d like to start watching Person of Interest or Elementary, there’s the nagging sense that we need to put in hours of remedial work before we can start tuning in each week. It’s hard on the creators of shows that don’t lend themselves to this kind of immersive viewing, many of which find themselves trying to split the difference. (In a recent discussion of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club referred to this problem as “how to tell a 22-episode story in a 13-episode world.”) At worst, it can turn even the shows we love into a chore. When you’re catching up on three or more seasons—keeping an eye out for spoilers the entire time—a show as great as Breaking Bad can start to feel like homework. And when you’re staking so much onto a single series, it’s easier to get burned out on the whole thing than if you were sampling it whenever you caught it on the air.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

This isn’t always fair to the shows themselves. My wife and I may have been less forgiving toward Lost and Battlestar Galactica, both of which we started on Netflix and abandoned halfway through, because the effort required seemed greater than either show’s immediate rewards. (It didn’t help that we had only begun to build some momentum when word trickled out about what were widely regarded as their unsatisfying finales. It’s hard to give a show your all when you suspect that the destination may not be worth it.) Yet this experience was only a highly compressed version of what happens to many of us once our favorite shows start to lose their appeal. There came an indefinable point when it no longer seemed worth the effort for me to keep up with Glee or 24, but it wasn’t exactly a burnout—more of a slow, steady fade, to the point where I don’t even remember where I gave up. Saddest of all are the cases of arguably my two favorite shows of all time, The Simpsons and The X-Files, neither of which I managed to watch—or, in the case of The Simpsons, continue to watch—to the end. Part of this was due to a drop in quality, part to changes in my own life, but it seems likely that I’m never going to be a true completist when it comes to the shows that have mattered to me the most.

But then again, maybe that’s how it should be. The trouble with being a completist is that once you’re finished, there isn’t much more to discover, while the best television shows seem to go on and on—often because there’s so much there we haven’t experienced. David Thomson, speaking about the work of Japanese director Mikio Naruse, whose films he once claimed to have never seen, has written: “There is nothing like knowing that one has still to see a body of great work. And no gamble as interesting as pushing the desire to its limit.” That’s how I feel about many of my own favorite shows. As much as I look forward to squeezing every last drop out of Mad Men, I’m also oddly reassured by the fact that there are still excellent episodes of The X-Files, Star Trek, and even The Simpsons that I’ve never seen, and possibly never will. They’ll always be out there, tantalizingly unexplored, and the worlds they encompass remain open and unbounded. And it’s possible that this is a healthier, more natural way to think about television, or any work of art that lends itself to elaborate, obsessive fandoms. Being a completist has rewards of its own, but there’s also something to be said for the promise of the incomplete.

2 Responses

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  1. I’m going to change your life by combining the two major ideas of this post into a single suggestion for your TV watching future:

    Watch Lost up through the end of the fifth season, then leave season six unwatched forever. Not only do you get to indulge in what I agree is the oddly satisfying practice of leaving an entire body of work in its shrink wrap, but you also get to preserve Lost for what it was until the horrendous ending: the single most intriguing mystery series ever aired on television.

    Alex Varanese

    February 8, 2014 at 5:37 pm

  2. I like this—mostly because it’s how I’ve ended up thinking about The X-Files. (I don’t really remember how it ended, and I’m eternally grateful for that.)

    nevalalee

    February 10, 2014 at 7:16 pm


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