Sunday, 18 August 2013

Question: do pioneering TV shows lose their impact with newcomers?

Sunday, 18 August 2013

A mutual Twitter follower was tweeting his thoughts on the first season of 24 last night, which he'd just finished watching. I haven't seen that Fox classic's first year since it aired 12 years ago, but was surprised he didn't seem very keen on the first half—which I recall being the strongest part because the writers hadn't fully plotted beyond then. The show's ratings success pushed them to continue past the story's natural end-point of Jack Bauer rescuing his kidnapped wife and daughter from terrorists.

But anyway, it got me thinking: do trailblazing TV shows lose their impact with newcomers late to the party? In 24's case, much of what kept everyone engrossed in season 1 (way back in 2001), even through its stupider moments, was the clever format: every episode presented in 'real time', meaning one season covered exactly one day of events. In later seasons, 24's willingness to do unexpected crazy also made it a genuine thrill ride. There's no doubt in my mind 24 changed the action genre forever, both on the small-screen and at the movies.

Fast-forward over a decade, and a lot of season 1's excitement is lost. If you're a newcomer to 24 and have a box-set to burn through at your own pace, chances are you're going to be less impressed with the show. The real-time format is still unique to 24, but other shows have since experimented with how they tell their stories. Lost jumped backwards and forwards in time every episode, and even created an 'alternative timeline' in its final season! And do some of the jaw-dropping things 24 did seem fairly sedate now? I'm guessing the character-based twists and shocks still work perfectly well, but other WTF things 24 did have been copied or bested in the years since it aired.

Even if you never watched 24 as it aired, you can't avoid living in a post-24 world.

I'm slowly making my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel episodes, currently from the year 1999, and I also wonder if I'd have reacted differently to them back then. I would have been 20 years old, so being closer to the age of the characters may have altered my appreciation for some of the issues it tackles. And, again, I'm watching them in a post-Buffy cultural landscape, like it or not, which is bound to change how I parse these stories. Some things that may have shocked audiences in '99 maybe not ruffle someone like myself watching in 2013; like the recent Angel episode where a leading character was unceremoniously killed off. It was still a surprise that isn't the norm, but that kind of thing has been done since (Torchwood killed a lead in its first episode) so it didn't astonish me in the manner it might have 14 years ago.

I don't think all TV shows "date" in the same ways, but can you think of any more where the viewing experience at the time of broadcast was part of the reason a show worked so brilliantly? I can imagine Breaking Bad and Mad Men playing equally well to newcomers in a decade (unless inflated expectations work against them?), but a big hit like Lost already feels slightly pointless to start watching from the beginning if you've never seen it—because much of the fun was talking through events with similarly 'in the dark' friends, and being directed to various clues and theories online. That was an interaction you're not going to get now, unfortunately. TV shows that thrived on immediacy and a "conversation" with audiences don't play so well on a box-set... especially if, say, a Lost newbie's heard on the grapevine that the show won't answer every single question by the end.

What do you think? Can you think of any examples of excellent TV shows that you suspect won't captivate latecomers to the same extent? Shows that were incredible back in their day, but have inspired so much that's better their progressive ways can't help but look inferior to fresh eyes...