There’s a lot of TV out there, and most of it isn’t very good. But in the world of prestige programming, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a show is worthwhile until it’s over. After a heated Slack conversation earlier this week, Ringer staffers decided to share their experiences with TV shows that they kept watching until it was too late.
‘Game of Thrones’
Paolo Uggetti: Before I receive the inevitable backlash, let me be clear and say: Game of Thrones is a great show. It is a television masterpiece, but also one of the worst time-sucking endeavors you can find.
Earlier this year, at the behest of many of my coworkers, I set out to catch up on Game of Thrones in the lead-up to the show’s seventh season. I had about three months to do it. Daunting? Yes. Doable? I thought so.
How naive of me.
Instead, what followed was an incredible devotion of my time and life to catching up on this show. This wasn’t Parks & Rec or Insecure, both of which you can breeze through given the pace and length of the episodes. What makes Thrones special—the long episodes, weaving story lines, and plethora of character arcs—is the very thing that for me made it so taxing.
I caught up by the finale of Season 7, but I wasn’t as satisfied as I’d expected to be. I hadn’t slowly invested years of my life to the devotion a show of this magnitude required like the Throneheads I work with. Instead, I had tried to consume it as if I was starving in the middle of the desert and had just found a cheeseburger: fast, all at once, and leaving me wondering if I should have done it at all.
Jordan Coley: The genius of Twin Peaks, so they say, lies not in how the plot unfolds, but in the quirks of its slightly bent reality. In other words, you shouldn’t actually focus too hard on finding out who killed beloved town sweetheart Laura Palmer, but instead allow yourself to revel in the show’s eerie mysticism, wonky camp, and placid B-roll shots of the Pacific Northwestern wilderness.
The first two seasons of the show revolve around a gaggle of townspeople, law enforcement, and federal officials all concerning themselves with the investigation into Laura’s murder. The characters are about as believable as those animatronic characters at Chuck E. Cheese (RIP). The most compelling of them is Agent Dale Cooper. He sips coffee loudly, comments incessantly on the shockingly good quality of the local pastries, and escapes my disdain purely through the endearing eccentricity of Kyle MacLachlan’s thoroughly inhuman performance. I can’t say nearly as much for the rest of the characters. Take Jerry Horne, the spritely playboy brother of hotelier and town bigwig, Ben Horne. As Jerry, actor David Patrick Kelly emotes with the precision and subtlety of a buzz saw—WHERE ARE THOSE HICKORY STICKS?—and moves through rooms with physicality that could most accurately be described as the Lucky Charms Leprechaun on freebase cocaine.
My other favorite example is Leland Palmer. Leland is decimated by the loss of his daughter Laura and spends the bulk of the first season shuffling into crowded rooms, dancing with himself, and sobbing loudly. In Season 2, his hair turns stark white overnight and suddenly, his disposition changes. He’s peppy and constantly singing a ’40s nonsense song called “Mairzy Doats.” Yes, losing a child can make a person emotionally volatile. I understand that, but showing this to us in a measured way (perhaps, not having Leland break out into song/cry in every scene) is not the what Twin Peaks opts to do.
Now, I know what the many Twin Peaks devotees in my office will say: “David Lynch and Mark Frost know all this! The show is purposefully off-kilter!” They’re right! That’s why I hate it.
‘House of Cards’
Alison Herman: House of Cards was my very first experience with Netflixitis, though certainly not my last. After every season since its first, I've felt like I've emerged from a fog. “What did I just watch?” I asked myself, sometimes while witnessing Claire literally fuck someone to death. I still don't know, if we're being honest.
‘The Walking Dead’
Katie Baker: The Walking Dead's 99 episodes of questionable accents and apocalyptic gore have been a constant in my life for seven seasons, three jobs, four cities, a marriage, a dog, two pregnancies, three visits to Russia, enough iPhones that the iPhone insurance company refuses to insure me anymore, and an estimated 40 weddings and 40,000 tweets. And like its titular characters, The Walking Dead is a persistent, shambling presence that I’ll never be able to eradicate, no matter how doggedly I try.
I’m willing to overlook the routine contradictions in the program’s internal logic; it’s been awhile since I last wondered why the living don’t shroud themselves in guts more often, or why it works so well to hide beneath a car. The bigger problem is that I could not possibly care less about ~90 percent of the characters, significantly lowering any alleged dramatic stakes. In last year’s premiere of Season 7, I sorta tuned out and believed, for a few brief, shining moments, that Negan had murdered the entire group. Buoyed by the promise of a new cast and the hope for a less geographically mundane future, I’ve never felt more invigorated in my TV-watching life.
Alas, I had misinterpreted one of Rick’s hallucinations. “Wait, they’re not ALL dead?” I wailed upon learning that only two guys had actually gotten got. “I don’t know why you still watch this show,” my husband responded calmly from another room, a sacred marital tradition. Yet I still somehow believe that the show will one day live up to the promise of its pilot—and I don’t have it in me to quit reading the frustrated AV Club comments every week. “I can't really explain it,” one person wrote after that episode, “but it's like the world's most boring, manipulative addiction.” When Season 8 begins this Sunday, I'll be there for my fix.
‘Goliath’ and ‘Z: The Beginning of Everything’
Claire McNear: You find yourself getting talked into these things. A legal drama crossed with Los Angeles ennui and a shadowy international weapons manufacturer! Billy Bob Thornton stars! William Hurt schemes! A not-quite-stray dog tags along! Your boyfriend’s mom swears by it! And then you boot it up, thinking you’ll give the pilot a shot—how bad could it be?
Terrible, it turns out. Goliath is so bad that after every episode, I found myself believing that there was no way—no way—that it could possibly be this dreadful, not with this cast and this premise, and I just had to push on to the next episode to find the good stuff. Instead, all I found was cartoonish villains (lookin’ at you, burn-disfigured and dog-clicker-snapping Hurt), preposterous subplots, and inexplicably sudden character 360s (mousey legal scribe with a heart of gold turned vindictive, domineering sexpot? Sure). I followed this train all the way to the finale, hoping by the end that all of Los Angeles would be razed (save the stray dog, obviously). This did not happen: Season 2 is on pace for a 2018 release. Heaven help us.
Runner up goes to Z: The Beginning of Everything. The promos looked so good! Jazz! Literature! Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald, the role—the promos crowded between shots of ballrooms and beaches and pearls—she was born to play!
In the end, Z was seldom more than jaunty fluff in Ricci's best Alabama twang. It didn't help that David Hoflin played F. Scott as the sum of every ex-boyfriend there's ever been—needy, condescending, self-pitying, jealous, flighty, and yet still somehow desperately boring—but then that might just have been the truth of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Shitty Husband. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot more plot to go around than "F. Scott Fitzgerald is bad," but the series, while dreary, was so richly upholstered—gilded New York, somber Westport, Montgomery fog—that I stuck around till the bitter end. After renewing the show for a second season, Amazon doubled back and cancelled it as part of a broader strategy to, well, make better TV. The first season ended on an unfortunate cliffhanger, but luckily for us all, there's Wikipedia.
Andrew Gruttadaro: Here’s a thing that happens in one of the last episodes of Showtime’s Dexter:
Dexter’s son face-planting on a treadmill for no goddamn reason is an important plot point too, actually—it basically sets off a chain of events that dictates how the series ends. This is a pretty clear indication of where Dexter was as a television show by Season 8. This is to Dexter what Heart Dog is to One Tree Hill. And I watched the whole thing live.
The trick of Dexter was that its first season was legitimately good, a thrilling, dark, scary depiction of a serial killer who specialized in methodically killing other killers. And then, after two sort of OK seasons, Dexter came back with another great season of TV, anchored by an Emmy-winning guest performance by John Lithgow. After hitting two home runs, a groundout, and maybe a single (that’s a .750 batting average!), the show basically had me hooked for the rest of its lifespan. And even when things got really bad—like in Season 6, when the entire audience figured out that the season’s Big Bad had an imaginary friend played by Edward James Olmos way before the show revealed it—my history with the show forced me to rationalize all of its (many, many, many) flaws. I knew it was awful—I didn’t even tell my friends I was still watching it. When it turned out that Dexter hadn’t died in the season finale—something that would’ve at least been satisfying—but instead had become a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t even feel angry. I just felt relief, because finally I was free of this show’s stranglehold.
Amanda Dobbins: Westworld is a professional obligation, which is why I am still watching it. Beyond similar professional obligations—the “auteur” shows with angry men and murky lighting that TV Twitter seems to love—I have never continued to watch a prestige show I don’t enjoy. Here’s why: I have free will, and also, it’s astonishingly easy to quit a TV show. Literally, all you have to do is hit the “off” button. There are at least 4,000 other shows catered to your various tastes and fetishes, and if you don’t like any of those, there is Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and online shopping. (I didn’t even include books and movies and the outdoors, because I’m being realistic.) I do not understand this exercise; why are you all wasting five seasons on robot or serial-killer nonsense? Your options are infinite, and your time is valuable. Go spend it on something you like!*
*Unless you cover TV for this website, in which case, please have 1,500 words on The Good Doctor to me by Monday. Thanks!
‘Orange Is the New Black’
Julie Kliegman: My favorite parts of the show are Regina Spektor (don’t @ me) and this essay from OITNB writer Lauren Morelli, and they have been since almost the start, back when Netflix originals were a novelty. But I got hooked on the Emmy Award–winner anyway, because everyone I know was talking about Orange in 2013, and my TV habits are embarrassingly impressionable. Plus, standout acting from the likes of Laverne Cox, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Dascha Polanco, and Uzo Aduba was hard to refuse.
I nearly tapped out after each season, but even long after the show’s buzz died down, I couldn’t divorce myself from the carousel of convoluted plot points and overwrought flashback scenes. The last straw, I regret to admit, was not Orange’s fondness for Jason Biggs, mice-based torture porn, or the humanization of every despicable security guard, but that I just couldn’t keep up anymore. I threw in the towel after the premiere of Season 5, which introduced overly ambitious pacing; I lost track of at least five story lines as the action darted to every corner of the prison, where the occupants were rioting.
I’m free from hate-watching Orange, but I still feel the need to stay apprised of the ensemble’s each new quip and quandary. I probably won’t quit reading recaps of new installments until, I don’t know, Alex quits Piper.
‘The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret’
Kjerstin Johnson: I remember the moment in Season 2 of David Cross’s IFC-BBC “dark comedy” when I could have stopped. Jon Hamm (playing himself) is asked to make sounds “like a ’70s computer,” and he complies. This is it, my brain said. This is as good as the show will ever be. Free yourself.
But out of stubbornness and no lack of self-loathing, I plowed through Season 3. (You can read its three-sentence Wikipedia summary here. Take a Tums first.) I considered that Mr. Show’s other cohost was just a few clicks away on the charming, life-affirming, Emmy-nominated Better Call Saul. Instead, I descended deeper into Todd Margaret’s unfunny, failed-absurdist, often offensive, insult-to-continuity abyss, waiting for the payoff I had been expecting since the first episode, part of me knowing it would never come.
Given that no one I knew watched it and no one on my social feed talked about it, I was half-convinced it was all a fever dream (the plot—which the AV Club politely called “free-associating storytelling”—supports that theory). But it was my fever dream, and I sweated it out, one masochistic “Next Episode” at a time.
Miles Surrey: Borrowing from the initial premise of Twin Peaks, The Killing opened with a basic question: Who killed Rosie Larsen? The ingredients of a decent prestige drama were there: A dreary setting (Seattle, and I’m pretty sure it rained in every scene, which from what I’ve been told is an accurate depiction of Seattle), a solid cast, and striking visuals. I expected an answer to the Rosie Larsen question in the first season—what I didn’t expect was spending 44 episodes devoted to three very bad, very baffling murder mysteries.
You should know it took 26 episodes over two seasons to find out who killed Rosie, and it became so convoluted that I resigned to myself: sure, it’s Rosie’s aunt, who inadvertently drowned her niece when intentionally driving a car into a lake, because she didn’t know Rosie was in the trunk. Sure.
I had some kind of Killing Stockholm syndrome; despite botching its first murder, I returned for two more seasons of Joel Kinnaman mumbling through a hoodie and Mireille Enos staring vacantly at crime scenes, liquor bottles, and Joel Kinnaman. I’d like to tell myself I remained committed to a bad show because I’d yet to appreciate the nuances of a good one, but that’s not true either: I watched The Killing when I was 21 years old. I knew better. The greatest mystery The Killing ever introduced was an introspective one: Why did I willfully torture myself?
Kate Knibbs: Bloodline was a show about siblings who weren't bad people, but who “did a bad thing.” The bad thing they did was trick me into watching roughly 30 hours of Kyle Chandler looking regretful in shorts.
John Gonzalez: I lived in Boston when Lost hit the air and consumed the collective pop culture conversation. Appointment viewing was still a thing then. I gathered with my friends/coworkers each week in a tiny Cambridge apartment to watch the show, after which we would ask each other all sorts of questions about hatches and polar bears and THE NUMBERS. We went looking for Easter eggs on semi-affiliated companion websites that popped up at the time. We shared theories on potential source material ranging from Slaughterhouse-Five to Alice in Wonderland. No one had any idea WTF was happening. That went on for years. Years. We watched the whole stupid show together—and then a lot of us lost touch. I will forever blame Damon Lindelof and his goddamn statue. Anyway, Claire said it best in our Slack:
Ben Lindbergh: Peak TV has taught me not to be a completist. As much as I might want to stick with a series just to say I saw the end, the never-ending onslaught of onrushing seasons makes me value my TV time too much to mess around. From Orange Is the New Black to Bloodline to The Man in the High Castle, I’ve gradually learned to let go of series that aren’t pulling their weight in my weekly rotation rather than keep binging because it’s easy.
But no network habit was harder to kick than Modern Family, the ABC sitcom that I finally, mercifully lost track of this past spring, roughly 180 episodes into an eight-year run. It’s been ages since the series stopped winning Emmys, and the family doesn’t feel very modern anymore. Every episode follows a familiar formula—family members are terrible to each other but make nice in time for a trite resolution—and although the jokes still register as humor, they no longer make me laugh.
Until recently, though, I went through the Modern Family motions because the show offered a fast food–esque certainty: I knew what I was going to get, and the commitment wasn’t intellectually taxing. Each episode’s sameness was soothing, and because new installments arrived in a once-a-week, 22-minutes-at-a-time drip instead of a daunting dump of intimidating time sucks, there was never a natural stopping point. A Modern Family fan in motion remains in motion unless, like me and millions of others, you belatedly decide that you’ll never need to see Jay grudgingly embrace his sensitive side, Haley lose a job, or Cam and Mitchell argue again.
I try not to dwell on the hours I spent/wasted on this sitcom before finally breaking free. My only consolation is the schadenfreude I feel when I reflect on this fun fact: My colleague Chris Ryan is still current.
Charlotte Goddu: Love is about two semi-annoying people falling in love really, really slowly. This is one of the draws of the show; it’s realistic, full of misinterpreted texts and weird, half-uncomfortable dates, a breath of fresh air in a TV-scape of hot, interesting, fun people having supergreat sex and falling passionately in love immediately afterward. Love doesn’t dramatize; it just shows you the story, as winding and clumsy as it’d be in real life.
This realism can be deeply satisfying. Take Gus’s parties where he and his friends write goofy theme songs to movies that don’t yet have them, or the fact that every sex scene between Gus and Mickey starts with the buzz of her vibrator. Straddling the line between discomfort and relatability is Love’s strong suit.
But here’s the thing: so many of the undramatized, superreal events that comprise Love aren’t far enough from reality to be fun. I could be sad and walk to a gas station to buy a lot of gummy candy! I could send some regrettable texts! I could run into my roommate’s post-coitally sweaty boyfriend in the kitchen! Every episode, I feel like I’ve been suckered into watching a montage of some imaginary worst day of my life. It’s incredibly annoying, and also I cannot turn it off.
Love is like a weird home movie I rewatch again and again because I’m waiting to catch a glimpse of myself in the corner of the frame. When it cuts to me, I’m the worst version of myself, I have the haircut I had in 2011, it makes me cringe. But every time, Love tricks me with the strange balance it strikes between being self-deprecating and aspirational. Of course I’ll keep watching. Who knows? Maybe Mickey stops being so self-centered; maybe Gus locates some confidence; maybe I grow out that bob. Every uncomfortable moment has the (unrealized) potential to transform into something pretty and good––it is a show about love, after all.
Shaker Samman: There’s an early scene in The Newsroom—no, not that one—where the HBO drama really showed us what it was. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords has been shot, and every other news station is confirming her death except ACN. Will McAvoy, champion of truth, refuses to join rank. He’s too much of a newsman for that—the moral compass in our dark, dreary world. He cares about the facts and won’t let what others do inform his choices. After one of his producers defends his decision to the cable network’s president, McAvoy makes sure to let him know he’s proud of him.
“You’re a fucking newsman, Don!” he yells. “I ever tell you otherwise, you punch me in the face!”
Sure, he was right not to go on the air with the story. Giffords thankfully survived the 2011 shooting. But the show doesn’t understand how to tell us this subtly. Instead of putting its thumb on the scale, it leaves its whole ass there. The Newsroom is the worst of creator Aaron Sorkin’s collection of preachy, fast-paced dramas. It’s a concentrated dose of all of his worst cliches with only two half-likable characters (shouts to Sloan Sabbith and whoever Dev Patel played). The West Wing got away with its heavy-handed rhetoric and melodramatic story arcs because it had characters you could root for, like C.J., or Josh. Even Toby, the office curmudgeon, was lovable. The Newsroom lacked that, and its insistence on portraying Sorkin’s vision of how the media should have responded to world events not only acts as a self-serving excuse to rewrite national tragedies, but strips the show of any real impact. The actions that characters make in a fictional world have consequences. But on The Newsroom, the future is already written. Nothing our so-called heroes do has an effect on what will come. I spent 23 hours on The Newsroom from start to finish, and I wish I could get that time back.
Zach Kram: If you think a show is bad, stop watching it.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.