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Winding down in the Jaffe household usually means watching an episode of something on Netflix. And the last several years have been quite the adventure.
Some shows we’ve watched have been amazing. Others have been amazingly terrible. And I’ve often been intrigued by the ones that fall into neither category. They are just entertaining enough that we made it through to the end, but we’ll likely never think about again.
What if I Sang on TV?
I’ve often thought that I would be the worst possible contestant on any of the singing talent shows out there. Why? Because I’m thoroughly mediocre. I will never make it into anyone’s highlight reel, but I’m not terrible enough that I would make everyone laugh with hysteria either.
Nope, I’d finish my song, you’d hear crickets in the room, some pompous British guy would say, “Well, it was lovely to meet you. You seem like a great guy, but I just don’t think you’re right for this competition.” And then no one would ever think of me again.
And some of the shows we’ve watched are the equivalent for the TV-viewing experience. There’s something charming about a show being bad enough that it becomes an ongoing laughable phenomenon. Obviously, being excellent is the best choice. But in some ways, unwatchably bad beats out hopelessly mediocre. At least it’s worth talking about!
So after the recent completion of two very mediocre shows (Salvation and Altered Carbon), it got me thinking: What are the elements that make a show break through from mediocrity and enter the world of excellence?
The Elements of Excellence
Here are three of the elements I think are a part of the experience:
1) Compelling characters you grow attached to
Have you ever watched a show, and you were told repeatedly throughout the show about how important and special a character was, but at the same time, you felt nothing? They told you of their greatness, but didn’t demonstrate it. And then what happens? They kill the character off, and it produces absolutely no emotions in you whatsoever.
Think about the shows you love the most. Guaranteed there are characters within who you’ve become attached to, almost feeling as if they are real, and you can’t detach the emotional connection. When they perish, even if you were to watch the show again, you’d be on the edge of your seat hoping for a different outcome.
2) Scenes so good, you want to go back a rewatch them
Another element of a great show is there are scenes so great, you want to go back and watch them repeatedly.
The more mediocre ones are just a series of not-so-impressive scenes. Yes, they tell a story. Sometimes the emotions feel real, or tension is convincing. But they didn’t create a moment of excitement. Or a need to go back and witness again that glorious moment.
But the great shows become a part of your psyche. You’ll find yourself quoting the show and making references to its characters as well (and not in a mocking way…). And they’ll often have scenes that are just so powerful, you’ll want to watch them again and again.
I remember seeing this scene on Glee years ago (a great scene… from an otherwise mediocre television experience). I watched it and re-watched it, every time enjoying the intensity and the depth. I felt the importance of every facial expression.
I still sometimes watch and laugh hysterically at some of the fantastic scenes from Sex Education. And scenes like these from Burn Notice and Stranger Things are enjoyable even after watching them a thousand times. Probably the show with the most rewatched scenes for me was Game of Thrones. I know, it’s well documented that I think the show had the greatest fall from grace in television history. Nevertheless, scenes like this and this never get old. I still feel the chills. I still enjoy the passion and excitement of the moment, like I was watching it for the first time.
3) Great from start to finish
This one’s tough. There are some great shows that had a dip somewhere in the middle, or got worse and never got better again. Others that should have chosen to not keep going. Like Arrested Development, a beautiful three-season package that would have gone down as a comedy masterpiece… had they not decided to come back and make an unwatchable fourth season. At that moment, they became to television what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was to movies. Perfection was achieved… and then spat all over. Like finishing the Mona Lisa… and then giving her a face tattoo.
Ending a series well is an especially rare gift. I’ve even watched three shows in which I believe the final episode was the single worst one in the entire series (Lost, The 100, and Game of Thrones). Not exactly the best achievement.
To be sure, there could be really good shows that had pockets of everything from dull to terrible, but to be a truly great show, you need to know how to not overdo things, how to keep intrigue for as long as you’re around, how to leave when you’ve still got the magic, and you need to wrap things up in a way that leaves no stone unturned and satisfies the vast majority of your loyal viewers.To be a truly great show, you need to know how to not overdo things, how to keep intrigue for as long as you're around, how to leave when you've still got the magic, and you need to wrap things up in a way that leaves no stone unturned… Click To Tweet
What’s the point?
So what’s my point in all this?
I’d like to believe that no one sets out to write a mediocre show. No one wants a show that can best be defined as “fine” or “entertaining enough”. Don’t you want at least someone in the world to rave about your show and exclaim that it’s their favorite?
Well, now you have a road map.
If you want your viewing experience to transcend mediocrity, fill it with compelling and unique characters who we can easily grow attached to. Fill your show with fantastic scenes we will want to watch over and over again. And learn when and how to call it quits, so we leave your show feeling like you never had to take a season off or rush a crappy ending because you were canceled abruptly.
Ignore these elements, and fade into obscurity. Keep them in mind, and stay in our fond memories forever!
So what am I missing? What makes a show rise from mediocrity to excellence?