Trust Me, It Gets Better

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES showrunner Josh Friedman and DOLLHOUSE showrunner Joss Whedon are well aware that viewers haven't been happy with the last three episodes of their respective shows. DOLLHOUSE star Eliza Dushku is urging viewers to stick around until episode six, when the show really gets good:

"[…] Joss is best off left alone to do his thing. That happens around episode six—six through 13 are just extraordinary. I love one, two, three, four, and five, but Joss’ first script that he did after the pilot is number six, which is called “Man On The Street,” and it is just unbelievable. From that point on, the world unfolds in Joss’ way, with Joss’ speed, and it’s really remarkable. "

Only it happens five episodes too late for all but the most rabid Whedon fans. Meanwhile, Friedman acknowledges on his blog that his show, now in the final legs of it's creatively wobbly and ratings-challenged second season, may have gotten bogged down the last few weeks in Sarah Connor navel-gazing, but it's going to rebound:

[…]some months ago I determined to steer the show towards its title, towards Sarah Connor. I wanted to explore not simply the idea of chasing Skynet and all that that entails, but also the psychological effects of doing so. It wasn’t enough to just hunt/fight/protect; I wanted to see what was going on inside her head, especially when those around her doubted her. Now some of you find that interesting, some of you don’t, some of you probably would but don’t think I’ve done a good job depicting it. And most of you are just pissed there’s not enough Cameron.
Is it difficult starting up with dark, psychological episodes after being gone for two months? Seems that’s the case. People are worked up about the Friday night thing and the ratings and I probably underestimated that microscope in my desire to explore Sarah and her demons. To be completely honest, the network warned me not to do it but I felt (and still feel) these stories […]were/are vital parts of the show.

He was even more candid about the short-comings of the last string of episodes in an interview with I09.

He wanted to show the aftermath of terrible things happening, and he was in love with the idea of a whole town that's struck by tragedy. Unfortunately, the execution wasn't as great as it could have been.

"Don't feel bad about not liking 'The Desert Cantos,'" Friedman told me.

Friedman said the writers wrote down all 22 of the season's episodes on a white board, and then went through and erased the weakest episode, and then the next weakest, until they were left with the best, by common consent. "The Desert Cantos" was the first episode to get erased, said Friedman.

The good news is, the remaining six episodes are among the best, according to all the writers. And the last three episodes of the season are all in the top four episodes of the season according to the writers' room consensus, said Friedman.

I admire both of these guys very much as writers and as showrunners, but c'mon, what were they thinking? In this highly competitive primetime environment, no series can afford to have three episodes in a row that suck…especially the first episodes that are intended to be sampled by new viewers. 

It's a lot ask viewers today, especially those sampling a show for the first time, to stick around if the first episode or two that they see doesn't wow them. Or, as New Jersey Star Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall put it:

But this whole "things get better X number of episodes" routine from skiffy showrunners is starting to get annoying. And even if Friedman's right, good lord were these episodes a slog. […]Some combination of actress, writing and network notes have made Sarah Connor — a character so iconic she got her name in the title over future messiah John — into this opaque nothing. […] Either Friedman's telling the truth and the show is about to take an abrupt turn for the better, or he's not and it'll be canceled soon (and I'll be gone before that happens). This was a bad, bad stretch for the show. End of story.

I've been a TERMINATOR fan since the pilot, so I will probably stick with it until the bitter end, even though it has been very uneven this season…and downright boring for the last three weeks. But DOLLHOUSE lost me after episode two and I can't think of any reason to come back for episode six.

13 thoughts on “Trust Me, It Gets Better”

  1. Let’s say you picked up a book to read and the first four or five chapters bit the moose. Plow ahead, or look for another book to read? Dollhouse lost me at episode 1.

  2. Although I agree with your assesment of the Sarah Connor Cronicles, I can’t say the same for Dollhouse. I think it is a very good show, that has not been received very well because the whole television-business is taking more and more leaps to engage a viewer. To put it bluntly: we’re spoiled rotten. But the show an sich is rather well done. Besides that, it takes a while for a viewer to bond with a character, to actually care if they live or die. The first episodes of a new series are always tough to get through.

  3. I don’t think DOLLHOUSE is coming together very well at all, but I don’t dislike it as much as you do, Lee. I’ll continue to give it a chance for the simple reason that my wife controls the remote of Friday nights. I’ll sit in the chair next to her and read a book. I’ll look up if it starts to get good.

  4. The premise of DOLLHOUSE bored me as did the commercials, so I’ve never seen it. I saw an episode or two of TERMINATOR last year, but when I went to see what was going on last week I found Sarah Connor at a sleep clinic. Couldn’t immediately see how a thriller could spend much time at a sleep clinic and switched channels…

  5. I’ll stick with Dollhouse for the same reason I watched six unbelievably awful episodes of John From Cincinatti — because I liked the showrunner’s previous work to give him a chance. But it’s hard to slog through Dollhouse — if not as hard as JFC — and it’s obvious that Eliza Dushku isn’t the right actress for the part, even if it was created for her.

  6. When I was writing a pilot with our friend Stephen J. Cannell, he said something so simple, yet so profound about how to make a show a success.
    As we broke the pilot story, we were discussing how much stuff to put into the pilot, how far to go, and he said you always put everything in – the whole kitchen sink.
    I asked, then what do you do with episodes 2 and 3? Cannell said, as only he can, “You get new kitchen sinks and do it again.” So true.
    You should be making every episode better than the one before. It’s not possible, nor realistic, but if you go at it with that mindset, as opposed to “Let’s get through these next few,” you will have much, much stronger episodes.
    And your show will probably run longer.

  7. I certainly agree that show runners can’t expect viewers to sit through several poor episodes to get to the good stuff. But I sometimes wonder how much of it is their fault. I know with Firefly, Fox kept having them redo the pilot. They finally aired the episode that Joss had wanted as the original pilot after the series had been canceled. That was the best episode of the series and actually got me hooked.
    Of course, I got tired of how Joss ended his series, so I gave up on him.
    But how much of it is poor producers/show runners and how much of it is network interference?

  8. Well, in the case of TERMINATOR, Friedman says the network actually asked him NOT to do the last three episodes, but he did anyway. I also think TERMINATOR is hampered by budget issues, which may also explain the last few episodes (which have been largely on the soundstage or on the back-lot).
    I don’t know what the story is with DOLLHOUSE, except that the network didn’t like the pilot and Whedon scrapped it.

  9. I think the last couple comments may be uncovering the reason why Dollhouse is failing. For whatever reasons, it appears as though Fox doesn’t trust Whedon with his visions. Pilot rewrites, reordering of episodes (“Joss’ first script that he did after the pilot is number six…”) — on both Firefly and Dollhouse — I just can’t see lumping all the blame on the showrunner.
    (Side note: That boxing scene in the first episode screamed network interference to me. “Punch up the dialog,” indeed.)
    I didn’t hop on the Buffy bandwagon until after all seven seasons had aired. I had to slog though 9 episodes on DVD before I finally understood why practically all my friends were enamored with the show. I’ll give Dollhouse 6 episodes.
    Counterpoint pilots: Lost and Battlestar Galactica. I was positively hooked on Lost before the first commercial break — that plane wreck scene! And I remember remarking at the end of the BSG pilot (mini-series?) that I was amazed at how they were able to create characters that I loved (or loved to hate) after just one story.

  10. The continuing-storyline nature of these shows (particularly TERMINATOR) makes these “wait, it’ll get better” episodes particularly deadly. Suppose the viewer skips the bad episodes and gets to the “really good” ones. If the “really good” ones depend on references to the unwatchable episodes, the viewer has no incentive to jump back into the series.

  11. Kipje,
    I disagree. DOLLHOUSE simply isn’t very good and it has nothing to do with the state of the television business and everything to do with an overly convoluted (and yet achingly cliched) concept and uninvolving characters. Here’s what I wrote about it after the premiere and second episode:
    I caught up on the premiere of DOLLHOUSE, which is MY OWN WORST ENEMY with boobs, a much more muddled concept, and much less compelling characters. But even nice boobs aren’t reason enough to tune in for another episode. So I won’t be watching again.
    UPDATE: I broke my resolve, mostly because of Kay Reindl’s rave review, and watched episode #2. I liked it even less than episode one. The story-telling in the episode is a time-shifting mess (that felt like clips from the scrapped pilot) hung around one of the dustier TV cliches — yet another variation on “The Most Dangerous Game,” and not a very interesting one at that. Kay found depths of emotion in the episode that I didn’t see — or, should I say, feel — at all. It was about as cold and distant as a TV show can get, which isn’t a good thing. By it’s very nature, DOLLHOUSE is a show devoid of character because each week Ms. Boobs-in-a-tanktop gets imprinted with a new personality. So the only constant are the boobs-in-a-tanktop (to the point of of being unintentionally funny)…and the enormous suspension of disbelief required by the franchise itself, which is overly and unnecessarily complicated and not the least bit enthralling. LA FEMME NIKITA — the movie and the series — told the same basic story as DOLLHOUSE. So did MY OWN WORST ENEMY. At least with ENEMY there were two distinct characters to care about, both played by Christian Slater. And the concept was a much easier buy, and more cleanly dramatized, than the one in DOLLHOUSE. But ENEMY still bombed. I’m betting that this one will, too. You’d have to be a diehard, slavishly devoted Whedon fan to stick with this. I’m not.

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