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The Expectation Problem: How Do You Grab the Audience Right From the Start?

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Or: The Three Episode Rule—Good Guide or Bad Concept?

Every season, viewers are faced with an abundance of shows to check out. With often 40+ fresh starts on the roster (both new properties and sequels), the production teams have to know that they have a smaller and smaller window to lock in an audience from the get-go. When we reach the midpoint, many shows have likely lost some viewers, with people thinning out their watching lists (unless you are one of those compulsive crazy people who attempt to watch all the new shows).

While quite a few of us in the audience probably use the Three Episode Rule…when you think about it, three episodes are not a lot of time to make a strong impression in a viewer’s mind or heart, even if with one-cour shows, you’re talking about one-quarter of the entire series.

So, how can a production team (especially the director and series planning/composition supervisor) put their best foot forward and win over an audience as quickly as possible? Joining me in the fabulous breakfast diner down the street from the Fandom Post’s main headquarters is Features Editor Brian Threlkeld.

GBS: So, the “Three Episode Rule.” Something you use or not?

BCT: I do, but probably not as much as I should. With so much out these days I’ve more often reverted to a “One Episode Rule” for better or worse.

Not a safe place for a cute girl—or a show—to be
Not a safe place for a cute girl—or a show—to be

GBS: That’s not unusual. I employ it (the Rule of Three) in general except where I already have doubts about the initial premise of a show. In that case, the show is basically on the knife edge, usually becoming, more often than not, a “one and done” show.

BCT: I think, even if it doesn’t look like something I’ll enjoy, if the first episode is doing something new or original or totally different, then, yes, I’ll stick around for at least a couple more.

GBS: I’m fairly forgiving with first episodes, but I have my limits. To give an example from the current season, there was nothing Lance N’Lolis…ahem…Lance N’Masques could do to encourage me to give it a second episode.

BCT: Well, see, now you’re talking about “One Show Description and Done” shows. I have several of those every season. (Hint: that was probably one.)

GBS: I do too, though I don’t really have a name or phrase for them. I just have an instinctive sense of them being “not for me” and pass on them. Well then, now that we’ve covered things that are instant failures, it’s time to look in the other direction: what shows inspire interest at the start?

BCT: Almost unfairly: the ones that are simply well executed, no matter what they’re telling, or how they’re telling it.

GBS: Could there be a show with shaky execution at the start that still earns your interest? There was one example of that for me this season: The Perfect Insider. I found it rather bland in its initial introduction and setup. The computer professor and his unrealistic would-be girlfriend made a poor impression on me. Then comes the murder (this is not a spoiler, as it’s part of the official premise) which, again, did little to gain my interest. It’s what happened immediately after that finally convinced me it may be a show worth watching (and I’m still watching it as of now).

BCT: That’s something that I liked in spite of some strikes against it, which you list. (Though other things, like the character design, were appealing all on their own.) And that it kept me watching in a sort of counterpoint to what else the season had to offer, because it was different from everything else. So there’s some relativity in play here.

GBS: It’s always relative and a weak season may make what otherwise would be a mediocre show into something you’ll regularly watch. For me, though, here the Three Episode Rule was rather handy. If I had limited myself to one or two episodes, I was ready to pass for the season. Just under the wire, though, in that third episode, they introduced a nice conundrum, which showed that this was not going to be your average mystery show.

BCT: But competency goes both ways. Countless shows have grabbed me at the start with some original idea, or visual flair, only to peter out a few episode later. The Three Episode Rule means a lot more there. A good idea, or a good hook, isn’t as difficult as consistent serial writing.

GBS: Visual flair…it’s hard to maintain substance if all you have to work with is style. There was a show that got some critical attention a season or two ago that very much fit into that category. I could only stomach two episodes before tiring of it.

BCT: Depends on the nature of that substance, though, I think. A straightforward plot, or a story that only really develops a couple characters, can handle an enormous amount of style and remain satisfying. I think of things like Kyousougiga or Kill la Kill, for recent, popular examples.

GBS: So…Cowboy Bebop? We only ever learn bits about Spike and Faye’s pasts. The others are not really explored as much.

Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop

BCT: Yet it doesn’t get to exploring those key characters until a little later into the show, and then interspersed with a lot of episodic stories. Being able to sell the show in the beginning all on that style works primarily on how those character stories, which are simple to understand, balance everything.

GBS: I think the episodic stories helped to keep it fresh, especially at the start. If we had launched into Spike’s story at the beginning, before we learned anything about him, it might have felt too heavy.

BCT: And we would have lost that brisk pace, as well as the sense of humor that makes a character like Spike interesting. A classy and original opening doesn’t hurt either.

GBS: Focusing too much on a continuing plot at the start probably would have resulted in the other characters being shunted into the background, to the point they would be more scenery than personalities driving the show.

BCT: I don’t think we would have cared as much about them, no, if Spike’s drama was already present in our minds.

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