Upon finishing John Logan’s Penny Dreadful last winter after a long viewing hiatus (Season 1 was gifted to me by a brief love interest back in the summer of 2015), I anticipated writing another one of my few television series reviews on this site. I geared myself for discussing the series’ expert direction, unique Gothic-horror set-design, impressive cast, reference-level flashback episodes (even LOST [2004-2010] flashbacks can’t compete with these), as well as its abrupt, haphazard conclusion at the end of its third season, which left multiple sideplots hanging, jettisoned a fascinating overarching ancient Egyptian mythology, circumvented its principle castmembers’ development, and rushed its final villain (Christian Camargo’s Dracula) off-set so fast I could’ve sworn the actor vanished into a cloud of computer-generated dust. Much evidence suggests the original distributor, Showtime, axed the series halfway through season three, implying creator Logan reconstructed a last-minute conclusion to wrap up whatever he could by the show’s impromptu finale.
But much of that remains speculation. More to the point, this post isn’t about Penny Dreadful. This is a brief essay on why I don’t watch many television shows, period, even in this modern Golden Age of Television dominated by the likes of AMC, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and others; you’ll note there are only a handful of television reviews on Express Elevator to Hell. Yet, I watch countless feature films, have written hundreds of film reviews, and have no plans to stop in this lifetime. Why is this so? I’ll skip further preamble and just say it: I have limited time, energy, and patience to devote to 20-50 episode storylines, and I’m tired of having my heart broken by them.
As melodramatic as that might sound, that’s how I feel. I have always been far more selective with my long-form, single-camera dramatic television projects than my feature films for those reasons. I have a good nose for worthwhile movies based on my years of experience watching and researching them, but even occasions where I’m disappointed by a surprisingly bad film or take a chance on something novel, at worst I’ve lost 2-3 hours of my life. That is something I can live with, and is a small price to pay for all the many great 2-3 hour projects I’ve enjoyed. On the other hand, your average successful television show runs well over 20 hours, even in this streaming age of massive episode budgets and shorter season lengths. Starting a show recommended by peers or critical reviews I trust still runs a large risk, because even if I don’t hate it after a season or two, I’m not inclined to watch another 15-30 hours of a project I merely tolerate. There’s considerable risk to watching a halfway decent TV series for many hours, losing interest, and then losing that time to an unfinished story. I’m not going to invest dozens of hours of my life to a show that wastes my time. The risk of burnout on all but the greatest shows is, well, too great.
Why am I so afraid of burnout? What if a show grabs my full attention by the end of season one and there’s no reason not to continue? Well, in addition to my apprehension of season-long “test runs” of a series (see the previous paragraph), a bad ending to a long-format TV show is like the bad ending to a long-term, exclusive relationship. You know what I mean: Investing months to years in a project or person, only for the story to come crashing down in a blaze of glory, is not most people’s definition of a positive experience. Bad feature-length films are like bad dates or disappointing one-night stands; they’re not optimal situations, and in many cases can be quite uncomfortable, but they’re never miserable. Few people who don’t get knocked up or contract sexually transmitted diseases have long-lasting personal regrets from a summer fling. I mean, I had to work hard to finish Daredevil (2003) without falling asleep, but I didn’t curse the two hours I spent watching it. Movies, like casual dates, can be fun, interesting, and adventurous… but they’re also short and sweet, which is one of the things I like most about them.
You can’t say the same for most television, even the better than average ones. In addition to my personal preference for the concise format of feature films, the fact is a bad ending stays with you as much as the journey of an otherwise good television show, like a Penny Dreadful or a LOST. Like some longer, exclusive, and yes, more meaningful relationships I’ve had, the conclusions to those “stories” color much of the overall experience. I don’t advocate avoiding all or even most TV series just like I don’t advocate shutting other people out for fear of rejection — that’s no way to live, either — but I would never criticize someone for being cautious about commitment. People’s time is too valuable, and their emotional investment that much more so.
To summarize, I am super-selective with the shows I watch because (1) I don’t like investing significant energy in a project I can’t see through to the end, (2) I have limited patience for watching hours-long projects that are only “decent” or mediocre, and (3) the cost of a bad (or worse, cancelled) ending to even a strong 20-50 episode story arc is so high. That’s not to say I regret watching an abbreviated Penny Dreadful or the roller coaster ride that was Damon Lindelof’s LOST, just like I don’t regret the several long-term, exclusive romances I’ve had over my short life; but I’m not looking for a waste of time or disappointment, either. For my part, I can enjoy 20 great movies with the same energy, effort, and attention to detail I can one Game of Thrones (2011-2019)… and I love Game of Thrones.
I just know the breakup is gonna hurt like a motherfucker.