We’ve all had the experience of watching a beloved TV show only to realize that the best episodes of said TV show are already behind us. In those cases, we usually begrudgingly finish the series due to some misplaced sense of loyalty or because we aren’t aware of the sunk cost fallacy. But what if, using the powers of science, we could predict exactly when a show was going to peak and, therefore, exactly when we should bail, confident in the fact that we saw it at its best? A new statistical analysis from The Ringer attempts to do just that and discovered some surprisingly similar trends across all genres of television.
Using episode-by-episode IMDB ratings for nearly 1,500 dramas, comedies, and dramadies, The Ringer graphed out the perceived quality of these shows over the course of their runs. What they found was that—regardless of genre—shows generally experience an early incline in quality during which the cast and writers find their footing, then hit a peak around 30 percent of the way through their run, followed by a steep decline in quality before a brief resurgence in the final season.
The conclusions that can be reached from this data seem obvious to anyone who has watched a lot of television. The first season of your average TV show is going to be a bit rocky because the writers are just trying things out, hoping they land on the right formula at some point. If they’re lucky, the show will eventually reach what producer Kevin Falls calls the “elusive harmonic convergence,” when every aspect of the production is firing on all cylinders.
However, a few seasons in, after that formula has become well-established, things might start to feel a bit stale. This becomes more of an issue in comedies where characters are more prone to “Flanderization,” which is probably why the decline on the comedies chart is much steeper. Finally, the late-season peak is probably due to a mix of showrunners pulling out all the stops for their final season and audiences feeling a bit sentimental once they know the show is nearing its end.
Of course, as The Ringer points out, these graphs just show the average of hundreds of individual cases and, as with any statistical analysis, there are going to be outliers. Breaking Bad, for example, started at a relatively low position and experienced a steady incline in critical reception throughout the series. Both Dexter and Lost missed out on the end-of-series surge either because audiences lost faith in the show or the creators really just blew it on that final season. But, in general, everyone agrees that making a long-running TV show is a bit of a grind. There are rough starts, fumbled finishes, and that ever-elusive moment somewhere in the middle that audiences and creators look back on as the peak.
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