Back when I was a teenage asshole, I used have great fun yelling out important plot points at my extremely spoiler-averse BFF. I think she basically walked around with her hands plastered to her ears for a whole week after Gupt came out until she could see it too.
And then there was me – the girl who’d read Agatha Christie novels back to front because I always “like to know”. It’s earned me a number of puzzled frowns and blank stares over the years, even from fellow ending-addicts who prefer to leave at least their mysteries unspoiled, but it couldn’t be simpler for me: I derive very little satisfaction from figuring out whodunnit, I’m a lot more concerned with how and why. I’m not really looking for a two-in-one “Get a puzzle free with this story” deal.
I’m very specific about what I like.
The ends of things, especially a book, is often a good indicator of what the rest of the material is like. There’s a reason why the most famous line from Gone with the Wind is from the last chapter – that’s where authors often store their best work. A book that peters out or pulls its punches at the climax is not a recommendation, no matter how powerful the prose or sky-high the praise on the cover. I might still pick it up, but I’ll know how to manage my expectations.
Reading Matt Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject, however, I was reminded of AMC’s Rubicon, which just wrapped up its freshman season this Sunday. I suppose you could call it a sort of bait-and-switch: you’d expect the story of Will Travers (James Badge Dale), an intelligence analyst and “pattern recognition expert” whose chance discovery of a mysterious code leads him down a deep, dark rabbit hole and soon endangers the lives of all those close to him as well as himself, to come with a lot more bells and whistles.
Instead Rubicon‘s the kind of show that the British still make, the ones that are put on a diet of speed and steroids when they decide to remake it for the American market. It’s a show unafraid to take its time, devoted to establishing not just the world in which its story unfolds but also its atmosphere.
Little things about Rubicon appear designed to evoke fleeting memories of uneasiness you might have experienced over the course of your life. I don’t have to be an analyst on the brink of a momentous, life-threatening discovery to understand that feeling of paranoia when you’re walking down a deserted street in the middle of the night and you start imagining that that guy who got off at the same stop as you might be following you home with evil on his mind. I don’t have to be planning catastrophic world events to recognize hushed conversations that fall silent at the sound of high heels clacking on the floor of a temple to modern architecture.
Half the season of Rubicon was seemingly devoted to building these little moments that might have made you impatient at the time but ultimately served to underscore later events. If you hadn’t heard Maggie’s sad observation to Will, “This is the closest we’ll ever come to that lunch date, isn’t it?” or glimpsed her face after her disastrous booty call, the scene where Will confronts her about her betrayal wouldn’t have landed with the punch it did.
But how many people stuck around to watch that take place? Not many if even reviewers needed to be lured back:
At one point, Rubicon was in prime position to set the world record for “slowest paced episodic television show.” I even joked that I wasn’t smart enough to understand Rubicon. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t particularly confusing, it was just boring. Through the first three episodes, no character ever seemed to turn on a light let alone say something interesting. Minutes of screen time would be spent watching a guy we barely knew sit alone in the dark. I’d think, wait, that’s what I’m doing right now; why would I want to watch someone else to that on television?
Somewhere, around the sixth episode, something happened. I mean that literally — something finally happened. But things kept happening and, most importantly, the characters started developing personalities. I’m not making this up, Kale Ingrim (Arliss Howard) just may be the best character on television right now.
I was hooked early on, but that little nugget about the 6th episode caught my attention since my general rule for a new series that I find interesting is 6 episodes: that’s how long I give it to reel me in, after which, 9 times out of 10, I’m as committed as I can be without a wedding ring. Just ask Bones – I even forgave it that all time low of a season 4 London-based premiere.
But not everybody hangs around as long as I do. Not even me, if I find it heavy going. It took me just three episodes to bid farewell to Boardwalk Empire although it’s apparently going through a renaissance of its own so I might have to revisit and stick around for the full six.
And that’s the point about getting spoiled – if somebody were to tell me “stick around because things improve at such-and-such point when this-and-that happens”, that only makes me more inclined to watch it. Unless those plot points don’t appeal to me at all, in which case I’d be grateful to save my time because the Lord knows there’s no dearth of quality television out there.
But I’m apparently the minority.