The Golden Age of TV Has Made Slow-Burn Concept Shows Too Rare 

'The Leftovers,' 'True Detective,'  and 'Black Sails' show the value of building suspense over time.

In today’s golden age of ridiculously good TV, with an overwhelming amount of quality shows to chose from, nobody’s got time for a show that takes time to get off the ground. The first season — nay, the first episode — must grab you by the throat, otherwise, you’ve got better things to watch. But shows like The Leftovers, True Detective, and the highly underrated Black Sails all prove that this mentality might need some adjusting.

In case you haven’t noticed, just about every TV critic at every outlet imaginable has been losing their minds over The Leftovers this season. If you’re not a Leftovers viewer, you’re probably puzzled: Isn’t this that show everyone made fun of last year? Wasn’t the general consensus that it was misery porn that couldn’t match True Detective? The hell?

But one more year and one more season apiece from each show has made a world of difference. The Leftovers and True Detective have undergone opposite trajectories. True Detective’s second season has been critically slammed and kicked out like its a lover who joined the Guilty Remnant (a creepy cult in the world of The Leftovers), while the previously polarizing Leftovers is being hastily wooed like an ex who suddenly blew your mind and became famous.

Hey, I didn’t really mean it when I called you clingy and boring. You’re great! Here are some flowers, call me!

Such reversals in fortune are straight out of an ancient Greek drama, and yet it can be attributed to a decidedly modern phenomenon: Our golden age of TV and the pressure to be An Excellent Show right out of the gate. It’s a pressure that privileges stories that deliver their gold upfront over slow-burn stories that take their time to build, growing interest as they wait in their vaults. There’s nothing wrong with the first kind of show, unless they can’t follow that momentum into the second season, which is what happened with True Detective. In its haste to make an immediate impact, it couldn’t muster the stamina to last.

The Leftovers, on the other hand, paced itself, waiting until the penultimate episode of the first season to even give us a sufficient amount of backstory on the main family. It waited until the third episode of the second season to even make us care about two of the main characters! Sorry we doubted you and your meaningful looks, Laurie and Tom.

Granted, that model’s risky. It depends on the viewers being vaguely intrigued enough to stick around for the payoff — and trusting the writers that there will indeed be a payoff. But when it works, the slow-burn is infinitely more satisfying than hot-flash sound and fury that fizzles out.

Pirate drama Black Sails is more conventional than The Leftovers, but like the HBO show, it had a shaky first season that underwhelmed critics and viewers alike. Pirates are supposed to be fun, for fuck’s sake, but Black Sails made them broody and tossed up explosions and nudity in lieu of actual depth. Like The Leftovers, though, it metamorphosed in the second season, with tight writing and tighter characterization, including a revelation that cast the protagonist in a new light — which would’ve been impossible if we knew his character upfront. He would have lacked the sense of enigma that made his slow-burn build interesting. It paid off in a spectacular, swashbuckling finale that packed emotion in with its explosions. No longer could Black Sails be called tedious.

Black Sails and The Leftovers both have great second seasons, but that wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t take their time to let the sketchy writing layer and build on itself until suddenly you realize you’re looking at a captivating image. It’s not necessarily the best TV model, but neither is the True Detective model of hitting you right away before revealing that the man behind the curtain doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

TV has gotten light-years ahead of movies and yet we can’t let that cloud our expectations. Shows with even a kernel of promise may stumble out of the gate — and similarly, be careful with your praise when it seems to be playing its entire hand upfront. A season or two can be a good long while. Give ‘em time.

Related Tags