Stranger in a strange land: Quality television's episodic failures

Curator's Note

The phrase "television failure" recalls high-profile series that couldn’t live up to early expectations such as Coupling, FlashForward and recently, Lone Star. It also recalls the controversial conclusions of long-running programs such as Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos and Lost.

Early flops and stumbling final chapters often define a series and the industry itself, but what about those individual episodes somewhere in the middle? A season of American television involves producing between 10-24 episodes a year. Even for the best of television’s "quality" series, there are bound to be problematic outings and flat-out terrible entries along the way.

As television criticism continues to grow, it might be easier to identify letdowns, but shining the spotlight on an episodic disaster is just one, less important half of the process. The more significant question we need to consider is what impact those failures, however big or small, have on a series’ story or production. Can a terrible 19th episode categorically change a series forever? A bad 55th? Are these missteps random byproducts of the tough demands of U.S. television or can they tell us something more? 

You might now understand the meaning behind this post’s title. Not only are botched episodes of well-respected series outliers in the tapestry of quality television, but the case of a specific fiasco crystalizes why individual failures mean more than we think.

Lost’s season three episode "Stranger in a Strange Land"  is a prime example of what happens when good series go bad, if only for a moment. It is an awful episode of the series that both critics and fans despise, but also one that positively impacted Lost in perhaps a way no other episode, before or after, did. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse used the episode’s diminished quality as a bargaining chip in their end-date discussions with ABC and ultimately got their wish. Without "Stranger," Lost still might be pilling on the mysteries and introducing new enigmatic characters with no end in sight.  

"Stranger in a Strange Land" is an outlier, both for Lost’s story world and the real-world impacts it had on the series. Not all showrunners are as candid about the writing process as Lindelof and Cuse, and determining the true impact of an episodic failure of a great series is very difficult to identify. But this one is so bad and so singular that it is a darn good place to start.

Comments

Karen Petruska's picture

one episode at a time

Cory, this post intrigues me for a bunch of reasons.  First, the idea of considering one episode out of many as having a particular impact on a series resonates now that online critics engage in detailed considerations of individual episodes.  I often ponder the wider significance of this type of criticism—both its pluses and its negatives.  Your post highlights an example of a program leveraging failure to improve its consistency.  I wonder, though, if this example is unique?   Or are there broader implications for the ability of fans and critics to register their praise or disdain so quickly?

A related question for you is the issue of how this episode came to be known as a failure.  Were the ratings for this episode (or this season) significantly different from past seasons?  For example, do we have numbers that show viewers tuning out in the middle of the episode?  Or do you think it may be online commentary that has contributed to the episode’s now legendary reputation as "the worst episode ever"?  As viewers engage with programing in more ways through more platforms, does the notion of "failure" multiply or simply magnify?

Cory Barker's picture

Good thoughts

Karen:

Thanks for the comment. The reason I picked this episode in particular is because it probably is one of, if not THE, most unique as far as my argument goes. The episode was so poorly received by critics and fans (though the ratings weren’t AWFUL) that it was very well recognized as the "worst" from the very beginning. I think that title has probably only exacerbated further as time has gone on. But because of the events that followed (i.e. the end date), it probably is especially unique, particularly as far as the relationship between business and art goes. I do think there are other random failed episodes that tell us some interesting things (which is why I used this post to jump-start a new feature discussing just that on my web site, starting with "Stranger"), but my hope was that starting with this one at least gets the conversation going. I would actually love to hear from other people to see what episodes they see as "failures" and why.

Dan Winclechter's picture

I think one of the striking

I think one of the striking things about the enduring hate for this episode is that it has nothing to do with any significant plot developments. It’s not like this episode introduced a much-maligned new storyline. It’s mostly filler with a bit of moving pieces around for the rest of the season. It just happens to do that minor stuff in a really awful way. To me it seems that a lot of the episodes from good shows that are hated tend to coincide with so-called ‘jumping the shark’ moments, but that’s definitely not the case here. While the type of episode demonstrated here was heavily criticized during Lost’s run, the content was very much limited to this specific episode.

eyes on the prize?

Cory,

One of the things that’s most interesting about the split between the "micro" issues of the episode and the "macro" issues of the season or series as a whole is the way that this question so frequently pitches toward the end of a series. After all, even the positive effects of "Stranger in a Strange Land" hinge on its status as the beginning of the endgame for Lost. This makes perfect sense, since the biggest appeal of the show (for this viewer, at least) is the intricacy of its plot. Without a promised end point, the "point" of all that plot starts to be hard to identify.

It’s funny: one of the kinds of "TV failure" that this conversation highlights for me is the challenge of figuring out how to talk about TV narratives at all, since it’s so hard to figure out the boundaries of the text in question. When we ask questions about "failure," are we talking about specific episodes or about series as a whole? I’m thinking of episodes like "Hero" on Battlestar Galactica, for instance, which aren’t so bad on their own, but become incredibly frustrating when considered in light of the narrative demands of the whole series (why does Bulldog never show up before or since, etc). This is the opposite number, I suppose, from the example of "Stranger in a Strange Land."

I’m curious—do you think that epsiodes of less heavily serialized shows have less at stake in terms of "success" or "failure"? There are famously terrible episodes in the first and second season of Buffy, for instance, which don’t seem to carry the same weight ("Go Fish," anyone?) What’s the link between seriality and episodic failure, do you think?

Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

Jason Mittell's picture

Acknowledging failure

A really interesting aspect of this is how Damon & Carlton acknowledged the failure, highlighting a key aspect of contemporary TV paratexts. How much they (or Ron Moore about the BSG episode "Black Market") were reacting to fan discontent, or offering their own honest dissatisfactions with their work, is impossible to know, but the creator commentary becomes part of the myth of failure around such episodes in a way that it never can about an entire series.

Great conversation & set of posts this week…

Jon Vorpe's picture

 I highly agree that in the

 I highly agree that in the mass amount of episodes produced for a television series, there are bound to be particular episodes that are less than stellar.  It is interesting to choose this particular Lost episode because I remember watching it when it premiered and thinking about how uninspired it was when compared to an average Lost episode.  A failure like that does hint at the limit to which a show can hope to push.  Lindelof was brilliant in recognizing the show’s own mistake and his desire to determine an end to the show.  It is a shame that so many television series drag on long past their "golden years," and I think many shows would benefit from following in the Lost producers’ footsteps.  

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