With so many TV shows to choose from, gone are the days where we’ll watch a mediocre show just because “nothing else is on”. We now hold shows to a much higher standard, much like we have and do with films. A show that’s universally deemed as “good” doesn’t cut it anymore; it must be “great” for us to commit to watching a full season.
But what separates a good show from a great one?
We’ve been thinking about this question a lot as we sort through show submissions at Candivan. So we asked 10 experts who have to analyze this all the time: TV critics, bloggers and podcasters. Through their musings, perhaps we can get a little bit closer to understanding what creates this mysterious “greatness”! TV creators, take note!
1. Sean T. Collins @theseancollins
Sean T. Collins has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vulture, Decider, Pitchfork, Wired, Observer, Esquire, and others. He is the co-editor of Mirror Mirror II, an anthology of gothic/erotic/horror comics and art, published by 2dcloud. He lives with his partner and collaborator, cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, and their children on Long Island.
"Great TV is characterized by the same thing present in all great art: a sense that you're reading an open text, with parts you can't pin down but which nevertheless add up to a greater whole. The best shows are all challenging and, for want of a better word, "weird"—that is, there's stuff going on that a plot summary or a recitation of the dialogue can't capture. I don't want to come away feeling comforted, reassured, or satisfied that I've solved what I just saw. I don't want to be let off the hook."
2. Alyssa Rosenberg @AlyssaRosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section. Famous for her time as a pop culture and opinion piece writer for The Washington Post. She rose to widespread fame for her work as the culture editor of ThinkProgress, and has appeared on The Daily Beast and Salon.
"To me, a good television show may do one, or even several, things well. It may have great performances, or snappy scripts, or attractive cinematography, or well-developed themes. A truly great television show doesn’t fall down in any area, and in fact, its scripts, performances, directions and big ideas all work in concert with each other. I like a lot of imperfect television shows. But there are few that I think actually succeed at the level that I think makes them truly great; even Game of Thrones, a show I love and write about more than any other, probably only flirts with greatness rather than occupying that sphere consistently."
3. Tom Merritt @acedtect
Tom Merritt is an award-winning independent tech podcaster and host of regular tech news and information shows. Tom hosts Sword and Laser, a science fiction and fantasy podcast, and book club with Veronica Belmont. He also co-hosts Daily Tech News Show, covering the most important tech issues of the day with the smartest minds in technology.
"For me the difference between a good and a great TV show is the little things. Good shows have an interesting story and characters with good sets and shots. Great shows never leave me forgiving anything. A good show can have a small continuity error or make me wonder why a character didn't do something small that seems odd but didn't really affect the main plot. A great show never does.
A great show leaves me so stunned that I never once said to myself 'well, I guess he could have got to the place by cab, so I'm not going to worry about where his car is.' or 'Well it seems out of character for her to slap him, but even if she didn't it wouldn't have changed the scene much.' Great shows even anticipate shortcuts and compromises I might expect to see and subvert that."
4. Rob Owen @RobOwenTV
Rob Owen is TV writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a past president of the Television Critics Association and author of the book “Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place”
"A good TV show is one I will admire but not necessarily stick with. A great TV series is one I want to see and, more importantly in the Peak TV era, I make a point of watching regularly.
Good TV has become more commonplace than ever; great TV remains somewhat more elusive. And yet the distance between "good" and "great" continues to shrink as writers, producers and directors continue to raise the bar."
"I’ve noticed over the years that the TV shows that keep me coming back all have one thing in common; their characters are clearly defined and are never compromised for the sake of plot.
The worst thing a show can do is create plot-points in a vacuum FIRST, and then twist and bend character behaviors into totally unbelievable shapes in order to force an unnatural progression of the story. Discerning viewers will see this happening a mile away.
Compelling plots develop naturally by putting compelling CHARACTERS into a difficult or interesting situation, then allowing those characters the space to behave authentically. No matter how petty or silly a plot point looks from the outside, if your audience truly cares about your characters, they will care about your show."
6. Robert Lowman @roblowman1
Robert Lowman has been working for the LA Daily News since 1992. Rob has covered theater, dance and the fine arts as well as reviewing film, TV and stage.
"They say there are only so many stories, and that they are just told in different ways. So the difference between a good show and a great show is the same as the difference between a good performance and a great one. A good performance may be flawless in its delivery and hit all the expectations. But a great one lets you hear notes you never knew were there, see relationships in different shades, and allows silences so that you can experience the work.
These are days of plenty for television with lots of good shows. Few, if any great, but the really good ones aim high."
7. David Wiegand @WaitWhat_TV
David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. A native of Rochester, N.Y., he holds a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in journalism from American University in Washington, D.C.
"I’ll begin with the predictable, 'that’s a complicated question.' I find different kinds of shows "good" for different reasons. But for me, it begins with the writing because that’s where all good and all great shows should begin. The concept can even be familiar, but the show can rise to be great if writers make something great from that familiar concept. Good shows keep me engaged, whether they are episodic or have a longer story arc. The engagement begins with three-dimensional characters, who act, react, and evolve as human beings do. Breaking Bad is the go-to here for greatness because Walter didn’t become "evil" entirely because of his cancer diagnosis. There was a grain of evil in his makeup. The fact that Gilligan worked so hard to make sure that the characters were not static made that a great show.
Good shows may not reach that level, but they have to have surprises in them. If your viewing experience is merely the same this week as it was last week, the show is going to fail, even if that first episode was off the charts. That’s what happens often to broadcast shows. The networks bank on familiarity of concept, character etc, but if it’s too familiar, it bores people. A good show surprises. A great show surprises in even more complex ways.
And it all begins with the writer, for me."
8.Robert Lloyd @LATimesTVLloyd
Robert Lloyd has been a Los Angeles Times television critic since 2003. Previously, he held that position at L.A. Weekly, whose music editor and critic he also was for some years, and was the author of the Today column at the late Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. His oral history of “Freaks & Geeks” appeared in the January 2013 issue of Vanity Fair. Sometimes, usually after dark, he masquerades as a musician.
"Art is, in one sense, a sort of failure — it’s what the artist can’t help doing, the things beyond control or craft, however sophisticated the technique. It’s the difference between style, which is hard-wired, and stylishness, which is the approximation of some other artist’s style."
"To me, the main difference between good and great TV is that good TV entertains, but great TV makes you think. If you're not still thinking about a show hours, weeks, or even years later, it's probably not great TV. That's not to say that there isn't value in escapism television; it definitely has a time and place, and by that definition, some of my favorite shows would fall under the "good TV" umbrella. However, great shows go beyond pure entertainment value and bring viewers into a particular head space where they're able to question a particular theme, topic, or character stereotype."
10. Verne Gay @vernejgay
Verne Gay is the TV Critic for Newsday.
"A good show is merely "good" -- good production values which are at minimum competent. Those include direction/writing/acting and everything else that goes into a professional production.
A great TV show includes all that, but goes much further: It presents a coherent point of view that is about a larger idea than what's merely on-screen. In that regard, a great TV show abides not just by TV values but by literary ones. You can say a great TV show is about "the human condition" and that it is, but it's also about a clear idea that brings you, the viewer, into the heart of the human condition.
The Americans as an example: Superficially about a pair of Russian spies, but fundamentally about the notion of how identity is constructed and how identity shifts, or morphs, or develops and what that says about a much larger puzzle -- the cold war, and the stand-off between superpowers. In The Americans the showrunners found something universal and applied that to the particular."
Pinning it down is of course impossible – otherwise all TV shows would be great! But if there is a common theme, it is that great characters are a big piece of what makes a TV show standout. Specifically, characters that are real and three-dimensional. I wrote an earlier post on on creating three-dimensional characters, see Going Gray. And see Reinventing the Color Wheel for ways to create great relationships between these characters.
Many of the critics also mentioned an intangible quality that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. This means a great show really connects with the viewers, and reaches them on an emotional and visceral level. There are many ways to create emotion with the viewer, and one way is to build tension. Check out my post on building tension, Start Loosening the Collar. Comedy is also a way we can connect with viewers, for more on how to create humor check out The LOL Formula and Don’t Stop me if You’ve Heard This One Before.
If you’re a TV critic, or blogger, or podcaster, and you want to join-in on the discussion on what makes a TV show great, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.
And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @candivanTV