There’s no old maxim in the anime community that it takes a full 3 episodes to be able to truly appreciate a show and determine if it’s worth your time. Or 25% of a single cour season. I’m not sure if this rule applies to other forms of media or not but I’ve only heard it in anime.

It seems pretty arbitrary to me. I mean most of the information you can get from those 3 first episodes, you can just as easily pick up from the first one. In fact just the first half of episode 1 will let you know pretty much all the basics.

anime and cartoon
sometimes there’s more than meets the eye

Unlike American sitcoms, anime rarely have true pilot episodes. What I mean is that the tone, direction, characters and budget is unlikely to drastically change between episodes 1 and 2. If anything, those type of changes come between seasons. So the value of looking past the first episode is considerably lessened.

You can pretty much immediately pick up on the majority of the production values? Sure there may be a horrible or exceptional voice actor hiding in the cast but how often does that change our entire impression of a show? As for the narrative assets they tend to be rather easy to pick up as well. If settings and characters are immediately introduced to us in voiceover, you can bet this one will be full of exposition and enjoy spelling things out. Doesn’t mean it’s clear though. If after spending a half an hour with a character you can’t describe them without resorting to physical traits, character definition and development is probably not going to be a priority. You get the gist.

A story can change and evolve but it is built up on basic foundations which will guide the form the storytelling takes, if not the actual story itself. If you don’t like the narrative style in the first 10 minutes, watching an entire season will get pretty grating.

anime cheese
there’s a logic here

But those are all superficial you say…Looks and style are only skin deep, the real beauty is on the inside… What makes a great story isn’t pretty colours and cool voices, it’s characters and plot (or lack thereof). Ok ok, I guess you have sort of a point there. You can forgive a lot or the opportunity of seeing something that blows your mind right open.

Still you should have a handle on the story after the first episode. It’s almost 30 an hour. If you were watching a movie you would know if it’s good by now. But the set up is always slower…you need to let the action start… There could be an awesome twist! Sure, but also not really. I’m not saying series don’t get better over the course of a season. But if the establishing narrative is bad in the beginning, it’s going to be bad later on as well. As for twists, those either need to be exposed early on so the audience can follow (School Live) or are saved for the end (,every other show or movie with a twist.) What kind of series would go for some huge plot changing surprise at episode 3?…you know…besides Madoka?

Here’s the thing though. Even though Madoka did throw in an unquestionably shocking event that completely subverted the expectations set up by the plot, it didn’t become ba completely different show. It was always a little forbidding and gloomy. If you don’t like the characters and found the first set up episodes tedious, that twist isn’t going to change much for you.

Persona 5
google tells me this is a twist!

Even if you are the type that’s interested in plot above all else, and would therefore be most likely to have your opinion of a show completely change based on these sort of things, 3 is still completely arbitrary. What if the twist comes at the beginning of episode 4?

What I’m saying is that I don’t adhere to the 3″episode rule. 3 episodes of standard anime is a little under an hour and a half, that’s a commitment. You could watch an entire older movie (before  people forgot about editing and movies started to last forever). I don’t get why it’s the cutoff.

As someone who is pathologically unable to drop shows, three episodes might as well be a series long commitment. In fact the very few series I have dropped were either shows with 100s of episodes that I simply couldn’t see myself ever finishing or shows I realized were not for me in the first few minutes… Did I miss out? Possibly. I know I’ve read Loving reviews dedicated to those shows.

But you can’t watch it all and if I’m going to draw a line I rather do so before investing too much time into it. This is why I dropped B project before ever seeing the ED…. So here’s my rule of thumb, if at the end of the first episode I don’t really feel like watching the next one right away, it goes off the list. I realize that depending on my mood that day, I could end up skipping shows that  would have become my very favourites but so be it. I’m just not patient enough to stick around for 3 whole episodes.

What about you. Do you have a sampling ritual? Maybe you never drop anime, just leave it on indefinite standby. Do you know where the 3 episode rule comes from? Is it like the 5 second rule!??



55 thoughts

  1. I’ve never really adhered to the 3 episode rule. I either stick with the anime or drop it around the first episode. I really hate dropping anime but if I do it’s usually the first episode that will give me a decent sense of whether I’ll like it or not!

  2. I’m similar to Merlin – I let the series have as long as it needs, whether it be 10 minutes, 1 episode or whatever, although I’m also a big proponent of not following the 3 ep rule simply because I’m an oddball who’s fine marching to the beat of their own drum. This has, however, resulted in me dropping things less than 4 minutes in, which is why I’ve had to dedicate a custom list to shows I may need to revisit.

    One big exception to the 3 ep rule? Samurai Flamenco. People’s expectations are either set that it’s a “model and cop go around serving low-level crime justice”, or the reality of it (which sets in at ep 7, mind you), which is that it’s a tokusatsu show that’s a ride and a half…

  3. I’ll give almost anything one episode. There are a few things I cannot endure (bad art) that will get them dropped literally in minutes, certainly in one episode. Since I’m a binger by choice, if I find the first episode intriguing in some way (which, yes, can be as much as oh pretty art) it goes on the watch list. Which is enormous. On that principle, I do give most shows that sound good in a new season one episode and on the watch list it goes unless I really am going “oh man I can’t wait for the next one” in which case I will go simulcast. But mostly, I’m a binger – so I’ll browse the list (often influenced by certain reviewers) and pick something to binge. Now if I’m 2 or 3 episodes in and regretting my decision, I may drop it then. After all, lots of things on the list are there because “hmm, that might be interesting” so it’s still on probation so to speak. So much anime, so little time – that I am pretty quick to drop something I’m losing interest in. No specific rule except if I’m losing interest, or hit something that makes me cringe – out they go.

  4. Awesome. I like the rule and follow it myself, but I was just saying that sometimes it can be used to dismiss a show that might need more than 3 episodes to really get going (see Slime)

    Should the rule work for two-cour seasons? What about 4-cour?

  5. I like the three episode rule, but I don’t follow it completely. Most show this season I dropped around 4 or 5 episodes, giving them just a little more time.

    I think it is one of those things that makes sense, but smug anime fans have ruined it by raising it up as some sort of golden standard. Maybe I’m wrong, but that was my feeling from it all.

  6. If I had your ability to no drop things my backlog of unfinished games/anime wouldn’t be so huge. Three episodes seems like a sensible number, on paper, for people who have limited free time to invest in anime. It gives a series some time to develop, but is enough to marathon in one sitting.

    For me there is no strict rule. Sometimes I drop an anime after one episode, other times I have abandoned a show after seven episodes. There have been some series that I found dull at the eleven episode mark and they still managed to win me over by the end.

    The best strategy is to wait for a series to finish. You can then read various reviews, from people you trust, to determine if a series is worth sticking with. Unfortunately that requires patience. There’s also the danger of spoilers and the feeling of missing out when you skip blogs that cover stuff on an episode by episode basis.

  7. The three episode rule ain’t very useful for my viewing habits. For starter, there could be a series that I initially dislike at first, but wins me over time. Happened before with something like Darker Than Black which I didn’t end up warming up to until half way through the series. Than there’s also the cases of series that good great first episodes, but decline in quality overtime rather quickly. Three episodes can be deceptive to the viewers thinking they’ll get one thing when they’ll actually get another. I don’t drop anime, but people I know that usually do drop something within the first couple of minutes, or pass three episodes if they don’t like it. Me, I’m in on the ride all the way through regardless where I end up at.

  8. I think three episodes is usually a good benchmark, obviously some series it’s obvious sooner and others you might not find out until much later whether it’s on the right track or not — and, just as importantly, staying on the right track. Cactus Matt makes a good point about manga first volumes often ending on a cliffhanger or showing a shift in genres, but the 3-episode rule is probably also a holdover from when anime adaptations were much longer and full of filler. Lots of 90s series start off rather slow.

  9. I’ve long thought the 3-episode rule is (for me personally) a huge waste of time. Close to an hour and a half of viewing time for something I may not like very much, or even hate and/or find offensive? Ugh, no thanks. I also don’t even know where people find the time for that – I work two jobs and have other hobbies besides watching anime, so any time I am able to spend on this particular hobby, I would much prefer to be actually enjoyable.

    I do my best to get through about half an episode before casting too many judgments on any given show, but the fact of the matter is, sometimes I’ll know within the first minute that something just isn’t for me. If I’m still really not sure after the first episode but think the show has potential, I’ll usually give it 2 episodes. I rarely keep a show on after that if I’m still not sure, mostly because I just don’t have the luxury of time these days to hope something eventually pans out the way I want it to.

  10. “Three episode rule” may be too much or it may not be enough.

    How far I watch thru bad anime depends on how much hope I have it will become good. There is some anime I won’t even finish the first ep. before I delete it from my bookmarks. Others I will keep plowing thru a half dozen eps. in the hope they remember WTF they are supposed to be doing.

  11. Where I first encountered the 3-4 episode rule was in the DVD days – rather than buying Anime in one cour DVD sets with the option to stream them first through Crunchyroll/Netflix/Amazon/Funimation/Hidive/Anime Network/Whatever, you were basically buying a show in 3-4 episode chunks at a time. Consequently, you’d already financially committed to the first 3-4 episodes.

  12. I had never actually heard of the “3-episode” rule before. I’ve long adhered to my own 2-episode rule, simply because I might not have been in my own best form while watching a show, and that’s hardly the fault of the show! So I try to give shows that did not impress me the first time around an honest second chance. And if I’m still not interested, then–honestly–I no longer care why. I’m just not watching it.

  13. I’ve never noticed people talking about the three episode rule before Madoka, though I wasn’t all that active on anime boards online before Madoka, either, so that’s terribly inconclusive. I drop shows when I feel like dropping them, which is whimisical and follows no rule at all. It’s all about mood. Every now and then I go back to shows I dropped and enjoy them; sometimes I go back to shows I dropped and confirm that dropping them was a good idea. There are also shows I simply forget exist from week to week and then when I remember them I can’t be bothered to catch up (happened first with Guilty Crown). I figure I don’t miss out more on shows I drop than on shows I never pick up in the first place. Nobody can watch everything, and certainly not three episodes of everything. Also, for some OVAs you’re almost done with three episodes (both the original Tamayura and Alien 9 have no more than 4 episodes, so…)

    If you sit in front the screen for three episodes, thinking you’d rather pay a visit to the dentist, something went wrong (unless you really enjoy dentist visits; that possibility can’t be discounted). It’s definitely true, though, that you can drop shows too early. I’ve done that often. It’s just the risk is acceptable, if the alternative is watching three episodes of something that bores you.

    1. I feel bad for dentists… No wonder they have such high instances of depression.
      If Madoka is responsible for actually solidifying the 3 episode rule, I have to bow to it. Definitely the most influential anime of its generation

  14. Some shows I’ll drop in under five minutes because I just know they aren’t for me. Some make it to the end of the first episode and others I do need three or four episodes to make up my mind. Those are the ones that present ideas or a premise that potentially could be interesting but have some rough edges and I’m on the fence about whether they are more interesting than flawed and it usually does take those next couple of episodes to determine.
    Though, if we take something like Angels of Death, I actually really loved episode 1. If the series had stayed like that I’d have been singing its praises. It was an instant add to my watch list. Then episode 2 happened and I started thinking maybe not. Then episode 3. By 4 I was done. SAO Alternative: GGO was another example where I went in wanting to like the show and by episode 4 it became perfectly clear I didn’t so I finally walked away. Maybe I could have made the same call at episode 1, but I really didn’t want to. I wanted to hope it would move into something more interesting. Alternatively, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime really didn’t appeal that much, though was interesting at first. I’m glad I stuck around with it because I’m now really enjoying it.
    So while I don’t strictly speaking have a 3 episode rule, it just kind of works out that 3 episodes is usually when my brain starts coming up with excuses to avoid watching something I’m not enjoying or that has something going on that I just don’t like. The series has had enough time to find its feet so justifying watching more by saying it might improve seems silly.

  15. Oh man, if the Three Episode Rule could be like the 5 second rule, I could abandon ship on a lot of anime that ended up disappointing me. :l

    For me, I give an anime up to three episodes and then up to the halfway point (Ep. 6 for a single cour or Ep. 12 for two cours) with the option of dropping it any time. It doesn’t always work since there’s always going to be that one anime that just jumps the shark late in the game but it’s worked for me (provided I have time to spare in a given season…).

    Three episodes is a nice benchmark of time invested but I don’t get giving every anime that benefit. We each only have so much time to spare and sometimes, the first episode can be so bad that it’s better to jump ship and see how the consensus evolves before reconsidering.

  16. I have a one-episode rule. Either it will hook me, or it will not, and that’s that. I will try most anything (with some exceptions) but if I’m trying a new food, I don’t need to clean my plate off and ask for seconds and then thirds before I can decide if it tastes good or not. One episode for a new anime is plenty. Heck, five minutes can feel like plenty sometimes! 😉

  17. The fastest I’ve dropped something is when I hear how bad or in human the dailogue is between two characters and/or how in human people sound and I just go “nope”. This happened very recently with Bunny Senpai, controversial I know, and Re-Zero where the heroine just stopped and flatly told everyone who she and what she is trying to do in the middle of a chase and I couldn’t stand it.

    The three episode rule is very connected with how tight the narrative an anime’s narrative is with the combination of it’s production values. It’s not as big of a deal anymore, but I would definitely say that Yuri on Ice’s production values fell after episode three into choppy skating animation and Aldnoah Zero’s story really sucked after episode three because Gen Urobutchi was no longer writing the show.

  18. It varies for me. There are series that I fall in love with or drop after only an episode. The problem is that a lot of them seem to verge on middling for me at the onset. Eitehr they’ll be interesting enough to continue with or they’ll have something that I think i’ll enjoy. I’ve been known to drop shows anywhere from 1 to 8 episodes though depending on the length of the series. I thin kthat for me it’s more about giving a series a fair crack unless it just comes across as terrible from the start.

  19. Your first sentence in this blog entry goes “There’s no (sic!) old maxim in the anime community…”, which is completely contradictory to the rest of the text.

    Thankfully, I arbitrarily decided to overlook that typo of your lead-in sentence and read until sentence three. Just sayin’.

    (And then there is “It’s almost 30 an hour.”)

  20. I hate dropping shows, but when I do drop them, it’s because I’ve finally run out of patience, or the show does something so egregious that I just can’t take it anymore. My record for fastest drop was Hand Shakers. I dropped it after 2 or 3 minutes because its animation style made me physically ill! Seriously! The longest I waited to drop was Bleach. I got to episode 96 or so. I should have dropped it a lot sooner, but, well, Rukia was in it, and…

    “before people forgot about editing and movies started to last forever”

    LOL! Can confirm!

  21. I’ve definitely experienced several anime where I’ve left shows after one episode and come back to it later only to blown away by the second episode and then binged the whole series.

    That’s part of the reason I decided to give each series four episodes to see if it grabs me.

      1. So far, I’ve definitely continued on a couple of series I would have given up on after the first episode. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not. At the moment, I wonder if it’s just made me feel like I need to keep watching.

        I prefer to binge watch so I decided I’d do them in fours so I can kind of keep up with all the discussions. It’s helped me prioritize the best shows so that’s a good thing.

  22. From my understanding the 3 episode rule is more specific to manga adaptations. Why? Because ~most~ anime based on a manga adapt 1 manga volume into 3 anime episodes, and the majority of manga (at least the ones that I read) have a pretty substantial twist, or change, or diversion in the last chapter that somewhat informs the tone of the series going forward. So the point of watching 3 episodes of an anime is to get the original authors full intent of their first manga volume just in the anime version (if that makes any sense).

    1. Well that makes perfect sense. It doesnt apply to any of the manga Ive read but i rarely read adapted series

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