It’s the start of the season and I’m watching a lot of brand new shows for the first time. This means that I’ve also been making decisions on which shows to keep watching and that has me reflecting on what exactly I look for in the first episode of a new series.
This actually comes up for me a lot. Since I’m a disorganized binge watched, I’m picking up new series once a week, sometimes more. And some of you may recall that I’m trying to perfect the art of dropping shows this year.
This post is really not a guide for what to look for in the early episodes of an anime. I am not qualified to write such a thing at all. It’s more of a way for me to organize my own thoughts to help me in future decisions. But I like to share this stuff with you guys. You often have great insights and suggestions.
For a bit of context, I’m a huge fan of anime and tend to enjoy the medium a lot. In other words I’m not super picky. Moreover, I have the naive optimistic side that makes me think shows are always about to get way better in the next episode so I should watch one more. I’ve been proven right just enough times to make me reticent of dropping anything… Dropping shows takes discipline!
This said, I’ve been better at it lately. I dropped 2 shows not so long ago (both cute boy shows…) and I’m on a high of decisiveness which I want to milk for as long as I can.
This said, it is true that narratives and characters can evolve wildly and unexpectedly in shows, it can be difficult to get a proper idea right off the bat. I don’t want to over correct and end up dropping series I would have loved. I also don’t want to spend 3 episodes per show. Generally, when I do manage to drop a series, I do it about 10 to 15 minutes in.
However, I’ve never actually thought about what makes me want to continue watching and what makes me turn off. These are personal criteria of course, not blanket standards that cannot should apply to all fans.
As I mentioned story and characters can really surprise you but production and performance rarely does. So that’s a great place for me to start. If I don’t like the art style or animation from the start, I’m likely never going to like it. Designs that I might not find appealing can really grow on me if I like the character or show but there has to be something else. On the other hand, in my experience, voice actor performance rarely gets better. Good voice actors can have scenes that elevate them to greatness but bad ones (or badly cast ones) usually stay at that level throughout. To me, this can actually ruin the watching experience. Thankfully it has not happened to often and is usually way more frequent in dubs (again in my personal experience only). This said if I actively dislike the performance of a main cast member, I’m likely to drop a show right away.
I was supposed to talk about things I look for and I m just dwelling on stuff I avoid. This isn’t a great start.
Ok, one of the biggest indicators that I m going to like a show in the first episodes is efficiency of exposition and visual storytelling. If I can get through half an episode with good understanding of the premise, the universe and a general idea of who the characters are as people, without having o sit through any expo dumps, that almost always means that the writers and directors know what they’re doing, in my opinion. If I can pick up on visual cues or animation foreshadowing right from the start, I’m likely to enjoy the series even if it’s just for the craftsmanship.
I also think that pacing is a highly underrated virtue in anime. I read a tweet a few years ago from a fellow blogger that argued that there was no such thing as good or bad pacing. That it was a borderline meaningless term that was overused by reviewers who didn’t know how to express their thoughts or wanted to sound professional. It was an interesting thought and much better expressed than I’m putting it here. I completely disagree and it hurts me a bit that people think this way.
Pacing does have a meaning. The speed and frequency at which the narrative gives out information, develops characters and dishes out action scenes can completely make or break an anime, in my opinion. It’s just that analyzing and appreciating pacing from a viewer’s standpoint can be difficult. My personal trick for first episodes is this: if I thought the episode seemed really long, it’s a bad sign, if I was surprised it ended so quickly sometimes to the point were I need to check that they are not playing the closing credits with 10 minutes to go, then it’s a great sign! If I actively check how much time’s left at the halfway mark, I should probably be dropping the series…
Characters are tricky. If I fall in love right off the bat, then it’s an easy decision. I love character driven anime so I can watch even a boring story for the sake of one great character. But I also love character development and many characters with great arcs can start off sort of weak or bland. So many times I have caught myself choosing a favourite character for a review that I had no interest in at first.
The last thing I like to do is, at the end of the episode, figure out what my hopes are for the series. It doesn’t have to be super precise. Maybe “,I hope we get to know this character better” or “I hope it can maintain the tension properly”, even “I hope the chemistry between those two gets better…” The only way I can formulate a sincere hope for a show is if I have enough information about the plot and characters and enough engagement to care. It’s a little thing but this simple exercise has been really helpful in choosing between two shows that seem almost the same at first glance.
Of course I m still terrible at dropping anime so you really shouldn’t base yourself on me. Do you have any tips or tricks to figure out if you’ll like a series right from the start?