Episodic v. Serial TV: Is It OK to Jump In?

By: Kevin Currie

Can I start watching the show with any episode, or should I start from the very first episode to catch up?  In the 2010 A.V. Club Article, “How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?”, Scott Tobias and Noel Murray debate this common dilemma. As a long-time fan of episodic shows, Murray argues that it is perfectly acceptable to begin watching a television show regardless of the episode’s place in the season. Conversely, Tobias insists that one must begin shows from the first episode in order to thoroughly understand the context of the show and fully appreciate the artistic value of the intricate character and plot developments. This essay summarizes Tobias and Murray’s arguments of episodic versus serial television as they apply to How I Met Your Mother, discusses my personal viewing experience of How I Met Your Mother as it applies to those arguments, and expands the discussion of the acceptability of beginning a television show mid-season to shows that are considered more serial.

Episodic television, as Murray and Tobias describe it, is a style of television that is more like short stories than a novel—any issues of plot are resolved by the end of the episode. Murray’s belief that there is nothing wrong with watching episodes out of chronological order is supported by the fact that How I Met Your Mother is highly episodic. Conversely, a show that is classified as serial has storylines and character arcs that develop gradually as the show progresses. Tobias says that dropping in on television shows is “fine if you’re talking procedurals or sitcoms or other shows that get most of their business done over the course of an episode—and such shows are still the staples of popular network television, even if they miss critics’ year-end lists—but of course I’d advise (or demand, in some cases) that people start serialized shows from the beginning.” Tobias focuses on television shows that fall into this category of “serial” to support his argument that shows must be watched from the first episode, but because How I Met Your Mother  is a very episodic sitcom, Tobias and Murray both seem to be comfortable with the idea of jumping in on this particular show.

baby episodic

For the most part, I agree with Tobias and Murray—How I Met Your Mother is very episodic in nature and one can easily jump in on any episode. I believe that the airing of random episodes from various seasons on network television in the afternoon and nights is a good reflection of this concept. However, having thoroughly studied How I Met Your Mother, I believe that the show contains some serial aspects—there can sometimes be inside knowledge, jokes, or an added value for the loyal fans of the show. At the end of Season 1: Episode 1, Ted tells the children that Robin ends up not being the mother, even though he continues to pursue her throughout the first season. Viewers who saw this episode first are able to watch the other episodes and know that nothing significant will result from the interactions between Ted and Robin whereas a viewer who jumps in the middle of the season or series, may not know. As an example of a special surprise that give an added value to the show (sometimes called an “Easter egg”), Ted steals a blue French horn from a restaurant for Robin on their first date in Season 1: Episode 1. In Season 1: Episode 22, Ted gets a string group to play music in Robin’s house with blue instruments; in Season 2: Episode 22, Ted returns the horn to symbolize the end of their relationship. Throughout the series, there are many other cases such as these and without having seen the initial episode where Ted stole the horn, a viewer would be oblivious to this underlying wit of the show. While the preceding examples may be attractive to die-hard fans of the show, I would like to reiterate that I agree with Tobias and Murray in that How I Met Your Mother is highly episodic and can be picked up at almost any point.

In order to better understand Tobias’s argument and the concept of serial television, it is necessary to bring other television shows into this discussion. As the name of Tobias and Murray’s article suggests, they are assessing how television has changed. They seem to be in agreement that television was once highly episodic and recognize an emergence of serial television with the release of The Sopranos. The importance of this new style and how to watch it is disputed. Tobias claims that “greatness in a dramatic series isn’t possible without a strong (i.e. predominant) serialized element. That’s the common denominator of all significant shows of the last decade—The WireThe SopranosMad Men, Breaking Bad, et al.—which thrive because they’re constantly moving forward and revealing new things about their characters and their cinematic universes.” Tobias is arguing that all the recent great television shows are more appealing and rich because of their well-developed serial nature and that new television shows are following suit. Tobias believes that jumping in the middle of serial shows is doing a disservice to the viewer and the show. I, on the other hand, find jumping in acceptable—if a viewer wants to start watching a show in the middle of the season, that is fine by me. If thoroughly intrigued, the option always exists to go back and watch the show from the beginning.


While Tobias and Murray do not always agree on when it is appropriate to jump into a television show, they seem to agree that it is fine to jump in on sitcoms such as How I Met Your Mother. I agree with minor hesitation only because I have noticed a few witty inter-series allusions that would only be understood if watched in a serial manner. While slightly less comfortable with the idea of beginning a serial television show mid-season, I would still support a viewer’s decision to do so as I believe that a truly great television show is both serial and episodic—it has the capacity to perpetually engage the viewer in each episode while retaining a unique and cohesive identity. So is it OK to jump in? Yes.


Works Cited

Tobias, Scott, and Noel Murray. “How Has the Culture of TV (and TV-watching) Changed?” Web log post. The A.V. Club. 18 June 2010. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.


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