Throughout the month of April, Film School Rejects will be dedicating the bulk of our Sunday programming to a series we call “Movie Geek Self Improvement.” We’ve tasked our writers with finding ways to improve your life — from losing weight to restoring old VHS tape jackets — we want to help you get the most out of your pop culture obsessed existence.
In this Golden Age of Television, and especially great serialized dramas, trying to catch-up on a show can sometimes feel like taking on a second job.
That’s how my wife and I felt as the final season of Breaking Bad approached. We’d stopped watching around Season 2, and as the episodes piled up, getting back on-track seemed too daunting. But we found a solution.
Now obviously, the morally superior approach is to binge-watch everything you’ve missed, but life and family commitments can make that impossible. Fans and even the show creators themselves will sometimes produce season recap videos. Those are great if you can find them, and if you’re willing to skip an entire season at a time.
What if you just want to skip a few episodes and trim your overall load? How can you know which episodes to skip?
That was the dilemma we faced as we tried to catch-up on Breaking Bad. I got lucky and found an old article from Vulture with recommendations to catch-up to Season Four. We followed that, and for each episode we skipped, we would read the IMDB episode synopsis.
I noticed something.
The IMDB star rating for each episode correlated almost perfectly to how significant the plot developments in the episode were. So, Walt bumping off a rival: High star rating. Walt feeling anxiety and hanging out at the car wash: Low star rating. (Spoiler alert: Walt buys the car wash.)
The beauty of letting the IMDB star rating dictate which episodes you watch is that it also lets you decide how much you want to trim. Just pick a minimum star rating and watch everything above. In fact, there’s even a website called GraphTV which does the work for you. Not only can you see the star rating for each episode, the site graphs a trendline for each season, with half the episodes falling above and below.
These are Dark Arts tactics when it comes to media consumption. It’s a crude endeavor to try to skip through a show and catch only the important parts. IMDB ratings and reviews are hardly the height of criticism, but they are exactly what you need.
Sure, some shows have whole fan sites dedicated to them, with more nuanced ratings and summaries. Could one of these be a better option? Possibly. But one great thing about the crowdsourced IMDB ratings is they really hinge on major plot points. At a dedicated fan site, the authors may be more likely to fall in love with that one-off episode that challenged the narrative form, rather than just tipping you off to when someone gets shot in the face.
Case in point: There is an episode in season three of Breaking Bad called “Fly.” It’s an ambitious departure, directed by Rian Johnson, which could be seen as a metaphor for the entire series. It’s also a self-contained episode where nothing significant happens in the arc of the overall series. It has the lowest IMDB rating of any episode of the show. This is the bargain you make with the devil when you skip through a TV series.
The rule seems to hold outside of just Breaking Bad. You may have heard there was an episode of Game of Thrones last season where some pretty big stuff went down at a wedding. IMDB rating: 9.9. Even a controversial twist seems to rate highly. A recent episode of The Good Wife so rankled fans, creators Robert & Michelle King wrote an open letter to explain themselves. That episode has the highest IMDB rating so far this season.
For comedies in the classic sitcom structure, where every episode circles back to one, there are no real plot points to follow. The top-rated episodes of Seinfeld are just the funniest, or at least the most iconic: “The Contest” and “The Soup Nazi.” But for modern comedies that do follow more of a narrative, the system might still work. The top rated episode of Parks & Recreation this season is also the farewell to series regulars Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe.
Having too much TV to watch is a luxury problem, and there’s certainly a trade-off with this solution, but if it allows you to experience even a diminished version of a great show and still keep your life in order, it may be worth it.