200th Post: The Three Episode Rule

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So here’s a fair warning: My blog is extremely condescending. I am extremely condescending.  This post? Even I’m finding it condescending. Read forward at your own risk.

A bit of a lightweight compared to our last milestone post, but with the moving, my lack of blogging, etc, yeah. This is the main reason I haven’t begun the Autumn 14 season in earnest yet.

So, let’s address one of the mainstays of the anime fan: The Three Episode Rule.

If you haven’t heard of it, oh mysterious anime viewer who is involved enough with the community to scour small time anime blogs on wordpress that focus on small, current run series without name recognition but NOT community savvy enough to know one its staples, the Three Episode Rule (TER) is the idea that, at the beginning of a season, you don’t really know what is gold waiting to be mined and what is shit on a stick. And pilots can be misleading, due to story issues, budget overblowing to attract you, and trailer editors are meanspirited nazis who exist to make the Smurfs look like the Bourne Identity. Thus, in order to better gauge a series when first trying it out, you don’t judge it too soon in case you miss a gem, but wait until the third episode to make up your mind. The blogging sphere is full of people’s seasonal updates after the third episode.

In my opinion…it’s nonsense.

At best, the TER is like a stopgap you use for someone until they become sophisticated.  Like, say, the way we often explain transgender individuals as being “a woman trapped in a man’s body/man trapped in a woman’s body”.

If you have the barest of scientific knowledge regarding sexuality and hormones, or taken one semester of a gender studies course your girlfriend at the time said would be bonding but the two of you broke up halfway through the semester and it’s too late after the academic withdrawal period so now you’re barely paying attention enough not to fail and drag down your GPA…

Point is, if you’ve ever had to examine the issues involved, the biological, sociological, or political, it is abundantly clear that that lie is NOTHING like the truth. It isn’t. It’s far, far too complicated to explain that way.  BUT WE DO IT because Liza Jane from the South Will Rise Again rally in suburban South Carolina Soccermomsville simply doesn’t have the intellectual maturity to approach the topic, so we dumb it down as a stopgap until later when, maybe, hopefully, our hick here will be more receptive to the information regarding it, now that they THINK they’re enlightened.

Similarly, like how the information on the internet runs like “a series of tubes” to deliver its multitudes of data to the corners of the earth.  The internet is NOT a series a tubes, but the expression is a convenient metaphor to try and explain to someone of a youth-challenged generation why, say, not having enough IP addresses is a problem. Or why data caps are fucking balls and are you KIDDING ME THAT’S STILL A THING, MIAMI? YOU FUCKHOLES MADE ME GO TO AT&T BECAUSE IT’S THE ONLY PLACE WITHOUT THEM? 100 BUCKS FOR 100GB A MONTH, WHAT KIND OF LANDLINE IS THAT?!?! ….*cough*

The Three Episode Rule, in my mind, falls under a similar umbrella.  It is a useful tool for idiots. It is a guideline, at best, and should never be observed religiously. When someone is first getting into anime and doesn’t fully understand the tropes, the cultural continuity, the style, etc, we say “Okay, try the first three episodes then make up your mind”, like you were explaining it to an eight year old.  But once someone is comfortable to saying they are, definitively, a fan of anime, it’s time to use your mind more judiciously, in my opinion.

Leaving aside the fact that, in my mind, I can’t think of a single series that was “saved” by its third episode, cannot think of a series that hooks SPECIFICALLY on the third episode, nor anything really magic about the 25% marker for the story in any OTHER medium (Read the first 1.75 books in the Harry Potter series if you don’t like it. No really! You CAN’T know you’ll dislike it for good until you do. (Or, using word counts, the second chapter of Goblet of Fire. You’ll never really know if you like Harry Potter until you’ve read THAT FAR, it might get better!)).

Leaving aside ALL that…let’s examine it’s assumptions.

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You Can’t Account for Taste

Death Note is an interesting series for this discussion.  My sister and I both like it.  We enjoy the back and forth, the look of it, the atmosphere. Sure it’s a bit camp but that’s part of the charm.

The TER, however, splits us down the middle.  Personally, by the end of the second episode, when L sets Light up into exposing himself, I was hooked.  I don’t mean in the sense that my body ached for my fix of Death Note, just that I had decided, me, DataportDoll, on my own, that I was at least going to see how the story ended. They had proven, to me, that they could do interesting things with their concept and that the opening round of the “chess match” was sufficiently thought out to win over my attention.

My sister, on the other hand, became a FAN at episode 7, the Naomi arc. Until then, sure, it was pretty, but it was still, to her, mostly laborious and slow.

In this we show what two different people, with arguably the most controlled circumstances regarding our upbringing and entertainment exposure (we were 21 and 20 at the time), are looking for in their entertainment.  I’ve explained many times before on this blog, I am someone who adores concepts.  I don’t really get bedazzled by concepts, they’ve all been done, in various forms, the thing I want to see is how THIS SPECIFIC STORY will explore its ideas.  In this, my taste in anime is much like a taste in music (an irony as I don’t really give two shits about music). To ME, each story has its unique properties and they catch my attention. But to an outsider, like a total outsider, it all sounds like the same fart noises track after track after track. This will become abundantly clear as the Top Ten fills itself out.

My sister, on the other hand, is a much more casual anime fan, and is (I mean nothing bad by this), out of touch with release schedules and the next big thing.  She relies on people like me and word of mouth to point out something interesting, to remind her when Inuyasha: Final Act is finally being released, but her television habits are sparse and more mainstream than my own.  She does not finish a series unless she is a true blue fan of it. She stops at Episode 1, or Episode 11, it doesn’t matter to her if its not fun anymore.

And we love the same characters (we’re on Team L both), we like the same twists, we adored the same episodes and rolled our eyes at the same ones.  But what makes the apple taste good so early for me, but like trash for her until much later? It’s all a matter of taste, plain and simple.

So there’s really no telling where these things will fall. This is the TER’s first problem.

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Seven Episode Rule

In addition to when my sister jumped on the Death Note bandwagon, there’s another series which has a seven episode rule.

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. 

“Gee, DoubleD, that show appears a lot on your blog.”

Well, yes, and it’s not done yet.

But relevant here, is that Nanoha has another example of the Seven Episode Rule.  It didn’t START to get good until then. And even then, it didn’t show its hand until Episode 10. You know, when the supervillain beats the living hell out of her daughter.

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…It’s pretty obvious that this is NOT the same series four episodes ago where, “Oh, little kitties found a jewel shard and turned into a magical girl monster! Time to fight it in a consequence-free bubble contest!”

You couldn’t have orchestrated pulling the rug out from under someone any better if they had been IN a rug store with big Turkish guys going “Let us pulls on something to strength train!”

Nanoha is one of my favorites, and I would never have known by adhering to the TER.

And I think this is demonstrated when, in the movie recap of the first season, those first six episodes? They are gone. Just varnished over beyond the obligatory introduction of the characters.  Aside from that it dives straight into the Precia/Fate plot.

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If Not Number, Then What?

I think there are several reasons people propose, and follow, the TER.

Take a look at my own experience with Sakura Trick.  I would have never predicted that I would enjoy it. Tolerate it, “that’s cute”, but not outright enjoy it to the point where I’m recommending it. I think its series like this that incline people to say “try everything”, and the TER exists as a way to enforce that “open-mindedness”.  Go to the WordPress reader and look for the “first quarter” or “three episode” posts.  How open minded are the people who stick to it?  (I won’t link as that might be a negative association and I have no one’s permission, so…but trust me they are out there!).  Are they REALLY more open by the third episode than they were at the first? How often, REALLY, do things change because of the third episode?  Or do people just carry the same opinions they had on pilot day, and end up posting a bunch of passive aggressive statements because they feel obligated to give the series a fair shake?

Or, vice-versa, Akuma no Riddle, a show that had ALL the signs it would be something I’d enjoy, and, well, we know how that went. Akuma no Riddle, by the way, had a very promising TER.  But that didn’t save it from being shit. Black Bullet? The same.

“So, Doll,” you may be saying, “What strawman would you propose?”

I’d propose approaching anime, or TV, or books, or movies, the same way you approach everything else.  If you aren’t feeling it, you aren’t feeling it.  There is no reason to force yourself to sit through something you aren’t enjoying as a way to relax.

“But what if I want to be open as possible? How will I discover the gems?”

Why are you worried about that? Do you honestly think you’ll wander an anime discussion board, or go to a con, and NOT hear about Attack on Titan, or whatever? I’m just drawing that as an example. I have a vague understanding of the show, and I’ve never even watched a single episode.

WE’RE NERDS. WE DON’T KEEP SECRETS WELL.  When was the last time you had to FORCE your friends who watch anime to tell you what the latest and greatest is? Or do you instead find out about it because they change their facebook icon, or send you a clip, or whatever ways we nerds use to convert the non-believers to our faith?  You REALLY think the best series are going to slip through the cracks like that? Nuh uh.

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Meditate on Your Fandom

I think that, honestly, the best way to look at things is the superficial way.  Let us nod at our friend, Lord G.  If there is the slightest CHANCE of two girls holding hands in it, he knows. He just has that bloodhound skill.

That is, in a way, a very superficial way to pick your shows. But, just looking at his tags, the largest genre markers are “Action, Fantasy, Comedy, Slice of Life, Fighting”, he has a pretty wide spectrum to choose from, and as a more happy-go-lucky viewer, he seems, at least, quite content with that. I rather admire him, he seems so zen about some of the nonsense he covers.

And, you see it here. I like tragedy. I like darkness.  If it made someone cry, I smiled.

That is admittedly harder to sniff out of a series blurb.  But, well, look at my pitiful attempt to view Blade Dance.  It was the worst dreck and I literally did not last five minutes. A woman who looked at the ENTIRETY of Unbreakable Machine Doll as one of our first series here.  That is how awful it was.  But even among awfuls, there is a hierarchy.

I cannot really hope to categorize every anime viewer’s expectations (perhaps for post 300…), that’s starting to sound like work.  But I am quite comfortable with the fact I can endure shit if the world is entertaining to me.  And I can’t watch gold if the reverse is true (looking at Fruits Basket here).  I have that really specific thing I want.

And the only real way to learn those skills to anticipate the shows that might blow you away, to learn the patterns of their storytelling, is to watch both the golden, and the shit, all the way through.

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3 thoughts on “200th Post: The Three Episode Rule

  1. Hmm, just in terms of reviewing a series I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with a three-episode-rule. Although I think the reason why this rule exists and why it’s so relevant for liking a series is as much a subjective one as well as a structural one.

    The first thing that’s really relevant for this rule is the series’ theme. In an ideal situation the whole series has one theme that unites all the individual moments of each episode and so the same way the theme influences the series as a whole, the individual moments point to this unifying theme. So, recognizing that pattern created by the unifying theme takes some time, of course. And you can see this desire for coherence when first episodes try to show all the facets of a show. Just take the recent first episodes of Cross Ange and Akatsuki no Yona for example. Both chose to include flash-forwards in their first episodes to show where the character-development of their princess-main-characters will be going. Rather than changing the tone surprisingly in the middle of the season, the theme of the series is made clear as well as the dramatic arc attached to it. Naturally, that doesn’t mean a story can’t still be great while not following that model. But series that get better later on for example is a discussion for another time ^^ .

    Another thing is the general structural notion of a “first act”. Especially with fantasy- and sci-fi-stuff the series needs to do some worldbuilding for the sake of immersion and the ability to follow the story. But the biggest problem in this regard is the shot length of anime-episodes.generally. If you look at Western TV-Shows which have a 50-minute-length, the first episode is the pilot. That first hour of the show needs to introduce the viewers to the setting, the characters and the story. Since animes have less time to do the same thing (and two 20-minute-episodes is NOT the same thing as an one-hour-episode), the structure of this “first act” changes. Sometimes this leads to very bizarre storyboards like the ones for Ga-Rei-Zero or Tokyo ESP which had beginnings that weren’t even first acts. Rather than introducing the story, they just started in-media-res without thematically linking those events to the actual beginning of the story. The beginning is supposed to be part of the story and not just a tool to explain the series to the audience.

    The third thing is probably the most important thing for the subjective experience of a series and that’s the hook. It probably comes down to the simple question of “Why should I give a shit?”. I mean, all the fancy talk about structure and themes may be all fine and dandy but ultimately this is about entertainment. You would need one hell of a star-director who could get away with producing an anime that only cares about being thought-provoking nowadays. There always needs to be some sort of entertainment-value. And here where the hook comes in. Or I hope, it’s that, because the alternative is an overabundance of moe and fanservice, I guess. The hook is the one little thing that will keep your attention and make you wanna watch the next episode. Well, ideally a series would drop the hook in the first episode and Death Note did that for example, I would say. But that’s why I talked about this being the most important part for the subjective experience because it entirely depends on you, the viewer, whether you get hooked or not. That’s why series try to appeal to a specific target-audience most of the time and it’s not just some art-piece that says shrugging “If you like it, like it, if you don’t, fuck off… I don’t care.”. By planning to appeal to a certain demographic, a lot of the subjectivity in this regard gets removed. Naturally, nowadays there’s stuff like “jumping the shark” and so on that shows how a big part of the audience has gotten media-savvy and you can’t just throw any tiresome trope at them.

    So, I wouldn’t say the TER is complete bullshit. A series SHOULD do certain things during that time and it SHOULD appeal to your as a viewer. If you don’t like what you see, it’s understandable to drop that series. My most recent case of that was M3 which I just hated and so I dropped it after a couple of episodes. There’s nothing wrong with dropping a series because you personally don’t like the series. From a reviewing-standpoint, I would say, though, that rather than just disliking a series, you should start to wonder why that series hasn’t grabbed your attention after three episodes. Clearly there’s something wrong going on in such a case. And it’s not like you’re condemning the whole series with such a concern. This criticism would be primarily focused on the “first act” of the series and in that regard the TER is a good guideline as to when you should start to worry that the series might not deliver the entertainment you had hoped for.

    • Well it only really applies to reviewing anyway. Seeing people stick to it as a means of honor is really the biggest problem with its embrace. Normal people would just NOT watch a show if that’s what they felt. If someone is obeying a “rule” in their personal viewing habits, that’s a personal matter, that probably requires therapy to explain why the need to present as an enlightened person by using arbitrary standards exists.

      And the first act is just as misleading as any other benchmark. Akuma no Riddle and Black Bullet were just two that I’ve cataloged, promising first acts but phoned in the rest of the way. Naruto’s first impressions are just awful. Nobunagun was another crazy good introduction, with lackluster results.

      And that doesn’t bring up the fact that it’s REALLY easy to write a hook. Not so easy to follow up with clever twists. So first acts can hold plenty of promise, but fail to deliver. And I’ve been trying to come up with an example of a show where the TER actually indicated anything…but just don’t see it. Maybe that’s a little too much tao te ching, and I just see potential differently than the rest of humanity (a possibility I don’t rule out =P) but I just cannot grasp the point of it.

  2. “And the first act is just as misleading as any other benchmark.”

    Well, I wouldn’t call it exactly “misleading”. It’s more of a theoretical standard, a traditional guideline, you might say. Naturally there’s still a difference between what a series theoretically might try to do and what it’s actually doing. The point is that no series reinvents the wheel, of course, when it comes to storytelling. There are patterns for this sort of thing and it’s at this point where you set such benchmarks or create rules for when a series needs to do what theoretically.

    “And that doesn’t bring up the fact that it’s REALLY easy to write a hook. Not so easy to follow up with clever twists.”

    If we’re just talking about the world of anime here, I think this would certainly apply to most manga-adaptations. Most of those mangas were written by a person who set out to write a successful series, while not really knowing whether he would end up writing 40 chapters or 100. And if you’re that successful that you get a weekly schedule like Bleach or Naruto? Well, of course, you’re just churning out the bare essentials of a storyline with a plot.

    Then there are the series whose clever twist is the whole point. Take for example all those series with an amnesiac protagonist who will remember his story-relevant past in the third act. But nobody would call that “clever” anymore these days. That’s why I mentioned the whole “jumping the shark”-thingy. Animes aren’t exactly known to be subversive. Most animes use the usual tropes to tell its story and don’t try to explore radical new directions with what animes are doing.

    “And I’ve been trying to come up with an example of a show where the TER actually indicated anything…but just don’t see it.”

    Hmm, personally I feel like Black Bullet and Akuma no Riddle did have beginnings that were indicative of where the show was going. I had higher expectations for Black Bullet after its first arc but except for the second arc (which was just atrocious) the rest of the series basically just did the same thing the first arc did (which ended up only highlighting the flaws that were there from beginning). As for Akuma no Riddle… I hadn’t really liked that show from the beginning. The ending was the only thing that felt stupid to me.

    Off the top of my head, I would say Legend Of Galactic Heroes had a good beginning showing off what would make the series so great. Or this new Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Bladeworks series certainly has delivered a good start with its two 45-minutes-episodes.

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