The phrase "television failure" recalls high-profile series that couldn’t live up to early expectations such as Coupling, FlashForward and recently, Lone Star. It also recalls the controversial conclusions of long-running programs such as Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos and Lost.
Early flops and stumbling final chapters often define a series and the industry itself, but what about those individual episodes somewhere in the middle? A season of American television involves producing between 10-24 episodes a year. Even for the best of television’s "quality" series, there are bound to be problematic outings and flat-out terrible entries along the way.
As television criticism continues to grow, it might be easier to identify letdowns, but shining the spotlight on an episodic disaster is just one, less important half of the process. The more significant question we need to consider is what impact those failures, however big or small, have on a series’ story or production. Can a terrible 19th episode categorically change a series forever? A bad 55th? Are these missteps random byproducts of the tough demands of U.S. television or can they tell us something more?
You might now understand the meaning behind this post’s title. Not only are botched episodes of well-respected series outliers in the tapestry of quality television, but the case of a specific fiasco crystalizes why individual failures mean more than we think.
Lost’s season three episode "Stranger in a Strange Land" is a prime example of what happens when good series go bad, if only for a moment. It is an awful episode of the series that both critics and fans despise, but also one that positively impacted Lost in perhaps a way no other episode, before or after, did. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse used the episode’s diminished quality as a bargaining chip in their end-date discussions with ABC and ultimately got their wish. Without "Stranger," Lost still might be pilling on the mysteries and introducing new enigmatic characters with no end in sight.
"Stranger in a Strange Land" is an outlier, both for Lost’s story world and the real-world impacts it had on the series. Not all showrunners are as candid about the writing process as Lindelof and Cuse, and determining the true impact of an episodic failure of a great series is very difficult to identify. But this one is so bad and so singular that it is a darn good place to start.