'Arrested Development' and 'Real Housewives' — What Fandom And Economics Taught Me About So-So TV

I finished season four of Arrested Development last week. Before that, I caught up with the most recent season of Psych in a couple days. Prior to this I watched more seasons of Archer than I’m willing to admit in a handful of weeks. Yes, I know I watch a disgusting amount of television – frequent cross-country flights are an enabler. But the point of noting this isn’t to suggest I’m a TV-phile. While you might expect this much viewing to be reflective of deriving great joy from these shows, I didn’t like a huge amount. The point is that I’ll probably continue to watch these shows (as well as many others) despite my relative lack of interest in them. They’re just OK.

So as to avoid being this guy, I spent time looking inward for a change, reflecting on just how I watch so much TV I’m only OK with. My initial suspicion was that I what I was doing was called hate-watching, a term invented to capture the experience of religiously following shows we hate. Because it’s applied to shows with forced alliteration or the words “real” and “housewives” in their title, it’s not clear this term fits my viewer experience. Hate-watching draws its power precisely from the active hating of these shows, their cartoonish characters and their contrived plotlines. Rather than being entertained by the content of the show, the viewer is entertained by the viewer’s superiority to the show.

In watching so many episodes, I don’t find I hate these shows. The closest feeling I have to them is better captured by an all-encompassing sense of “meh.”

I think part of what’s missing from my TV-watching experience is a real-time fan community and critic response. What makes some series great has less to do with the show than the conversation surrounding the show. The poster-boy for this argument is Lost, a show that was incredible to watch in its heyday even as it made its viewers put up with spontaneous time-travel, unsolved mysteries, alternate timelines, ecologically-impossible wildlife, and so on. What made Lost work was a fan-base maniacally committed to its rationalization and apologetics, plot analysis and Easter-egg hunting. What made the fan-base possible was the week-to-week gap between episodes.

The emergence of straight-to-full-release shows on Netflix like House of Cards and Arrested Development pull the rug out from under a fan base. Even if the shows are great (like the former), the potential enjoyment of their experience is limited from the outset by being all out there. What’s the point of a rabid fan base when you have all the answers? Fan communities that once guess at reveals now police spoiler alerts.

Certainly, having a fan and critic community follow the weekly release of Arrested Development wouldn’t suffice to make the latest season great. Indeed, Psych is current, benefits from all these conditions, and still leaves a lot to desire. In trying to determine what keeps me clicking at the next episode in the queue, I turn over to economic thinking.

In economics, sunk costs describe a cost incurred in the past no longer eligible for recovery. That I watched six seasons of Psych or three seasons of Arrested Development is a sunk cost – I’ll never get those hours of my life back. Under their assumption that human agents behave rationally, economists expect sunk costs to have no effect on future decisions. Behavioral economists (as well as any normal person), on the other hand, have catalogued the powerful influence of a sunk cost fallacy. This describes a willingness by a person to incur a future cost because of a sunk cost.

In this case, my aversion to wasting resources makes me behave “irrationally,” counter to the expectations of economists. It’s exactly because I’ve see all the past seasons of Arrested Development that I’ll continue to watch the show, whether or not I actually like it. I’m invested in its outcome.

What happens when you feel obligated to keep up with a show, but not so excited to enjoy it simultaneously with a fan community? Enter: mehwatching.