The ‘Magical Episode 4’ Theory

Finally, a definitive answer to how many episodes of a new TV show you should watch before giving up on it

man sleeps in front of a TV
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What feels like eons ago, a friend asked for my advice on an important subject: He was trying to decide whether to start Friday Night Lights or Breaking Bad, both of which had recently become available on Netflix. Specifically, he wanted to know how many episodes he should watch of each to see which would hook him faster. My mind short-circuited. Although both are modern classics, the two series couldn’t be more different: One is a stirring drama about a high-school football coach in a small Texas town. The other is a thriller about a dying man who cooks meth. Both had excellent first episodes that could presumably hold my friend’s attention. But giving him an exact number? I called him and spent an hour explaining why this was an impossible decision for me to make on his behalf.

The question of how long a viewer should stick with a new show before giving up on it—or before it “gets good”—is one I’m asked a lot, given how many TV recaps and binge-watching guides I’ve written over the years. Usually, I resist giving a straightforward answer. After all, taste is subjective, people watch different shows for different reasons, and everyone’s viewing stamina varies. Volume, too, is an issue. “It’s harder than ever to keep up with new TV shows,” Linda Ge, a writer on the CW’s Kung Fu, told me over email. “It is easier to just give up and say you’ll catch up when the entire season is out, but good luck trying to remember you were interested in that show in the first place.”

Still, since that conversation with my friend 10 years ago, I’ve dwelled on his question so much that I finally have an answer: Watch four episodes. This is exactly enough to know whether any new TV series is worth your time. (Exceptions include limited and reality series, as well as shows with very short seasons, such as Fleabag.) Of course, you should watch as much or as little of a show as you want. But if you, like my friend, are overwhelmed and just need a number, I have good reasons for my recommendation.

I’ve done the research.

Years’ worth of it, in fact. When I first started my admittedly unscientific pursuit, I assessed my favorite ongoing shows. I quickly noticed that fourth episodes tended to include major character development, shocking narrative swings, or moments that would go on to define the series as a whole. (Apologies for any spoilers.) Lost, for example, revealed a key twist in “Walkabout,” which informed the show’s faith-versus-science mythology. Breaking Bad’s “Cancer Man” ramped up the series’ overarching tension between its criminal protagonist and his DEA-agent brother-in-law. Glee—don’t judge, this was Season 1—had a fourth episode that revealed a teen pregnancy and incorporated a revolutionary-for-its-time coming-out scene.

I kept writing about shows that were all over the map in terms of genre, network, and release strategy (Alias, 24, New Girl, Modern Family, The Crown, House of Cards, Jane the Virgin—I could go on). As I did, a logic emerged: If a pilot has to introduce the show’s world, and the second and third episodes must prove that the series can sustain itself, then by Episode 4 the cast and crew should be comfortable enough that their ease will translate to viewers.

Maybe it’s all confirmation bias, and maybe I should look more closely at shows that aired before the 2000s. But binge-watching shows on streaming services only began in earnest in the 2010s, and in that context, I’m convinced. If you need a newer example, the fourth episode of Ted Lasso’s first season resolved two characters’ major conflict and shed light on an antagonist’s personal struggles—putting the Apple TV+ series on track to become TV’s “nicest show.” Brett Goldstein, one of Ted Lasso’s writers and stars, even explained in an interview that he felt the show came together during the making of that episode. Which brings me to my second point ...

The fourth episode is usually when a show “clicks” behind the scenes, according to the experts.

Conversations with producers and writers only strengthened my theory. Rachel Bloom, a co-creator of the CW’s musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—which includes a big fourth-episode departure via a song-and-dance routine filmed in black-and-white—encouraged the idea when I shared it with her in 2016. She pointed out that, in the writers’ room for her show, she didn’t feel comfortable having another writer take the lead on the script until the fourth episode. With that in mind, she advised me to “look at Episode 4s of all the television shows.”

I haven’t been able to accomplish that, sadly, but other members of the TV industry have landed on Episode 4 unprompted. Joshua Safran, the showrunner of HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot, told me last month that broadcast networks and streaming platforms have told him that he’d find his real audience by Episode 3 or 4—guidance he saw come to fruition with Gossip Girl and his previous shows, ABC’s Quantico and Netflix’s Soundtrack. “The pilot is done by too many people, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Safran said. “It just goes through so many checks [from the network], and then Episode 2 goes through less … In Episode 3, it’s like, Okay, I got it.”

The producer Robin Schwartz (Starz’s Vida, Facebook Watch’s Sorry for Your Loss) agrees: “There’s so much groundwork that has to be laid in those first couple of episodes: we need to meet our characters, establish a world, set up and kick off a premise. It’s a lot of (necessary) scaffolding,” she wrote over email. “Then somewhere around Episode 4-ish things can start getting a little weird, a little unexpected, venturing off down some garden paths you may find intoxicating in whatever way.”

Even those reluctant to choose an exact number gravitate toward Episode 4. Ken Greller, a writer on Apple TV+’s Dickinson, says that a pilot “can and should grab you,” but concedes that many great shows “don’t actually come together until later on in their first season.” Take BoJack Horseman and Succession; to him, the former fell into place after four or five episodes, while the latter’s standout episode was its fifth. (To me, that’s close enough to the magical Episode 4 to count toward my theory.) The producer Erik Oleson, who worked on Amazon’s Carnival Row and served as the showrunner for the third season of Netflix’s Daredevil, calls the idea of picking a number like “asking me to choose between my kids.” Even so, he mused over Zoom, “I thought that the prison-break episode in Daredevil was just like, Wow, that was so exciting, and that was what, Episode 4?” He chuckled. “Well, there you go.” He meant the fourth episode of the third season, but the show essentially started anew after its second-season finale. Like I said, this is a thoroughly unscientific study.

Watching through the fourth episode considers both the audience’s time and the creators’ efforts.

In the peak-TV era, the number of episodes you should ideally watch (to writers and producers, that’d be the full show) will always be higher than the number you have time to watch. Even the industry folks I polled tended to have a low boredom threshold when it came to their own viewing habits. The writer Chad Hodge (TNT’s Good Behavior) wrote in an email that he’ll give a new show until Episode 2 to see whether “a few whiffs and whispers of things I like” pan out. Sydney Hoffner, a postproduction coordinator for Star Trek: Picard, told me that the longest she’s given a series has been three episodes.

But four episodes is slightly more generous, taking into account both your limited availability and the intentions of those behind the scenes. That’s not so far into a show to reach too important a cliff-hanger that quitting becomes impossible, yet still far enough to get past the setup. So: Four episodes. Just try it. There is indeed too much TV, but four episodes amount to an evening of binge-watching or a month of tuning in weekly at most. By then, you’ll have to have found something appealing about your show—or not. And most important, I hope that you won’t ever have to ask when a series “gets good” again.