The Bizarre TV Practice of Airing Episodes Out of Order

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 23 2013 11:32 AM

TV’s Strange Habit of Airing Episodes Out of Order

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Krysten Ritter in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23

Photo by Colleen Hayes -- © 2012 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

When word leaked yesterday that ABC had canceled its snarky sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, I was mad, sad, and knew exactly who to blame: the programming geniuses who insisted on scheduling episodes out of order.

As Daniel Fienberg tweeted, "Sad ABC pulled 'Don't Trust the B---.' I was looking forward to periodically finding out how S.1 ended." This was a reference to the network's epically awful decision to sprinkle six episodes that were made for, but went unaired during, Season 1 at random points in Season 2. This made a nonsense of June's employment status (she seemed to lose a job weeks before she was shown landing it), her co-worker Mark's relationship status (engaged, broken up, engaged), and James Van Der Beek's participation on Dancing With the Stars (the competition was all set to start, then the story line was forgotten for several months before he finally took his turn under the disco ball).

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ABC has played similar time-travel tricks with Happy Endings—and while that show, like most sitcoms, isn't terribly plot-heavy, this has led to some confusion. For example, in "Kickball 2: The Kickening," which aired on Jan. 13, Penny didn't know how to pronounce Xela, the name of Alex's boutique, even though she had spent the preceding episode, "Ordinary Extraordinary Love," saying it over and over when she mounted a promotional campaign for the store.

ABC isn't the only network that commits scheduling sins, of course. Last week, when Mindy Lahiri's best friend Gwen broke her arm on The Mindy Project, I suddenly understood why Gwen had spent the Thanksgiving episode with her arm in a cast.

Television often plays fast and loose with chronology. But while viewers carp about reruns, you rarely hear complaints about the repeated episodes confusing a show's timeline. And we're used to syndicated shows appearing out of sequence. Even so, this stuff matters. When a show starts tinkering with its episode order, it's a sign of trouble—the network is almost certainly cherry-picking episodes in a bid to boost sinking ratings.

As Fox boss Kevin Reilly observed at the recent Television Critics Association gathering, audiences are becoming commitment-phobic after seeing too many shows they like prematurely canceled. These days, they're waiting to see if a show is "safe" before they start to watch—via catch-up services like Hulu or by binge-watching entire seasons on Netflix or on DVD. In other words, viewers are more sensitive than ever, and playing episodes out of order alerts them that they might want to start looking around for another show that won't break their hearts when it gets axed.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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