For a television critic, the beginning of any new season is a bit like the first days of school, a time of unbroken bindings, neatly ordered notebooks and tantalizing blank pages. Surely this year will be different — every class and teacher, no matter how quirky, will be interesting.
After a certain age, optimism of any sort requires a willful disregard of reality. But for those of us who believe storytelling is humanity's greatest achievement, the muscles used to suspend disbelief are the most important ones we have.
To accept that animals talk and aliens exist, that mobsters can have kind hearts, that extraordinary medical care professionals hide drug addictions; that crimes can be solved in the nick of time; that families, no matter how dysfunctional, really do love each other, requires a strength created by both desire and repetition.
By the end of each television season, however, viewers often find these muscles strained, or utterly exhausted. Season finales, particularly of those shows that we feel passionate about, inevitably disappoint, and the blame often falls on the level of "believability."
Last month, for example, Showtime's "Homeland" was raked over the coals for its extensive reliance on dramatic license. But believability is the pendulum that swings over every show. It plagues even the biggest hits, from "MASH" to "The Sopranos," from the detail-oriented "Mad Men" to that Golden Gate of suspension technology, "Lost."
Social media have turned the measure of believability in plot, tone and character continuity into a national obsession. It's fun to deconstruct any story, and at times it can be quite effective — will we ever forget "The West Wing's" Jed Bartlet's point-by-point takedown of Old Testament law?
Watching shows with the intention of tearing them apart — a process made famously popular with films on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" — is one of the reasons soap operas lasted as long as they did. Now such collective captive criticism has a new name — "hate watching" — and a new target — reality shows and, apparently, "Smash."
But hole-picking for its own sake is a perilous habit. There are few stories of any genre that are impervious, and our ability to suspend disbelief is just as important to the survival of our imaginations as the ozone layer is to the planet. Belief is also highly subjective.
For me, the turnings of plot and character on "Homeland" were no more far-fetched than those on "Downton Abbey," where the servants act more like houseguests. Or those on "Mad Men," where Peggy carried a baby to term without knowing she was pregnant. Or even those on "The Good Wife," where there was a Kalinda-in-bondage subplot.
The relationship between the storyteller and audience is always a bargain made with a wink and a nod: If you create people, places, plots and themes that move me, I will overlook the tricks you employ by doing so — the letters that tragically go astray, the bad guys who can't shoot straight, the good guys who never miss, the successful jump by Butch and Sundance into a river full of rocks.
Only when the pain of suspending my disbelief is consistently stronger than the pleasure of hearing the story will I abandon hope and lay out my laundry list of complaints.
Of all the genres, including the ever-more-popular fixation of novel series, television requires the deepest commitment between artist and audience because it seeks to create the longest relationship: 22 or more episodes on network, more than a dozen on cable, year after year.
As we approach this new spate of shows, in which there are many that will require some serious disbelief suspension — Norman Bates' troubled youth in "Bates Motel," a Poe-fixated serial killer in "The Following," whatever the "world's greatest mystery" is in "Zero Hour," suburban spies in "The Americans" — optimism is crucial, but so are realistic expectations.
There isn't a show on the air that hasn't strained credulity, not a story told that hasn't depended on some extraordinary bit of luck or fate or convenient timing. That is why we tell stories — to increase our understanding of reality through the impossible.
If a story doesn't fail now and then, it isn't trying hard enough — and if we can't forgive those failings now and then, then neither are we.