A Whole or a Sum of Parts?

What constitutes a “favorite”?  It’s not uncommon for someone to ask what your favorite television show or music artist is if you tell them you watch television or listen to music.  And between the ability to rate shows on Netflix, movies on IMDB, and basically everything on Amazon, or liking things on social media, even those of us who don’t catalog everything they watch/listen (like me) to are provided with lots of opportunities to show what they like most.  But if you watch many shows and listen to many artists, what method do you use to determine which is a favorite?

I have made a habit of rating every musical album I listen to.  In order to come up with the rating, I listen to the whole album and decide how it works when listened to from beginning to end.  Of course, this method only really makes sense on CDs that lack the ability to skip tracks.  Otherwise, CD players allow you to skip and sometimes change the play order, you can make all sorts of playlist combinations with digital files and streaming services, and even when listening to a vinyl record if you only like one side you can choose to just not turn the record over when it’s done.  However, this does provide a standard to compare albums for rankings.

The main issue is that I don’t actually listen to albums from beginning to end often, with some exceptions of great albums whose wholes are better than the sum of their parts.  I’m more likely to either make an abridged version, skipping tracks, or more commonly use one of my attempts to combine parts of two or more releases into a better one.  Or I’ll put the playlist with all of the songs I really like on shuffle.

So, since I don’t often listen to albums as a whole, why should I rate them that way?  Why am I punishing a 50 minute album that I like 35 minutes of and hate the rest versus an album that only uses 30 minutes of a CD’s 80 minute capacity and sells for the same price?  Mostly because this is the most effective standard I’ve come up with, and if I came up with a new one I’d have to re-rate over 800 albums using the new system (this isn’t happening).  It’s why I differentiate between a “favorite” album (one that contains a lot of things I listen to in some form) and a “great” album (which can be easily listened to from beginning to end).

It’s similar when you’re talking about musical artists in regards to volume and quality of output.  Do The Rolling Stones (or U2 or Stevie Wonder or Weezer or one of many other examples) have weaker discographies than because they kept putting out lackluster albums long after their peak?  You can argue that it makes their discography weaker on average, but does it diminish what they did before?  Some people might argue that producing annoying songs that get media exposure sours them on other things they liked that the band made.  And because of the subjectivity of music and the importance of the context of listening to it, they wouldn’t be wrong.  I wouldn’t personally agree with them, but it’s a reasonable reaction.  But for artists, since discographies aren’t really as comparable as albums, I prefer to think of them in relation to how much material they put out that I like, no matter how much stuff they did I didn’t like or when they happened to release it.

And then there are television shows.  Like music artists, they can go on for too many seasons, but how does this effect whether I want to call them a favorite?  Well, Seasons 3-8 (and probably 2-9) of The Simpsons are by far my favorite comedy of all-time.  The problem is that I’ve seen less than a handful of episodes of the show from the past decade, and there are now twice as many weaker seasons of the show than “Golden Age” seasons.  How can I justifiably call something my favorite comedy if I haven’t even seen half of it?  Dramas can also go on for far too long; I still want Netflix to give me the option to rate Dexter seasons 1-4 and Dexter seasons 5-8 separately.

Serialization is both a blessing and a curse.  It allows stories that would normally need to be told within an hour to be spread out and told in depth, and it encourages you to get through weaker episodes because there is a sense that it’ll be important in the end.  But it also means that it’s harder to go back and watch an episode by itself like you can with most comedies and older dramas, and continuing story lines both between and within seasons mean that you may be hooked into seeing what happens even when you have long stopped enjoying the series.  I’ve gotten better at dropping shows from the days when I watched all four seasons of Heroes even though only the first of was good, but even then I’ve stuck through two season of The Strain for some reason.

With “shared universes” becoming the new rage in comic book movies, there is even a feeling that you need to see everything in the series (sometimes three movies a year) in order to be caught up.  It’s slightly more expensive, but at least less time consuming then trying to keep up with the Arrowverse on The CW.  It’s now up to three live action shows (Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow) with full-length seasons that occasionally cross over with one another, resulting in slight confusion if you’re only caught up with one of them.  That’s small compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in addition to its movies has two shows on ABC with another in development and two shows on Netflix with another three planned.  None of this has really expanded beyond comic book shows yet, but you could do nothing but watch keep up with those two universes and still have a nearly full schedule.

But having to consume lots of things you don’t particularly like to make the things you do like doesn’t seem like a good use of time.  Neither does watching a show you haven’t enjoyed for years just because it was once one of your favorites, or repeatedly listening to an album you really don’t like because you like the artist, or listening to songs you don’t enjoy because you want to listen to the album all the way through.  But if you never do those things, you may not find out that a show gets better again after a few weak seasons, or an album grows on you and you begin to like it.  But time is precious, and sometimes we just want to consume something we already know we enjoy.  That’s what favorites are for, and really the best way to determine them may be to ask whether or not you want to be consuming it, or parts of it, repeatedly over the years.  But that definition doesn’t require a 1000+ word blog post to describe, so who cares.


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