Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Better the second time

Illustration for article titled Better the second time

My wife & I are watching Lost for the first time. We just finished season five last night. As we approach the end, I started thinking about re-watching the series to see how much evidence there is of what the writers knew, and when. However, a lot of Lost’s appeal is that the viewer is always made to feel like there is more behind the curtain. Knowing all the answers could make the show a lot less entertaining to watch on a second run-through. My question is, what TV shows/movies are better on the second viewing than the first? It doesn’t have to be like Lost or, say, The Sixth Sense, where it is about mysteries or big reveals, per se. More like where knowing the destination makes enjoying the journey that much better. —J


Tasha Robinson
If you consume pop culture largely for unfolding stories, nothing’s ever as good the second time. (Unless you wait long enough to re-read or re-watch it that you forget the details.) As I’ve said before (drawing the ire of comfort-movie-lovers everywhere), I generally tend to be so focused on story, novelty, and broadening my critical horizons by catching up on classics that I generally don’t enjoy re-watching films and TV all that much—which is often a shame, because re-watching things is the best way to get past the story tension and focus on the craft. Fortunately, I like throwing viewing parties to expose other people to films and TV I really liked, and that almost always means watching them again myself. Which is how I found out just how calculated and crafted Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige really is, for instance. There’s a film with a couple of killer twists, though if you’re paying attention, you’ll likely figure them out well before the movie ends, at which point the tension still doesn’t ease, because of the question of how those twists will affect the unfolding story. But on the second or third time through, it’s even clearer how the movie is bent on setting up those twists well in advance, and foreshadowing them in every scene—particularly in Christian Bale’s performance, which is terrifically nuanced in ways I don’t think you can appreciate without knowing exactly what he’s portraying. Given how craft-focused and controlled Nolan’s movies are, they may all play better the second time through—I feel like Memento did, certainly. I’m looking forward to finding out with Inception.

Zack Handlen
I can actually answer that directly, Tasha—I saw Inception twice in theaters, and while I liked it the first time, I had some problems with it. I kept wanting it to be more than it was, somehow. That sounds ridiculous, considering the scope of Nolan’s ambition (it’s like if somebody tried to re-make Primer, only they actually wanted to ensure every audience member could follow the plot), but the problem with twists in stories is that that hunger to be surprised can sometimes overtake my appreciation of everything else. So when the end came, and I thought there might be some kind of other shoe I was missing, that’s what I fixated on. The rest of the movie, I found a little cold, and so heavily expository that the characters seemed like beats in a videogame tutorial. But something in the movie stuck with me, and when my roommate said he was interested in seeing it on the big screen, I decided it was well worth my time for a second viewing. And man, did that pay off. Inception isn’t my favorite Nolan film right now (I think that stands with The Prestige), but where the first time through, I saw an ambitious film that got too caught up in its ambition to really follow through, the second time, the movie was more alive and vital for me. I caught references I missed, and I appreciated the efficiency of the writing; there aren’t that many character beats, but that just makes the ones we do get more important. Whereas before, I was too caught up in trying to beat Nolan at his own game, during the re-view, I just went along for the ride, enough so that I was far more invested in Cobb’s fate than I would’ve thought possible. And as for the ending, well, I’m pretty comfortable in what I got from it. It’s like poor Cobb’s wife learned the hard way: Life isn’t worth living if you’re going to spend all your time waiting to wake up.

Leonard Pierce
I like a lot of directors with formalist sensibilities and sometimes-flashy visual styles, foremost among them the Coen brothers. Almost all of their movies have improved on multiple viewings; some I loved the first time around and loved even more on subsequent plays (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There), while others I wasn’t sold on when I caught them initially, but I came to love them when I watched them again (Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski). But if I had to pick out one movie of theirs that’s paradigmatic of how much their work improves with additional viewing, it’d be Barton Fink. The first time I saw it, I loved it; I was stunned by the great performances, the skill of the black humor, and the incredible mood generated by the set design and cinematography. But it wasn’t until I watched it again (and, to be honest, again) that I recognized the quality that made it not just a good movie, but a great movie: the depths of meaning in its satire, the complex layers of meaning, the way it turned profound questions about the creative process into a sort of metaphorical noir mystery. Especially with technically gifted directors like the Coens, your first viewing is always going to be overwhelmed by the way the message is being delivered, and that’s fine, but the second viewing is vital so you don’t miss the message itself.

Jason Heller
I caught maybe a quarter of the episodes of Arrested Development’s original airing on Fox. I’ll admit, it was hard for me to get into. The fact that there were storylines and relationships I wasn’t entirely up on wasn’t the big deal; rather, the whole voice and tone of the show was tough for me to sink my teeth into while watching it only sporadically. All I really walked away with was the impression that the people making Arrested Development were obsessed with cleverness for its own sake. When I bought the series on DVD, I was able to fill in all the blanks and really get a handle on just how densely layered, loose yet controlled, and multi-dimensionally hilarious the show is. But when I watched the whole series through a second time, everything came into sharper focus. My prior immersion in the show’s tightly wound visual and comedic vernacular meant I was able to finally just sit back, absorb, and enjoy. And, of course, it wound up being the gift that kept on giving, seeing as how Arrested Development is the epitome of a work of art that reveals more every time you experience it. My taste for ostentatious self-reference has definitely waned as I’ve gotten older and seen it misused—or substituted for substance—far too many times, but the fact that AD so brilliantly swallows its own tail reminds me that overbearing cleverness can still be a force for good in the world.

Sam Adams
Pretty much anything worth watching is better the second time through (although I warn you, Leonard, around viewing seven or eight, the John Mahoney parts of Fink start to seem a bit overworked). My rule of thumb is that for a movie to make it onto my year-end list, it has to stand up to multiple viewings, which is how A Perfect Getaway got knocked off last year. (I enjoyed the hell out of it first time round, but once you know the big twist, it no longer seems to play fair.) Some movies, of course, improve more than others: It took me three or four viewings to get past the immense surface pleasures of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (with Elliott Gould as a lugubrious Philip Marlowe in 1970s Los Angeles), to appreciate how neatly the theme of duplication—movie-star impressions, surrogate corpses, and John Williams’ magnificent variations-on-a-theme score—is woven throughout, with a subtlety that puts more ostentatious meta-remakes like The Good Thief to shame. What’s far rarer, for me at least, is for my opinion to change course with multiple viewings. As a critic, especially one who learned at the virtual feet of Pauline Kael, I put enormous stock in visceral reactions; if a movie doesn’t grab me first time out, the most repetition can accomplish is a grudgingly intellectual admiration. (That isn’t to say I have to get it right away, but I need a sense that there’s something to get.) I’m amazed at how often the judgments of my mid-30s match up with those of my late teens, which you may take as a sign of aesthetic constancy or stunted growth as you wish. One of the very few exceptions is François Truffaut’s Jules And Jim, which I was first exposed to in a college French class, but didn’t warm to until my late 20s. It didn’t hurt that the second (or possibly third or fourth) time, I knew to expect the hairpin-turn ending that enraged me as an undergrad. But the main factor was that I’d had my heart broken in the interim, and been exposed to the messy, frayed-nerve chaos of a relationship that starts out perfect and ends in flames. I can’t say it’s one of my favorite Truffaut films even now, but I’ve lived enough to appreciate where it’s coming from.

Scott Gordon
I’d agree with Leonard and Tasha that the abundance of plot and narrative craft can make a movie (especially Barton Fink) worth savoring again, but what about the opposite? The first time I ever watched Monty Python And The Holy Grail, I was not only young and unused to Monty Python’s humor, I was also—foolishly!—expecting the movie as a whole to begin making sense at some point. My brain was effectively behaving like the Graham Chapman character who interrupts Flying Circus sketches and admonishes that they’re too silly. On second viewing, I was resigned to the fact that I’d never figure out whether Arthur had indeed reached “The Castle Ah,” and that indeed the film only comes to its sloppy conclusion because it does theoretically have to end at some point, and nothing’s really supposed to be at stake. Freed from the concerns one usually has when watching a competently made film, I could concentrate on more important matters, like memorizing the “brave Sir Robin” song and puzzling over whether coconuts migrate.


Kyle Ryan
Okay, I had a few reasons for seeing Trainspotting in the theater a second time: My girlfriend wanted to see it, and I tore a contact lens about a third of the way through my first viewing when I rubbed my eye, but mostly, I couldn’t understand what the hell people were saying. The Scottish brogue seems especially difficult for American ears, so much so that director Danny Boyle re-recorded some dialogue to make it easier for Yanks to understand. (Mission accomplished?) This may sound a little trite, but once I knew where the movie was headed, it became much easier to understand the references and snappy dialogue. The first time through, Trainspotting’s cleverness struck me. The second time, it became a much richer experience. That dead baby crawling on the ceiling still looks ridiculous, though.

Jason Heller
It’s pretty hard to flat-out hate Dazed And Confused. The movie disarms most antipathy by more or less acknowledging its own shortcomings—and, in fact, making them part of the fabric of the film. Accordingly, I only sort of mildly shrugged when I first saw Dazed And Confused soon after its release in 1993. I’d loved Richard Linklater’s previous film, Slacker, and Dazed retains that shifty yet inexorable rhythm. But Linklater douses Dazed with so much pot-fogged ’70s nostalgia, it came across as cloying rather than poignant. (And I’m someone who started feeling nostalgic for the good ol’ days when I was about 15.) But the first time I rewatched Dazed a few years later, everything clicked. Granted, the movie still feels squishy in the middle, and Linklater’s inability to linger satisfyingly on a single character or situation remains a little maddening. But after my own tastes mellowed a bit, I think I was better able to appreciate the way Linklater appropriates the listless, plotless teen dramedy and turns it into something far subtler, and paradoxically timeless. Calling Dazed And Confused a tone poem or bildungsroman may be stretching it, but it is, in many ways, the cinematic equivalent of a classic-rock guitar solo. And what do you know: I like those a lot more now, too.


Claire Zulkey
I felt a little disappointed by Community on my first viewing of the season, but then came to appreciate it much more when I watched it in reruns. l admit I have a crush on Joel McHale, so when I first watched the show, it was pretty much for him. I felt a little let down that his character wasn’t terribly funny, and in the meantime, irritated by the meta-pop culture skew of the show. Like, what, this show thinks it’s so clever or something? Pfft. I think once I realized the show isn’t really all about Joel McHale and gave it another shot, I was able to focus more on the writing and ensemble cast, and realize how witty the pop-culture references can be. I think in general, I like NBC Thursday-night comedies much more on the second time around, because I’m not so hyper-expectant: “Okay, Thursday night: MAKE ME LAUGH AND FORGET ALL MY WORRIES!”