Why Are TV Show Titles So Bad?

It’s never been easier to miss out on new television shows in our overcrowded, borderline suffocating streaming era. As with movies, it seems like the most effective way a series can grab our attention and stay on the air for more than two seasons is if it’s attached to an existing IP. Hence, why we’re getting yet another cursed extension of the Harry Potter universe and a Batman spinoff that’s brazenly Sopranos-coded from HBO. (I refuse to call the streamer “Max” until I absolutely have to!)

Undoubtedly, the shows that escape my radar most frequently are on Apple TV+, where the Emmy-hoarding Ted Lasso, The Morning Show, Severance and Major League Soccer stream. Since its launch in 2019, I’ve found the streamer’s ever-expanding library deeply fascinating and equally perplexing. That is, when I can remember a single title other than the programs I just mentioned.

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I spent a good 10 minutes trying to recall the name of a relatively new series on the streaming service, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Stephan James. I actually enjoyed the show and could give you a detailed summary of the plot. However, with a figurative gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you the name, except that it has two syllables.

Moreover, none of the show’s plot points could help me figure it out. Still, I was so determined to remember what this mysterious title was, like a self-assigned puzzle, that I refused to look online and tried again at another time. After racking my brain over this extremely inconsequential piece of information, I finally broke down and hit up Google. Suffice to say, I didn’t feel like a total fool for failing to remember the deeply compelling and extremely catchy title: Surface.

In the same week, I was confronted with yet another bland Apple TV+ title when I saw people tweeting about a new show that features approximately 80 percent of Hollywood. The new series from Scott Z. Burns, all about climate change, boasts numerous Oscars winners, such as Meryl Streep, Forest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, and other illustrious names, like Diane Lane, Tobey Maguire, Edward Norton, and Keri Russell—plus many more. How this show even came together is worth a separate deep dive. But I’m particularly curious why such an extravagant, star-studded project was given the name Extrapolations.

My amnesia about Surface, Extrapolations and a new Big LiThe Last Thing He Told Me took me to Apple TV+’s list of programs on Wikipedia. And it turns out this streamer has a real problem on its hands. In addition to nearly all of its shows having the same color-grading as antidepressant commercials, these programs have some of the most unappealing titles I’ve ever read.

It’s not that most of these names are vague or only contain one or two words. One of the most talked about shows right now is Netflix’s Beef which, despite being about a figurative “beef,” initially brings to mind food, which everyone loves. There’s, of course, Succession, which is also non-specific. But it immediately evokes drama and the idea of powerful people screwing each other over. I’m even reminded of Girls, which drew attention (and criticism) because of its generic, all-encompassing title despite being a very specific story.

That said, I’m less intrigued after reading the title Suspicion, a British crime drama that premiered on Apple TV+ last year. Apparently, there’s a comedy show called Trying that could be about literally anything. Meanwhile, the spy thriller Slow Horses–although, not about actual slow horses—doesn’t paint a compelling picture in my mind. And the Octavia Spencer-led legal drama Truth Be Told is a pretty generic expression to use for a show about the court system. It also sounds like a fake show within a show.

Even more theatrical names, like The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, are hardly alluring. (I don’t want to spend time with anyone named Ptolemy, let alone in his last days!) I also have to bring up the feminist anthology series Roar, which is obviously punchy. But it’s almost the equivalent of naming a show about women “Yes Queen!”

Lest I forget—I probably will—these honorable mentions: Invasion, Swagger, Black Bird, Shrinking, Little Voice, Little America, and Dear Edward. None of these titles immediately jump out at me or sound more interesting than the other. Even something as direct and on-the-nose as Shrinking, which is about a shrink, could use a little more pizazz, given there’s about a million therapists on television.

Of course, a show’s name has no bearing on its quality, or whatever Shakespeare said. But it’s a crucial part of marketing, especially word-of-mouth. How am I supposed to convince other people to watch a show I like, such as Surface, if I can’t even remember what it’s called? And if, by a miracle, I name it off the top of my head, how are they supposed to remember it?

I know that I’m basically screaming into an abyss. No billion-dollar corporation needs my help or cares about my silly little complaints. Shows become lost to the cultural conversation for a number of reasons. But it doesn’t help if you’re releasing shows with boring-ass titles like Foundation.

Admittedly, this rant is entirely self-interested as two of my favorite actors du jour (and precious babygirls) Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan are starring in an upcoming AppleTV+ miniseries called Masters of the Air. Masters of Sex? I’m in! Masters of…. the Air? Sure, I guess?

On the other hand, one of the most talked about movies out now is simply called Air. And who can forget the theatrical moment that was Plane. So maybe I have nothing to worry about after all.

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