By James Hibberd
Updated October 16, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Puppet Reaction
Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

What does it creatively take for a new TV drama series to become a widespread hit? How intensely exciting, how amazingly written, how compellingly acted, how many spectacular special effects does it require to sustain the interest of 10 million-plus viewers?

I was thinking about that when I saw this photo on Reddit. It’s from 1963 and was taken of a crowd watching a Paris puppet show, “the moment the dragon is slain.”

Puppet Reaction
Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Now take a group of people today, of any age, and put them into state-of-the-art IMAX theater with a 72-foot wide screen with a DTS six-channel sound system. Show them a $200 million-dollar summer movie — in 3D, no less — and you still probably won’t get a reaction like that. You’re unlikely to inspire that huge level of communal horror, shock and joy.

Maybe it was just one awesome puppet show.

Or maybe we’re just getting really, really hard to please.

You’ve already heard that TV nowadays is better than ever, and better than movies. You’ve seen stories debunking the Golden Age of Television myth, noting a typical drama from the 1960s-80s that routinely delivered 25 million viewers a week has a tough time creatively holding up by today’s standards. Most were predictable, the same story told slightly different each week, with unconvincing sets, static camera angles, and lackadaisical acting. The cinematic quality and uncompromising character-driven storytelling of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Homeland and many others is like nothing we’ve seen on TV before.

So if TV is better than ever, why is it so hard to launch and sustain a hit show on one of the major networks? ABC’s Revenge, CBS’ The Good Wife, Fox’s Fringe are among many acclaimed dramas that perform to varying degrees of ok-ness (and let’s not even start on the underdog comedies, like Community, Louie and Parks & Recreation). Online, there is a common refrain among fans of cult favorites: This show is so amazing, I don’t understand why more people don’t watch it.

Take ABC’s Last Resort. The pilot averaged a score of 84 out of 100 on Metacritic, most reviewers say it was a pretty spectacular hour of TV — one helluva puppet show. Yet ratings have been soft and getting softer. Another new ABC drama, Nashville, likewise had great reviews, and opened to a similarly meh 9 million viewers. NBC’s Revolution is doing pretty well, though also gets plenty of criticism from even its fans (the clothes are too new, the sword fights aren’t well staged enough, etc).

So why is it so tough to launch a big hit drama? Here’s the standard explanation: “There’s increasing competition across cable and the Internet vying for our attention.”

But I’m starting to think that’s only part of the reason. And the rest of it is because of our standards keep rising, whether we want them to or not. Our expectations drift a little higher each season for what we consider to be an acceptably funny joke, an appropriately convincing romance, a truly suspenseful cliffhanger, a genuinely shocking twist. Psychologists call it habituation — our ever-flexible ability to become accustomed to a new exciting stimulus. It puts nearly impossible pressure on Hollywood’s talent community to keep us happy and engaged.

So is having rising standards a good thing, in this case, because as a result we demand and receive so much incredible entertainment from Hollywood? Or is it bad, since we now need our entertainment to be so consistently amazing to make us feel satisfied?

Ironically, the biggest freshman drama last season was Once Upon a Time. The show’s heroes slew, not one, but two dragons.