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Solo Leveling Proves Why the Three Episode Rule Still Matters

2024 has gotten off to one hell of a start in the anime industry. While this is, admittingly, somewhat of a lighter season, there’s one title that’s been getting a ton of praise. That series, which, for many, was one of the most anticipated of the year, is Solo Leveling

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I had originally said back in my Winter 2024 Anime guide that Solo Leveling‘s interesting fusion of Isekai tropes, video game sensibilities, and modern-day setting made it an interesting dark fantasy series that deserved a three-episode watch at the very minimum. And after watching those three episodes, the series gets off on a very strong foot. It violently breaks down any and all expectations you may have had going into it, chews them up, and spits them back out, asserting that it’s not playing by your traditional rules. But that’s the funny thing about recommending you watch the first three episodes of a show – they can be excellent episodes in nearly every sense, but an anime series isn’t just three episodes long. It’s more than that, and from the fourth episode on, my thoughts and opinions on the series dropped considerably.

Why is that? Well, Solo Leveling, much like any other anime series within the past several years, played a game with viewer expectations that has become all too common. In the past few years, you may have heard of something called the “Three Episode Rule.” That production philosophy has become omnipresent in anime culture, and it’s one that virtually every show has to grapple with. Some shows fail that rule, some break it, and then you have shows like Solo Leveling that exploit it. Like it or not, it’s a rule that anime fans live by, and while many critics within the anime community may groan that it has outlived its purpose or that it never served a role at all, I would argue otherwise. The Three Episode Rule is very real and is usually a good indicator of whether a show, like Solo Leveling, is worth your time.

Solo Leveling Proves Why the Three Episode Rule Still Matters

The Three Episode Rule, at its core, is a very simple idea. The main gist of it is that if you want to get into a new anime that is currently streaming or even a classic show, a newcomer should give the series three episodes to sell you on its potential. We all can agree that a first impression is very important, whether it be personal relationships, jobs, video games, and so on and so forth. During those first few moments, we can learn a lot about a person or a situation and make a general assessment of whether we like the person or situation we are in. Plenty of television studios know this, too, so they try to make sure the first episode of a show has something to sell you on it and get you invested. In anime, that usually comes down to some high production values, a killer opening, or a plot hook to really get viewers invested.

But what comes after that first episode? The production values will begin to decline, the momentum established by that intro will slow, and the things that viewers loved about the premiere will be a distant memory. Anime production companies are aware of this, so they try their hardest to make the two episodes after the intro just as important and engaging as the premiere. Not every company does, though, so the anime community has created the Three Episode Rule to try and determine if a series is worth watching. It’s a philosophy that basically admits that you can’t truly judge a series by its first episode alone, and once the bombast and luster of the premiere has worn off, you should watch more of the show before fully committing to it. Once you’re three episodes in, and you’ve seen the routine a show has developed and given the show enough time to convey to the audience what it’s about, then you’ll know if it’s a show worth committing to or not.

Related: All English Dub Voice Actors & Cast List for Solo Leveling

It’s a sound philosophy and one that makes sense. I can only speak from my personal experience, but I find that watching three episodes of a show is probably the best way to determine if you’re going to like it or not. Dozens of shows are coming out each season, and it’s virtually impossible to watch all of them. Having a small system that allots a show one hour to convince you is effective. Each season, I have around a dozen shows that I find interesting, so I watch the first three episodes once they’re done, then make a judgment call if they’re worth continuing or not. Sometimes, this system pays off, like when you have shows like Madoka Magica that keep viewers invested and completely hook them by the end of the third episode. Other times, this system fails, like with a show back in 2021 called Wonder Egg Priority that was bursting with potential and promise after those first three episodes, only to completely collapse in on itself by the end. Still, that’s not necessarily a fault of the show but rather the lofty ambitions of an inexperienced production team, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Solo Leveling Proves Why the Three Episode Rule Still Matters

This brings us to Solo Leveling, a series that ropes you into its world and the situation our hero, Jinwoo, finds himself in at the end of the first episode. He’s locked in a dungeon with an enemy who is unimaginably more powerful than him and already effortlessly killed two of his party members. The next two episodes go on to flesh out the terrible situation, as well as set up the show’s premise where due to a dark ritual caused by this towering titan of nightmare fuel, Jinwoo has been granted the power of a “Player.” What that means to him is somewhat unclear, same with how it applies to this world with its own power system that seems virtually incompatible with his status as a Player. But we learn very quickly that the punishments for failing to complete certain tasks are harsh and severe to the point where you almost want to see him fail just to see what gets thrown at him next.

So, based on those three episodes, Solo Leveling does a stand-up job setting up the rest of the season. The production values were high, and I was roped in. But from the fourth episode on, it’s become evident that the production team at A-1 Pictures has already become a bit too comfortable with the positive reputation that the series has developed in such a short time. They knew, like most anime production studios, that the Three Episode Rule is a very real phenomenon, so now that audiences are already invested, they don’t have to try as hard to keep them coming back week after week. The animation has become a bit sloppier. The uniqueness of the concept has become stale. The hope that those first three episodes had to deliver a dark fantasy epic petered out. Of course, the narrative problems that the show is facing now may also be present in the original source material, but regardless, they’re here, and they’re… dull.

That’s my overall mood after watching Episode 7, the most recent episode at the time of this piece. Jinwoo has become a boring protagonist who no longer has a lighthearted personality and good common sense. In those first three episodes, despite his complete and utter lack of strength, his observation skills and sense of self-preservation made him stand out from other anime protagonists. Now, Jinwoo is physically and mentally a different person and a less interesting one at that. He’s gained exponential strength due to his status as a Player, but with it, he lost the skills that made him so compelling despite being pathetically weak. He’s essentially become just like every other Isekai main character like Rimura from Reincarnated As A Slime or Hajime from Arifureta – characters who are so overpowered that they’re boring to watch now. Solo Leveling tried to remediate this in Episode 7 by having Jinwoo fight against a monster that was leagues above him in terms of strength, but when compared to every other named human character, I can’t help but feel that these potential foes are just going to be weaklings that are deflating to watch Jinwoo fight against, not dissimilar from how I can’t get invested in any side character’s fight in One Punch Man since I know Saitama can one-shot all of them.

Solo Leveling Proves Why the Three Episode Rule Still Matters

Is the series beyond redemption? Of course not, but the longer a show like Solo Leveling goes on, the easier it will be for me to drop it if I don’t see any signs of improvement. I was hooked based on those first three episodes, and I definitely gave the show its fair shake. I saw potential there, and I still see potential now, but I also see a show that is very comfortable to fall into familiar trappings now that it has its audience. This is one of the ever-increasing amount of modern shows that are aware of how important its first three episodes are and will pull out all of the stops to impress in that short amount of space, then start coasting the second it reaches episode four.

I know that the Three Episode Rule is a very polarizing topic within the anime community. I’ve heard arguments stating that it has and always will be relevant when it comes to determining which shows to watch, just as I’ve heard arguments saying that it’s a relic of a bygone era when anime wasn’t as pervasive as it is today. I think that both sides are valid, but the Three Episode Rule does still have value today. First impressions do matter a lot, and this rule is a great determining factor to help a person see if a show is for them. Just be careful of shows like Solo Leveling that will exploit this rule and pull out all of the stops in its beginning, only to consistently take the easy way out time and time again the second those three episodes are over.


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Author
Jesse Lab
Jesse Lab is a freelance writer for The Escapist and has been a part of the site since 2019. He currently writes the Frame Jump column, where he looks at and analyzes major anime releases. He also writes for the film website Flixist.com. Jesse has been a gamer since he first played Pokémon Snap on the N64 and will talk to you at any time about RPGs, platformers, horror, and action games. He can also never stop talking about the latest movies and anime, so never be afraid to ask him about recommendations on what's in theaters and what new anime is airing each season.