Too long!

OMG– I loved this Atlantic article by Sophie Gilbert on how so many TV shows are now just too long.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept recently due to the novels I have recently given up on reading because they were in desperate need of a good editor.  I gave the Huntress 200 pages before calling it quite because it was an anonymous gift.  Meanwhile, I was really enjoying the first 50 or so pages of People of the Trees (love a great unreliable narrator), but, then, so annoyed as it bogged down on clearly irrelevant details.  Will still probably give it a little more.  Had a great conversation with my oldest son yesterday while walking around a lake about why it is that so many successful authors just write too much.  Presumably, at that point, nobody is really willing to push back hard enough against them.  I was thinking that, perhaps to some degree, a really successful author is one who manages to resist this problem and can still write appropriately succinctly after great success.

So, this Gilbert article is about TV, not books, but it addresses many of the same issues and, as you know, I like me some quality television.  And that is TV that is not bloated and overlong:

Chernobyl, which wrapped up its five-episode run on HBO last week, is one of the more unlikely hits of 2019—a bleak, panicky, emetic drama about a nuclear disaster whose defining stylistic qualities were British accents, a fanatical commitment to historical detail, and a score that sounded like two pieces of metal being scraped together. And yet: I loved it. Lots of other people did, too, so much so that it’s currently the highest-rated drama on IMDb of all time. Chernobyl was urgent. It was the kind of show whose stakes were so high that a two-degree helicopter detour could mean death. It was allegorical. And, best of all, the whole thing concluded in less than six hours.

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that television episodes are getting longer. The paradox of living in this specific cultural moment is that people have less free time than ever and infinitely more things to watch—and yet the powers that be have been compelled to stretch many of those shows into packages that rival, in their running time, the audiobook of Moby Dick. Single installments in dramatic series run 70, 80, even 90 minutes long. Mid-season streaming episodes in which not a single dynamic thing happens reliably last an entire hour…

What’s also noteworthy, though, is that the best TV shows of recent months are the ones embracing restraint. Netflix’s Russian Doll; Amazon’s Fleabag,[emphasis mine]Homecoming, and Catastrophe; Hulu’s PEN15 and Shrill; IFC’s Documentary Now!and FX’s Better Things all craft entire seasons that can be watched in less than six hours. The stories they tell are not only ambitious and evocative, but also concisely rendered. The first episode of Season 2 of Fleabag functions as a one-act play on its own…

The scourge of overlong television episodes—as has been thoughtfully documented by Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture—is a reaction to the rise of prestige television. On premium cable, where shows can fill a whole hour without ads, the 55-minute episode used to be a hallmark of series such as The Sopranos and The Wire. And over time, length came to be correlated with quality, and with TV auteurs who declined to have their genius constrained by such arbitrary forces as “formats” or “editors.” It’s a gendered phenomenon that VanArendonk called “the manspreading of TV,” where creators demand the same time privileges as other prestige dramas, and so episodes creep further and further beyond the boundaries of the 60-minute mark. Overlong episodes have come to be associated with quality, but also with power. All eight episodes of Matthew Weiner’s recent Amazon series The Romanoffs ran between 63 and 90 minutes. Four out of the six final episodes of Game of Thrones ran at least 75 minutes long—not because they needed to, but because who, at HBO, could say no?

Shorter series don’t just represent less of a time commitment. For creators, they mean having to agonize over which scenes matter most, which lines are most crucial for plot and character development. The end result, pruned into its most succinct form, is loaded with intention. As viewers, we don’t need to see and understand everything. Shows that feel fragmented like Atlanta and Better Things, that let us read between the vignettes and scenes we do get to see, can feel bracing. Equally, series such as Fleabag and Russian Doll, which craft scenes around specific purposes and use flashbacks to fill in the rest, show how much can be done within a short space. The result is that they’re redefining what quality looks like on television: Of Vulture’s ongoing list of the best TV shows of 2019, 16 out of 22 on the list run under six hours in total per season. May producers and showrunners only pay attention.

And, just thought of another great example.  I’ve only seen the first episode of Black Mirror season 5, “Striking Vipers,” but my biggest takeaway was that this was a good 65 minute episode, but would have been way better at 45.  But, again, who’s going to tell Charlie Brooker he’s just going too long at this point in Black Mirror’s run.

Of course, there’s still some great hour-long dramas out there– heck Chernyobyl episodes were all just over an hour– but freed from the constraints of network television 60 minute blocks (and only 45 minutes with the ads) too many creators have given us lazy, over-written, television.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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