This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Can you ever have too much of a good thing?
Said question jumped into my mind earlier this year upon realizing that it would take one episode of surreal hacker drama Mr. Robot longer than an hour to reach the end credits.
More than at any time in US television’s past, we’re receiving an influx of elongated episodes. They used to be limited to around forty five minutes, but now it’s not unusual for some to stretch past the sixty minute mark.
And these aren’t in the form of an opening pilot or epic season finales. You can predict those, allowing you to mentally prepare yourself for a near feature length running time.
Nowadays, you might casually turn on the fourth part of a 12-episode series and find that your plan to sneak in a quick forty minute TV drama before beddy byes is immediately foiled by an overzealous writer who really needs an extra 20-plus minutes to fit everything in this week.
Game Of Thrones. Fargo. Daredevil. House Of Cards. Jessica Jones. These US dramas and plenty more are susceptible to epic running times on seemingly random occasions. Kurt Sutter’s Sons Of Anarchy was one of the worst offenders of recent times, some episodes in its final season reaching a whopping one hour and seventeen minutes. There’s only so much nihilistic motorcycle gang violence a person can take.
So what’s led to this, and does it mean we’re experiencing a convergence of extra TV gold, or could some shows do with chopping down their run times?
This curious situation is one that, twenty years ago, would have been unthinkable. US networks were still king, and they had plenty of ads to squeeze in. Programs would have to keep their running times to a set limit to allow the requisite amount of advertising to break up their narrative. Writers would know how many advert breaks there needed to be, and the course of a story would ebb and flow to that specific design.
Nowadays, that seems almost quaint. With the rise of cable channels like HBO and the more recent advent of online streaming via Netflix and Amazon Prime, whole new avenues have opened up whereby a script doesn’t need to include set-ups for ad breaks. In fact, if you’re in charge of one of the most watched premium dramas in the world – hello, Game Of Thrones – then it’s not going to be a problem to pen a longer episode than normal (complete with expensive battle scene, natch) and then let the HBO schedulers worry about it.
Streaming shows were the next step in that evolution. There is no schedule on Netflix, just thousands of installments of various TV productions swimming around in the digital ether, ready to appear at the click of a button. What does it matter if it’s 40 minutes or an hour and a half? And if you’re sat there binge watching, it can all blend into one homogenous viewing experience anyway. The length of what you’re watching becomes irrelevant. It will start, and it will end.
For a drama like Mr. Robot, which is broadcast on a network that uses advertising, the super-sized episode has become partly about boasting, and partly about the power of the modern TV showrunner. Sam Esmail’s entertaining attack on capitalism got plenty of awards attention in its first season, picked up solid audience figures and managed to hop onto the zeitgeist – so come season two, if Esmail wants to write something that’s a bit longer, USA Network look to keep him happy by granting him his wish, whilst also getting extra helpings of their new jewel in the schedule. That’s the very definition of a win win. But is it a win for the audience? Are writers being indulged too much in detriment to the programs that they create?
Take that aforementioned episode of Mr. Robot, entitled eps2.2_init_1.asec. While it has moments of significant plot development regarding the genesis of the fsociety hacker group and a secret FBI surveillance operation, it’s undoubtedly a much slower experience, one that would likely benefit from losing ten minutes of extraneous detail.
Even Esmail admitted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly last year that bigger isn’t necessarily always better, saying that “as a viewer, I know that if I have to watch a 65 minute episode that night….I know I’ll probably watch half of it and then watch the rest the next night. Sometimes it’s good to just get a 42-minute episode, so you can sit there, watch it and bang it out in a night.”
He later went on to defend the pacing of those longer scripts, adamant that they can still produce compelling drama, but you get the feeling that some shows are delivering longer episodes just because they can, not necessarily because the story demands it. Even the most diehard fans would have to admit that the sixth season of Game Of Thrones suffered significantly from pacing issues, so credit to the Thrones creators for announcing that the final seasons will be considerably shorter.
Can we blame these writers for indulging themselves, though? Many of them have spent a large chunk of their careers writing for network television and now find themselves in the pleasurable position of not having to slice up their story in order to leave room to sell beauty products.
There’s also a very convincing counter argument that even by adding an extra ten to fifteen minutes here and there, these shows – which usually run to either ten or twelve episodes per year – are still producing far less content than programs still shackled to the network way of doing things.
Dramas like Elementary, Supernatural and The Flash produce well over 20 episodes per year, running from autumn to late spring, with a clutch of new ones broken up by repeats. You only have to read interviews with former Star Trek staff writers to understand the pressures of having to come up with so much new content with barely a break in between one season and another.
The Star Trek franchise produced an astonishing amount of scripted drama between the beginning of The Next Generation and the demise of Enterprise, sending a few scriptwriters insane in the process. It’s not a way of working that’s conducive to consistent creative excellence, so it’s promising that upcoming Star Trek series Discovery will be limited to thirteen episodes.
Perhaps the problem lies not with the media, but the person consuming the media. Modern day attention spans seem to shorten by the week. A never-ending barrage of online clutter is barking for our attention, each looking to be shorter and snappier than the next. Lists, videos, snapchats – all brief and spiky.
These long form slices of high quality drama act as a helpful counterpoint to the brevity of 21st century media. These are pieces of art which treasure complexity and depth, things you could argue the advent of our online world has devalued.
Famously, HBO’s The Wire was pitched by its creator David Simon as “a novel for television.” Each instalment would be like a chapter in a book, and maybe that’s the way we should look at a lot of these productions in terms of their structure. Chapters in books are usually wildly different in length. Trying to squeeze every episode of a show into the exact same running time can do a disservice to the story.
Not all of them will be perfect. Some will waffle a bit. Some will take odd diversions.
But that’s a small price to pay for so much of a good thing.