The problem with 22 episode seasons

Is it time US TV networks slimmed down their season orders? Simon argues the case for shorter runs...

The announcement from ABC of the finale date for season one of the bumpy Agents Of SHIELD has revealed that the finale of Marvel’s high profile TV show will land 231 days after the premiere. That’s 33 weeks, over which a 22 episode season has – in the past few months been dribbled out.

Putting aside the numerous complaints aimed at the show, it means that episode 22, the last of season one, will screen on May 13th. Sadly, for those trying to follow the show, the erratic scheduling has made the job several times trickier than it needed to be. Whilst the first ten episodes ran on a weekly basis, since then, it’s been anything but. We had two episodes in January, one in February, two in March, and the final, uninterrupted run will start in April.

Why? Well, you have to presume that the sheer demands of the production schedule have something of a hand in it. The tradition of US television networks is to order the first 13 episodes of a series up front, and then take an option on another nine episodes. If a show is doing particularly well, it might get the full order in one go. But in the case of Agents Of SHIELD, the order for the back nine episodes was announced on October 10th 2013 – over two weeks after the show had premiered.

Appreciating that all concerned are hardly starting from scratch at that point – scripts will, for the most part, be in place, and there will be options on the cast and crew – it still seems a merciless schedule. Assuming everyone got to work the week before, it means the chances of having an interrupted block of episodes in the second part of the season is virtually nil. Particularly on a show as technically demanding as Agents Of SHIELD.

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Lost fell prey to this too. Season two of Lost kicked off a run of ten episodes, that allowed it build up momentum, hook viewers in, and keep them coming back. Then it took the traditional mid-season break, which in itself isn’t a problem. But when it returned, its schedule was all over the place. We got three episodes, then a two week break, another two episodes, then another fortnight break. One more, then three weeks away, before we at least got a straight block of four again. Then the show was off screens for nearly a month, before the final four episodes of Lost season 2 were broadcast on a weekly basis again.

How are you supposed to follow that? No wonder we tend to binge on boxsets. In the case of Agents Of SHIELD, it’s become the latest show, I’d argue, to fall prey to the incessant need from US networks to have 22 episode seasons. Heck, even if it had been firing on all cylinders, it’d take something quite special to get any kind of momentum going with such an erratic schedule. But then Agents Of SHIELD is beholden to a US TV scheduling tradition that sees shows debut a season in September, and run through to May. And it’s a system dearly in need of a change.

There’s another reason why change is needed too. Whilst there are a few shows that make the most of 22 episode season runs, is it any coincidence that the programmes that have been attracting the most acclaim are far tighter, have fewer episodes, are scheduled in one run, and have a real sense of momentum as a result?

Breaking Bad is the recent poster child for this. Whilst nominally its final season was said to be 16 episodes, it was clear from the offset that this was semantics. The first part of season five would run to eight episodes, then the show would be off air for a year, then the final eight would run. That’s two seasons by pretty much anyone’s definition.

What about the recent True Detective? Freed in many ways from the need to adhere to a network TV schedule, it ran for eight episodes in one block. Off the back of that, it’ll be selling boxsets for years. Keep going down the list of drama series that have earned particular acclaim in recent years, and very few of them are beholden to the 22 episode requirement.

In the UK, 22 episodes has always seemed excessive, but then we’re schooled on a six episode run of a drama series as a rule. The recent Line Of Duty season two was both brilliant, and managed to put across a nuanced, interesting, character-filled story in six hours of television. Any longer, and could it possibly have kept the mood that served it so well throughout its run? Sherlock takes it even further: we get three episodes at a time, have to wait two years for them, and the internet melts when they arrive, because it feels something akin to a special treat.

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Doctor Who is perhaps the series that gets the longest consistent order in British drama, but even that’s never had more than 14 episodes in one calendar year since its 2005 revival.

The problem, of course, isn’t necessarily in the 22 episode approach itself. It’s in the one-size-fits-all-and-damn-the-consequences. Comedy shows tend to do better out of it (and they sometimes get a 30 episode order, although that tends to include doubles), but even they have had to occasionally resort to the bottle episode – so wonderfully lampooned by Community – just to meet the season order demand.

Most commentators and viewers agree that we’ve seen a seismic shift in television since the 1990s, both in the dramas that have become successful, and how we tend to watch them. That the 22 episode season order is still a thing is perhaps the last remaining dinosaur of the era before.

Fair enough: if there’s a story that spans 22 episodes, or there are 22 good stories you want to tell in a given season run (The West Wing, particularly in its early years, was expert at this) then fair enough. But US network television in particular must surely see that the time has come for something to give. What’s the point in stretching a season so far, that it means you can’t even schedule it on subsequent weeks? That it means the show’s creators are scrabbling around for affordable episodes to slot in, without falling victim to the dreaded ‘filler’ episode feeling? And that it means the overall narrative, momentum and feel of a season arc is damaged?

It’s a gamble for network television certainly, but the Breaking Bads, the Mad Mens and Sopranos of this world knew when to call time on a season. As a result, it meant they could each tell more stories ironically enough, as it earned them more seasons by which to focus new narrative strands. Would each have got more seasons if they were required to deliver 22 episodes apiece a year? Would they have the same impact? And would they all still be making significant revenues for the companies that funded them?

I put it to the television industry that there may just be another way forward, and that the old way might not be working so well anymore…

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