The Long and Short of Television

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about television as a narrative form, while I ponder various creators and their degrees of success and failure with the medium. Television is simultaneously ripe with opportunity and challenge and it’s clear not everyone is up to the task. What television provides is an opportunity for long form storytelling, inherited from the radio serial, inherited in turn from centuries of storytelling tradition across numerous cultures. We humans, we like stories. We like telling them, we like adding to them, we like switching them up and telling them from a different perspective, we love to curl up with a story and drink it all up. Television offers so much, in that regard, but it can also present hazards.

I speak, here, of narrative television. I think there’s also a place for episodic television, and the constraints of time there have less to do with how to tell the story than they do with how long readers will follow the episodes. Which seems to be a pretty long time, judging from the success of some extremely long-running episodic television. I’m not watching many episodic shows right now because I’m not all that into them, but they definitely provide something and can be a fun form to play around with.

The thing about stories is that they take varying lengths of time to tell. Some stories are really suited to epic time frames because there is so much going on and there’s so much to explore. The long reveal over the course of multiple seasons packed with episodes works for those kinds of stories because they’re suited to it. Other stories are shorter and are really not suited to endless runs. In fact, you can ruin a story pretty damn fast by trying to spin it out over too much time, as any writer will tell you; some stories want to be told in 50,000 words, others need 150,000, and trying to bend them to your will is a dicey proposition.

One thing that intrigues me about the way they do television in Britain is the tendency to do very short series, what we would call miniseries in the States. Sometimes a single season, sometimes just a couple, usually with a far lower number of episodes than we see here (HBO, for example, runs 12-13 episodes a season, while the networks go between 21-24 episodes, depending on the show). Time limitations built into the show from the start seem to be more of the culture there, which is something I am starting to like, and think we should maybe consider examining for our own television.

In the United States, we like to do things big and long and epic. There’s kind of a tendency to believe that the larger/longer/bigger/etc., the better it is (including, of course, our adaptations of UK shows *coughs*). I’m not actually sure this is always the case with television and I actually think it can be a pretty fatal mistake to try and drag on narrative drama over the course of too many seasons or episodes.

Looking at shows that run for more than three or four seasons, I start noticing a lot of filler episodes. Some of them are fun and interesting but they do not advance plot. They often bore, annoy, or frustrate viewers because they feel out of place in the larger narrative. The desperation to fill a season shows in these episodes because there’s no character development or deeper exploration of plot, they are just sort of thrown in there. They are the blank pages in the middle of the test booklet; you arrive, you puzzle for a moment, and then you move on.

There’s no earthly reason to do this. And I think the reason so many shows do it is because they get a full season episode order for, say, 22 episodes and don’t know what to do with it. They may sit down and plot things out at the start and try to decide where they want to take the narrative over the course of the season, but 22 episodes is just too many for their storylines. They could stuff with more storylines, but that’s a questionable artistic decision because those tend to show too (I’m looking at you, Lost, with your endless random storylines that peter out and go nowhere). They could try to drag out the narrative, which is generally a bad call, or they could stick in filler, isolated, standalone episodes.

These episodes don’t attract new viewers because you still need to know the show and characters, and they bore current viewers. They really are completely useless. And I suspect the writers know it but feel backed into a corner and don’t know what else to do. The easy solution here would be to shorten television seasons in the United States, and to take shows on contract with fewer seasons right from the start. Say, three seasons of 12 episodes. If you need more time to tell your story, lay it out and show us how, and maybe we’ll give you more episodes or more seasons.

US television doesn’t want to work this way. It thrives on an environment where a few steady workhorses drag in the majority of viewers and new seasons flit in and out each year, unable to build audience and capture enough of a market show to keep going. If television was self-limited and more focused, this wouldn’t be such a big issue. Creators could focus more on developing good, solid content within a known and simple time frame, and could spend less time trying to figure out how to get another season.

All good stories come to an end and the same holds true of television. The fact that most shows in the United States falter, peter out, and then get canceled is a sign that our system is not working. There’s no reason every show shouldn’t go out on a strong, assertive note, instead of a whimper.