From Netflix to HBO, and from Fox to ABC, it seems one of the big trends in genre TV these days is for shorter, miniseries-like seasons. Against the general wisdom that “bigger is better” and “you can’t have too much of a good thing,” it seems that TV consumers are coming around to the idea that great things can come in small packages.
For those that grew up watching their favorite shows on network TV, the increasing prevalence of shorter TV seasons might at first seem quite counter-intuitive. It used to be that the length of a show’s season was a mark of its success; the most highly-anticipated programs would generally begin in the Fall and air new episodes through much of the Winter and Spring, before taking a break for the Summer months.
Admittedly, even in the heyday of broadcast TV dominance the exact length of a season was seldom set in stone: all kinds of factors could effect the length of show’s season, from production costs to contractual negotiations with its stars. George Reeves’ 1950s series Adventures of Superman, for example, went from 26 episodes in its first two seasons to shorter 13-episode seasons from 1954 on, when the series switched to color production. The overall trend towards rewarding popular shows with longer seasons, however, remained broadly consistent, even as individual examples can vary wildly. The classic 1960s Adam West and Burt Ward Batman TV series featured a differing number of half-hour episodes in each of its three seasons; with 34 in the first, 60 in the second, and 26 in its third.
Yet, despite long seasons being the ideal to which most program makers aspired, longer-term storytelling in genre TV remained rare. For decades, self-contained single-episode or two-part stories were the norm. This began to change in the 1990s when a new breed of executive producers, the forerunners to the showrunners of today, began to pursue longer large-scale story arcs that rewarded, perhaps even demanded, a more active and loyal audience.
More casual viewers could still enjoy each episode of these shows on their own merits, dipping in an out if they liked. But they would certainly miss out on some significant developments if they weren’t tuning in regularly and paying attention to the broader narrative, be that the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder on Twin Peaks, the alien colonization conspiracy in The X-Files, the narrative sweep that led to the Dominion War in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or even the many-stranded character, romance and threat-related story arcs that comprised Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Of course, such an approach inevitably creates a tension between the “killer” arc-based episodes and the “filler” stand-alone episodes, especially among a show’s most committed fans. Why not trim out the excess narrative fat and focus screen time (and the show’s budget) on the real meat of the story? This is exactly what shorter seasons deliver.
A key case in point here is HBO’s TV adaptation of Game of Thrones. Based on George R. R. Martin’s incredibly dense and wildly popular fantasy novels, GoT‘s showrunners, D.B. Weiss David Benioff, and could easily have hewn close the sprawling source text and opted for long 22 or 26-episode seasons. Instead, the pair opted to condense and distill the plot into 10-episode chunks for the show’s first six seasons, cutting out a lot of subplots and even more characters along the way to make a tighter, more focused and faster paced show.
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Thrones isn’t cheap; it involves a lot of location shooting and green screen work, but its shorter seasons mean that each episode gets more money on average that it might be possible over a longer season. According to Forbes.com, the show’s sixth season cost roughly $10 million per episode to make. Evidently, HBO stands for Home Box Office for a reason.
But even outside of the budget, the quality of each episode remains high in part because typically there isn’t the time or space for a single plot strand to dominate. Instead, each episode is composed of multiple narrative strands, woven together to make a stronger narrative rope on which the whole series hangs. Even the big episode long battles serve as the bloody confluence of multiple plot threads.
Significantly, despite continuing clamour from fans, GoT‘s showrunners have actually opted to make the show’s last two seasons even shorter, at seven and six episodes apiece.
In the UK, shorter seasons have long been the standard. There are a great many excellent examples I could cite, but if I had to choose just one to recommend, I would pick Ultraviolet, a six-episode genre series from 1998 that has really stood the test of time. The series boasts the structure and realism of a police procedural miniseries, but focuses instead on a contemporary clandestine cold war conflict between humans and vampires. As with GoT, the pacing and writing on the show is incredibly tight and, as a bonus, it also features the considerable talents of a young Idris Elba in one of the lead roles. If that isn’t enough to get you rushing to YouTube (where the show is currently freely available starting with its first episode), I don’t know what is.
Back in the US, you don’t necessarily have to look to streaming services or premium cable for successful short-season shows. Season 1 of AMC’s The Walking Dead was a mere six episodes in length. Likely this compact size was due at least in part to the nervousness of the network’s studio executive over the seemingly risky concept of an ongoing series set in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, but they were certainly won over enough by the results to commission a second season that was double the length.
That first season certainly didn’t lack in ambition. Showrunner Frank Darabont assembled a small team of writers (including Robert Kirkman, the creator and regular writer of the comic series on with the series is based) to efficiently set up set up the central concept and initial core characters in the first three episodes, drawing heavily, but not exclusively, from the opening issues of the source text. The following three episodes then touched on story elements that have gone largely unexplored in the comics, particularly the question of what scientists employed by the Centers for Disease Control, the branch of the US government that would be most engaged in combating an the causes of zombie outbreak, would be doing.
The fact that The Walking Dead‘s spin-off sister series Fear the Walking Dead was also initially commissioned for a six-episode first season seems a further testament to the strength of the shorter format, while the criticism the main show’stroubled second season received for its slower pacing and the decision to set most of the season in and around the Greene family farm, would seem to stem from its increased length even though its 13 episode run was split, as with all the show’s subsequent seasons into two parts.
Subdividing a longer seasons is an approach over the air network ABC took one stage further by making the fourth 22-episode season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feel shorter by splitting it into three individuals themed and branded narrative pods each focusing on a separate mini-arc. Judging from viewing figures alone, it seems that audiences were less impressed by the approach, and the show’s fifth season is currently scheduled to begin airing in January 2018 with no breaks, midseason or otherwise, in its broadcast schedule. It remains to be seen whether this approach will prove more popular fans and enhance the show’s ability to retain its more casual viewers.
Marvel’s Netflix series have tended to be shorter than its ABC output, with most averaging 13 episodes. With the notable exception of the recent first season of Iron Fist, they also seem to have met with greater critical acclaim, although it is impossible to compare viewing figures as the streaming platform does not release that data. Aside from the casting controversy surrounding the show’s main character Danny Rand, one frequently cited bone of contention Iron Fist viewers was the show’s pacing, with a number of fans claiming the the show would have worked better as part of a shorter run. Interestingly, Netflix’s upcoming series The Defenders, which unites many of Netflix’s Marvel superheroes in a single team, will only run for eight episodes.
Eight appears to have been the magic number for not just for Legion, Fox’s recent idiosyncratic and highly-stylized mutant-themed co-production with Marvel Television, but also for Stranger Things, Netflix’s tale of extra dimensional monsters. Each show debuted highly acclaimed 8-episode runs in the past year, and while both have been decommissioned for longer second series their respective show runners appear set on maintaining the shows narrative focus in relatively short seasons; Legion S2 is set to expand only slightly to 10 episodes, while Stranger Things‘ second season (which should surely have been dubbed Even Stranger Things if there was any justice in the Upside Down) is due to run nine episodes.
That these shows have been recommissioned is cause for celebration, as they are both really good. But even if they had not received a second season, they would both still work as satisfying narratives on their own merits because they have, in the words of the Swiss director and film critic Jean-Luc Goddard, “a beginning a middle and an end,” a sense of unity and completeness that more open-ended series lack. While these attributes are not necessarily intrinsic to shorter seasons, they can certainly make them more appealing to viewers.
At their best, shorter TV seasons are like a small gemstone; glittering, beguiling and seemingly perfect in their structure and scale. Equally any flaws and imperfections they do have would only be more glaring at a larger scale. This is not to say that longer form TV shows can’t be great – they can. Their pauses and asides can bring an enriching depth to the their meandering length, but in a TV landscape littered with the remains of unfulfilling half-finished narratives. Shorter seasons don’t fear the reaper of cancellation, and if they are well designed with a short, complete narrative arc, they are already perfect in their brevity.
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