In 1967, when Quinn Martin decided to bring to a conclusion Dr. Richard Kimble’s four-year chase after the one-armed man, The Fugitive chose a unique way in which to wrap up the series.* The final episode came not at the end of the first-run cycle of episodes, in May or June, but in August, after the rerun season had concluded. The final episode of The Fugitive would, in fact, be the final episode. It was an extraordinary way to end the series, and one which viewers would never stand for today. Or maybe they would – when you consider the hype that series like Mad Men and The Sopranos were able to create over the final half-season, imagine what an enterprising network could to do promote a one-off (or, in the case of The Fugitive’s final two-parter, a two-off) finale.
*It’s possible that, given the relative lateness with which the decision to end the series was made, a conventional airing date of May/June just wasn’t possible, and the network decided to go with the next best thing.
There are, to be sure, a few clunkers in the 120 episodes that comprise the original run of The Fugitive (an average of 30 per season), but through the course of those 118 stories that led up to the final two-parter, a tremendous amount of suspense built up. Yes, we knew that our hero would escape the clutches of Lieutenant Gerard, or whatever ham-fisted local policeman happened to have Kimble in his sites, but that didn’t prevent the viewer from experiencing the sense that Kimble was on a type of epic journey, an Odyssey if you will, crisscrossing the country in search of a goal so elusive that it was only the occasional glimpse of the one-armed man that convinced Kimble it wasn’t all just a dream. The Harrison Ford big-screen version of The Fugitive was swell and all, but it all happened just too fast; it lacked that sense of ordeal that Kimble had suffered. I wonder – could this sense of time and journey, could the epic nature of it all, have been done in just 30 or 40 episodes?
Maybe it could – The Prisoner ran just 17, and yet created one of the most bizarre worlds television has ever seen, one that left viewers and actors alike utterly exhausted when it was done. Had the series lasted longer than it did, I’m not sure anyone could have stood it. For it to have come back for a second season would have been ridiculous. There’s a key difference, though, one that might help answer the question, at least in part. Number 6 (or John Drake, if you prefer) was never someone we actually were supposed to know; it was the enigmatic quality of the show that made it work in the first place. The Fugitive, on the other hand, succeeded precisely because of our ability to know and trust Kimble, to believe that he was innocent of his wife’s murder, and to put our rooting interest in his escape from authority. Therefore, while brevity was an asset to The Prisoner, familiarity was essential to The Fugitive.
These are just two examples, the long and the short of it you might say, but they do raise interesting points about the relative merits of long vs. short television seasons. There’s another aspect to this which Lindbergh mentioned only in passing in his fine article, which I think bears a paragraph or two, and that’s the miniseries. The original concept of the miniseries was to tell a story in an epic amount of detail, far more than could be handled in a traditional movie (even a three-hour or two-part movie), but a story that nonetheless fell short of filling the space necessary to occupy a multiseason series. Rich Man, Poor Man was a huge success at 12 episodes of varying lengths (the sequel was somewhat less successful, possibly because it was written entirely for television); Roots, at eight consecutive nights, was Roots was a success beyond all expectation and triggered an avalanche of miniseries, from Shogun to Holocaust to The Winds of War and the incredibly ambitious War and Remembrance. What these all had in common was that they had literary sources, were of limited duration, and told stories that had finite endings.
Speaking of which: television's approach to storytelling has changed dramatically over the past decade or two. Whereas the classic structure of a season involved a series of self-contained episodes, with the odd two-part storyline but otherwise with no particular order from episode to episode or (barring cast changes) even season to season, this gradually evolved to encompass story arcs that covered multiple episodes (Wiseguy and Crime Story were two of the first series I can remember to successfully utilize this technique, although I'm sure there are other examples), cliffhanger endings that left viewers guessing as to how the next season would begin (effective especially if certain cast members were up for contract renewals), and eventually serialized storylines more reminiscent of soap operas than anything else. With these new constructs providing less and less flexibility in terms of the shape a series takes, it's easy to see why a shorter season might look more attractive.
Today's modern series all seem caught up in providing a finite ending as well, suggesting the existence of one final episode that promises to tie all loose ends together. In other words, they’ve copped the MO of the miniseries, but with the advantage that they’ve not limited to one six or eight week season, but can keep coming back for years and years. The drawback to this, as anyone who’s read the original source material for shows such as, say, The Man in the High Castle, Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards is that the book generally runs out of material before the series runs out of time. House of Cards, for example, is actually the first book of a British trilogy (the other two titles being To Play the King and The Final Cut). When it was made into a TV series (which appeared in the United States on Masterpiece Theatre), it was over three series, each one bearing the name of the book which it adapted. I don’t know what season the U.S. version of House of Cards is in now.
So where have we gotten from this shorter season mania? It is true, as Lindbergh points out, that writing and production quality can be higher when resources don’t have to be stretched as far as they did over the course of a long season. It is also true, in all likelihood, that it is easier to get big-name stars to commit to longer arcs that it used to be, although one of the pleasures of the classic era was in seeing a big-name star appearing in a one-off guest spot, and in the age of the self-contained episode that was usually good enough. In the pre-VCR era the reruns gave you the chance to catch up on what you might have missed during the regular season, which made the 52-week season practical in more ways than one – it kept the show foremost in the mind of the viewers, keeping them poised for the show’s return during the always exciting Premiere Week in September.
What we’re missing is a commitment to our favorite show as viewers, and a concurrent commitment by those shows to us. There was something comforting to being provided with a guaranteed hour of entertainment at the same time every week all year long, save an interruption or two for specials or something unexpected. Yes, as I said at the outset, not all of them were winners, but a lot of them were pretty good, and most of them were at least entertaining. At the end, they usually gave you what they wanted, which was all we usually asked from our shows. The summer season, when some of the series went off the air to give prospective new series a tryout, was what brought shows like The Prisoner to television in the first place
Sometimes I think too many television shows today try to operate on too grand a scale, as if every episode was the second act of Tosca, where the diva gets to sing the show-stopping aria before plunging the dagger into the chest of the villain, thus setting the stage for the grand finale. That kind of emotion is unsustainable over a protracted season, one reason for the truncated seasons. But not every series needs to be Tosca; sometimes it's enough to simply provide, as my friend David Hofstede calls it, Comfort TV. We burn through a season a weekend and look for more, we catch up on a decade's worth in a month, we text and talk and our attention spans grow ever shorter, and then we wonder why our comfort turns to indigestion.