August 16, 2017

The long and the short of it

More, as we know, is not always better; in the immortal words of Captain Kirk, “Too much of anything, Uhura, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.” And so it’s understandable how, as Ben Lindbergh pointed out in this recent article at The Ringer, there are some definite positives in the continued shrinking of the average television season. That season, which once ran as long as 39 episodes for some series, now averages about 12 or 13, and that’s just an average, mind you; it can be even shorter for some. Given this culture’s proclivity for binging nowadays, that means that, whereas most dramatic series of the ‘70s used to combine new and repeat episodes to fill out an entire 52-week calendar run, today’s short-run series can be wrapped up over a weekend, leaving avid viewers with 51 weeks (at least) to wait before the story picks up again.

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.


  1. The debate of the length of a TV series is a good one, that’s most apt today, what with many dramatic series lasting maybe 8, 10 episodes a season, but for me at least, it’s not a new one.

    When I was a teen and discovered BBC shows in the 70’s on PBS channel 13 (especially Monty Python & Fawlty Towers) I was confused at the lack of episodes. I was used to my favorite shows airing 20 - 30 episodes a season and here I was REALLY enjoying Fawlty Towers, yet there were only 2 seasons, and ONLY 6 episodes a season! At first I was upset, but over time as I got older, I grew to realize that maybe concentrating on quality was MUCH preferable than quantity.

    Many of my favorite sitcoms growing up, “All In the Family”, “MASH”, The Bob Newhart Show”, etc… had a lot of excellent, great & memorable episodes. But boy, looking back on them, there were many dogs as well (sitting through the last few seasons of a long running sitcom can be painful). This quantity vs. quality distinction, for me at least, really hit home with “The Office”. Gervais & Merchants’s original, only had 14 episodes on the entire run and frankly, there’s not a bad one in the bunch. But compare that to the American version of “The Office”. 188 episodes of essentially the same concept and characters and it’s… not good. Though maybe it’s because it’s “watered down” for American audiences so that it loses the punch of the original, but IMO, it’s this need to churn out 22 episodes a season that they obviously begin to repeat themselves. It all becomes much clearer to me when I have the BBC original to compare it to.

    One last thing about the serialized nature of the modern day drama. This device gives shows like “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men”, “The Sopranos”, etc… that overall story concept. It’s as if we’re reading one long novel about these characters rather than a bunch of one hour short stories and I’m not saying one is better than the other (I can enjoy an episode of “Better Caul Saul” as much as I can an episode of “Mannix”) but the serialized way FORCES a viewer to “have to catch up”, in order to really enjoy a show.

    Years ago a viewer could turn on and watch episode 3 of season 2 of “Barnaby Jones” and enjoy it without the need of having to go back and watch the previous 15 episodes first. Shows these days, while perhaps more densely written and of a higher quality, makes it nearly impossible for a casual viewer to watch or a newbie to catch on to.

    Without spending a whole weekend binge watching, just to catch up. And who really has the time to do that these days?

    1. The same thing could be said of one of my favorite science fiction shows - Babylon 5. It was meant to run 5 seasons and - by the grace of TBS - was able to do just that. It's creator, Michael Strycinski had meant for it to be a novel seen in separate parts.

      To be sure some of those parts were better then others. But it created a storyline that was consistent and it stuck to that story line. Yes, you had to keep up with it almost weekly but in my opinion the show was so good you didn't want to miss it.

      George E.

  2. ... If a series has ten really good episodes in a season, and the rest mediocre to poor, that series will succeed.

    That's a quote (approximately, anyway) from Efrem Zimbalist Jr., in an interview he gave late in his life.
    Zimbalist was talking about 77 Sunset Strip, which in its heyday produced thirty-plus episodes a season - one year they actually made forty-one shows (having rotating stars helped a lot).
    As I think I brought up here a while back, MeTV has been running 77SS in the overnight hours for some time now (they're up to Season 5). I hope they keep it up for another cycle or so, and maybe mix in the other Warner eyes, who turn up in crossovers all the time anyway - but that's another story ...

    On a semi-related topic:
    Where does this theorem deal with soap operas, which run arcs upon arcs, in some cases going back years (even decades)?
    A few weeks back, I put up a friendly challenge to you (and anyone else who happened to read the post) that you take a look at an episode of Edge Of Night from October 21, 1983, and give me your reactions to what you saw. I had a couple of reasons for choosing that particular show, relating to other matters that arose here at different times.
    Regrettably, as of today, nobody seems to have taken me up on this.
    So, in service of my own orneriness, I'm doubling down.
    In my New Challenge, I invite one and all to do a little belated "binge-watching".
    If you have YouTube, search out Edge of Night for the dates of October 31 through November 15, 1983 - thirteen half-hour shows, which are actually a scoche more than twenty minutes or so without commercials.
    Basically, it's the equivalent of watching about three feature films, and you can divide the episodes any way you want to.
    (If you like, you can use that October 21 show as a kind of "teaser-trailer".)
    I'm not telling you anything about what you'll see, beyond the fact that the first ten shows start with "Monticello. The Day Before The Election.". In other words, it's all happening over the course of a single day and night. (Frankly, if that doesn't grab you, I don't know what will ...)
    So there's my Challenge to all who read this.
    Any takers?

    1. Michael, apologies on the Edge of Night challenge, which I have been planning to take, but I've had one of those real-life weeks, so I'm hoping to get to it by the end of this week. I have not forgotten it, though.

      Very interesting question you're posing on the soap operas. I'd be interested to hear some discussion from others on this. I know people have always tended to put soaps down dramatically, and the fact that the plots move at such a slow (some might say glacial) pace - but, then, is that necessarily a detriment? If I'm reading between the lines correctly, I think that's at least partly what you're getting at with your new challenge.

      Anyway, I'll get back to you on this; looking forward to hearing from others in the meantime...

    2. Not to be a pest about this ...

      If you haven't gotten around to my Edge Of Night bingelet yet, I just remembered one earlier episode you ought to look at before you do all the others.

      August 26, 1983.
      This is the finale of the previous whodunit (the murder of a beloved character), with the culprit blurting out the start of the story to which "The Day Before The Election" is the climax.

      Kicking off a story in August, and wrapping it up in November - that does tie in with that whole business about how "slow" soaps were supposed to be, doesn't it?

  3. I've been reviewing two series from the 1950s, when the norm was well over 30 episodes per season, LOVE THAT BOB (THE BOB CUMMINGS SHOW) and MAVERICK.

    LOVE THAT BOB had 17 episodes during its initial half-season (Jan-June 1955) and then averaged 39 shows per season for the remaining 4 years it ran. As you might guess, there were some duds, but also some really funny episodes. Probably good 70-75% of the time, which is impressive given the high number of episodes they had to come up with. I think the final season saw a dropoff in quality; not coincidentally, they were down to just two writers (Henning and Wesson) for most of that season. Not that there weren't some good shows remaining, but the batting average was much lower, and the reliance on big name guest stars was noticeably higher.

    MAVERICK on the other hand had 27, 26 and 27 episodes during its first three seasons. Like SUNSET STRIP, it had rotating leads who sometimes appeared together. Astoundingly high quality scripts during Season 2, well above average during the other two seasons. By Season 4, the best creative minds (Marion Hargrove, Roy Huggins, Douglas Heyes, etc) were gone, along with star James Garner. Inexplicably, production ramped up to 32 episodes for that season, and the scripts were the worst IMO of the show's 5 seasons. Cutting production back to 13 episodes for the final season resulted in something of a creative rebound.

    39 shows per year can work, so can 10, but I have to have a little more admiration for the crews that can put out 4 times the episodes in a year while still producing mostly quality TV.

  4. I am with Hal on this. While there are exceptions such as late-Maverick as he observes, I find the consistency in quality to be exceptionally high for 1950s-'60s TV series that topped 30 episodes per season. That quality is even more astonishing when you consider how most of the scripts were written by the same writers- the four geniuses on the 'I Love Lucy' staff, Roswell Rogers and Paul West on 'Father Knows Best,' Sterling Silliphant on 'Naked City,' etc. As someone who watches more TV from this era than from what is available now, I am delighted to have so many episodes to choose from.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!