February 8, 2023

The long and the short of it

A while back, I was reading a thread—I think it was on Twitter—that asked a simple question: Would you start watching a show knowing that it was had already been cancelled? I was particularly interested in someone who replied that, sure, if there was a final episode that provided a resolution, they'd watch, but if the series ended without a resolution, they wouldn't even start. (Coronet Blue would, I suppose, be the preeminent example of the kind of show they're talking about, although that didn't prevent it from becoming a cult classic.)

What interests me the most about this conversation is that it highlights how much television watching has changed over the decades. Many people today never knew, or don't remember, the days when most television series consisted of self-contained episodes, with stories that began and ended within the episode. If the story was really big, it might rate a two-parter, or in rare cases even a three-parter, but that was about it. No, today's television viewers are used to a series that is essentially one very long episode with a story that begins with the first episode and ends with the last episode, at which time the question which has been with us since the beginning comes to a resolution. Of course, real life often isn't quite that neat; there are many, many things over the course of a lifetime that are never resolved or are so inconsequential (a meal is cooked and consumed, the dishes are cleaned and put away) that they would never work as a series-long story arc. Our modern-day desire for "closure" can result in a great deal of frustration, because that's not the way life is.

Although it wasn't the first series to have a final episode, when it comes to wrapping up the storyline, most people think of The Fugitive, and Dr. Richard Kimble's elusive search for the one-armed man who had killed his wife, while he in turn is being hunted by Lieutenant Gerard, the man who wants to return him to death row. You'd think that perhaps the ending to this saga had been written at the very outset, but it hadn't; in fact, Quinn Martin had to be talked into providing an end for the series. He feared that doing so would damage the show's prospects in syndication—who would want to watch it when they already knew how it would end? This is precisely the opposite way of thinking from that which we saw in that Twitter thread, but times change.

(By the way, one of the things that made The Fugitive's final episode unique was that it 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 was, in fact, the final episode, and it was an extraordinary way to end the series. And it happened because Quinn Martin needed to be convinced to do it, which meant a conventional airing date of May/June wasn’t possible, and the network decided to go with the next best thing. Still, you have to admit that even if it was accidental, it was a stroke of genius, a felix culpa.)

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In replacing episodic television with increased serialization, it's sometimes said that the new way of looking at things is more realistic, allowing for an opportunity to explore the story in more depth, more detail. Now, I'll grant that the traditional episodic form of a series such as, let's say, Perry Mason, can leave something to be desired; an attorney who specializes in trial law can hardly be expected to try 30+ cases a year. We didn't really think about that, though; we relied on being entertained for one hour each week by Perry and his latest case and didn't try to fit it all into some larger puzzle. (Hopefully, Peacock's new hit Poker Face can help revive, at least in some cases, the idea of contained episodic television.)

A series like this didn't need a final episode, because there was no overarching theme that required resolution. It was just a series of snapshots of a very successful attorney's life, and if you were willing to overlook the flaws inherent in the construction of said series, it was a template that could be applied to the lives of most of us; life was simpler back then. As I said, real life isn't nearly as neat as television can make it out to be. In that way, Coronet Blue was probably more realistic than we'd like to admit; Michael Alden didn't have any guarantee that he'd ever figure out what "Coronet Blue" meant, any more than Dr. Kimble was guaranteed he'd find the one-armed man. By being more realistic, television can also be less realistic, and if you can figure that out, then you're way ahead of the game. Life also isn't always lived on an epic scale; I'm nearly 63 and I'm still waiting to figure out what my storyline is. 

One of the other trademarks of the new television (if we can call it that) is the shorter number of episodes in a season. Back in the day, the average television season for a series could consist of anywhere between 28 and 39 episodes; today, somewhere between ten and 12 is more likely. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, viewers can binge-watch an entire season over a weekend, and can catch up on a long-running series over a few weeks. This makes sense on a couple of levels; if your series is going to tell a unified story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, you've got to make it digestible for the viewer. Watching the whole season in two or three days makes the story more cohesive, easier to remember and follow, without the writers having to spend time recapping the story or using clumsy techniques to remind us of what's going on.

It's also said 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, and it's probably 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.

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But let's go back to The Fugitive for a minute. There were 120 one-hour episodes of The Fugitive 4(an average of 30 per season), and 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, terrific on its own terms, but it all happened just too fast; it lacked that sense of ordeal that Kimble had suffered. If The Fugitive were made today, 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 for just 17 episodes, after all, 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.

So there are the requirements for today's successful television series: it needs to tell a serialized story with a beginning and end, and it will probably run for about a dozen episodes. In that respect, modern television most closely resembles the old miniseries, a genre that was hugely popular but, at its peak, ruled for a relatively short period of time. 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 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.

Today's modern series, with the beginning, middle, and end, have copied 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, Game of Thrones, is that the book generally runs out of material before the series runs out of time (or, in the case of GOT, isn't even written yet). 

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You could call this the long and the short of the new television: longer storytelling, stretched over an entire series; and shorter seasons, designed to be compatible with the new storytelling.

What we’re missing, I think, 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 American 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. TV  


  1. The last network series I enjoyed were Fringe, Elementary, and Person of Interest. I think Elementary was the last to end, and I remember thinking, "that's it for series TV on networks" when the final episode aired. I do still enjoy series on PBS like All Creatures Great and Small and the various Mystery series, but you're right to note that the seasons are all very short nowadays. My wife and I heard the raves about Poker Face but couldn't stomach 10minutes of the first episode due to violence, juvenile humor, and cursing.

    1. RE: "Poker Face" - those are all things which "Columbo" never needed in order to succeed.

  2. I pretty much agree with you here. As I said on Twitter I think the serialized nature of TV today is for the most part a good thing but the seasons are way too short. Sometimes a grand story that they try to pack into 12 episodes needs space to breathe. I know the soap opera genre is a little different but I was, and remain a huge fan of DALLAS back in the '80s. That show had some filler due to the length of season but that also allowed the writers to hone in on the characters. You knew EXACTLY how a J.R. would react to some wrench in his plans or how a Bobby and Pam would get over marital difficulties. In TV today you have a general idea of a character but they're not nearly as fully realized as they could be. The great series today can do it but there's a lot that don't.

    I do like your comparison to the Miniseries. I hadn't necessarily thought of that before but it's quite applicable as some of the best shows today do have some literary source to them. Hell, now we're seeing series based on video games! (HALO & The Last of Us respectively) Actually, now I kind of hope Rockstar Games can strike a deal with a streaming service and adapt one of the GTA games (GTA IV readily comes to mind for me)

    Thanks for alerting me (and others) to this article of yours. It was well worth the read.

    1. Appreciate the kind comments! It got me thinking about something I haven't really specified before, and I should have included it at least in passing - while I've criticized aspects of serialization, one of the things that I do approve of is carrying over incidents or statements of fact.

      In other words, if some event happens in S1E4, it should still be an established fact in S6E2. Most series do have "bibles" that cover that kind of consistency, but to the extent that facts and occurrences and character traits carry over from episode to episode, I approve.

  3. The need for an ending is something which really frustrates me, although I might be unusual in that. It means we always know that a show or film will be funneled into one of the classic plots we humans love. For this reason I love rare films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or The Anniversary where nobody lives happily ever after.

  4. The last series I watched from beginning to end was LOST. By the time I got to the end of it, I was exhausted. These days, I just find it too much trouble to start at the beginning of a series and catch up to where it is now. I prefer episodic television, where each episode is self-contained. Yes, I'm old-fashioned.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!