At what stage did the casual, lighter fare that I watch become so tricky to keep up with? Plot lines that seem to last for weeks and weeks, plus a myriad of characters whose faces I barely recognise? No thank you. It’s time for some television series to adapt what they are doing and reassess their purpose, and I am outlining the ways in which the current TV market needs to leave the 22-episode format behind if they want to keep up with Netflix.
It is no secret that streaming giant Netflix has altered the way that we consume TV entirely. Suddenly, the focus of the market is upon self-scheduling when you watch your favourite programmes, instead of being drip-fed them by network broadcasters. Most TV is no longer the “event” situation it was, with so-called “water-cooler” conversations all but dropping off except for certain programmes like Game of Thrones and Love Island that have a mass viewership who want to consume the information as soon as possible.
The ability to be presented with an entire season in one go to peruse at your leisure also allows for more ambition and complexity within the storytelling that you have been given. No longer are scriptwriters making it up as they go along, forcing you to endure several weeks of “filler” or “set-up” episodes until they actually get to the point that they’ve badly paced themselves towards when having their initial Writer’s Room meeting for that season. Instead, series like House of Cards can include more references back to what’s happened a few episodes ago – as, in real time for the viewer, it has likely only been a few hours – or at least more within present memory than it would have been if stretched out over a number of weeks.
With this desire to tell one story, we have seen a reduction in episode counts, especially in American seasons. On UK TV, series are typically shorter in length anyway, except for soap operas. Typically, comedy shows come in series of 6 episodes, while dramas come in batches of 13. When I was younger I used to lament the fact that Doctor Who had only 13 episodes a year compared to, say, Charmed or 90210 or Glee who all boasted 22. However, increased episode counts, while working for some series, are detrimental to the storytelling in other series.
There are ways in which a 22-episode series in a serialised format can work. For example, 90210 is essentially a soap opera which employs serialised storytelling structures. Characters lives move from episode to episode, and we rarely have to endure dramatic callbacks, unless a character from the past mysteriously crops up again. The amount we actually have to remember to be able to enjoy an episode is minimal. Glee also had 22 episodes, but since the main event was watching characters singing and dancing around, the main through-line were the relationships between the cast and the promise of a show choir competition at some point. Charmed also used some facets of serialised storytelling, especially when relating the lives and careers of its central characters: here it worked because of the fact that it had quite a small leading cast and therefore fewer individual storylines that the viewer had to hold on to week on week (plus, of course, the fact that there was comparatively much less TV to gorge yourself on in those days, so it was more of an event in the first place). Charmed also toyed with the concept of story arcs – which everybody and his mother now fiddles with – but it never tried to stretch these storylines out for an entire season, instead choosing to have multiple shorter story arcs over the course of a season. For example, there was a time where Phoebe became the Queen of the Underworld which lasted only around 4 episodes, or the fight against the Triad which lasted around 8 episodes in Season 3 or the fight to defeat the Source which hung around the periphery of the first half of Season 4. These storylines were well planned-out and scheduled so that storylines didn’t drop for several weeks to then be picked back up again in a haphazard way. Instead, every episode was still structured like a chapter within a greater story, each featuring its own beginning, middle and end which encouraged viewers to see it week-on-week.
We can therefore see that, before the obsession with telling one epic story became commonplace, shows managed to be successful by having a strong premise that was all you really required to jump in and enjoy your TV programme each week. The pertinent information you might need might be provided for you in a “Previously…” segment if it was going to be especially relevant to what you’re watching, but otherwise your enjoyment is unencumbered by missing a week or two, or if you just want to shove a random episode on the TV.
Another great use of the 22-episode format comes in the form of comedy series. While British comedies tend to stick to shorter episode counts (we like our comedies to be written by the people who star in them, apparently – if Dinnerladies, Miranda, Blackadder and Fleabag are anything to go by. We are very discerning, people – and proud of it. We don’t just laugh at anything, you know), American sitcoms tend towards the 22-episode approach. Why? Because again, comedies exist purely for you to wind down. It’s not escapism or distraction like Game of Thrones might be, but merely something to make you laugh after a hard day. And with only a 20-minute run time, you don’t need to know that much going into the half hour to find it amusing, as the episodes are fairly self-contained, with changes in relationships merely the source of more comedy. Hardly brain itching at all.
Procedural shows like Criminal Minds or NCIS, which have been on for years, can also get away with an increased episode count. People tune in for the individual stories and the mysteries and deduction that are to be found on a weekly basis, as opposed to seeing any sort of development in story necessarily. Sometimes, this may crop up, but it doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of what has happened before to join in with the viewing. You can safely miss a few episodes and still be clued in to what’s going on. Similarly, Waterloo Road, a British TV programme, started to increase its episode counts up to 20 or 30 later in its run, due to the fact that viewers were drawn into the lives of the characters and the individual weekly struggles that would be faced. It essentially became a soap opera, and that worked for it. But it was a drama, and you engage in drama firstly for the premise and also for the characters.
So now let’s focus upon the shows that do not work as 22-episode seasons. Let’s look at the example of Once Upon a Time. A wonderful ensemble cast and a solid premise: that the Evil Queen from Snow White had cast an evil curse that brought all of the fairytale characters who we know and love into a town to be her subjects as Mayor with no idea who they actually were. It told a dual-timeline format between the cursed town of Storybrooke and the past timeline in which we see the backstory of Snow White, Prince Charming, the Evil Queen as well as other fairytale characters we know. This plot device was indeed compelling. For the first season or so. However, it soon became unrealistic and implausible that Evil Queen Regina had actually met and interacted with pretty much every fairytale character they encountered in the past. The tapestries of flashbacks that we received into some characters’ lives are almost impossible to reconcile and put into a solid chronology, and really they should have given up with the conceit of flashbacks as a general rule. Sometimes, it was successful, such as when characters had other curses and had lost their memories, such as in the second part of Season 3 or the first part of Season 5. These flashbacks were successful because of the fact that we, the audience, were learning what was happening in the series at the same time as the characters. Mainly because of the constant fallback of having yet another curse, which became delightfully repetitive. Over the course of the series, we had the main Dark Curse (Season 1), a Curse that returned everyone from where they came from (Season 3), a Curse that reinvented Storybrooke (Season 3 – literally the next episode), a Curse that sent the main cast back from Camelot (yes, Camelot) in Season 5, another Dark Curse that ended Season 6 but made the Black Fairy mayor instead of Regina, another Dark Curse during Season 7 to explain why an adult Henry [oh yes, Season 7 is in the future] has no recollection of his past life. Blimey, that was exhausting – and I haven’t even mentioned the alternate universe episode due to the fact that one of the characters found out that they could rewrite reality as they were some sort of magical creature known as The Author. It had some brilliant moments but its structure became its own downfall, and its ambition in storytelling just became muddied and confused after a couple of seasons and trying to shoehorn in every single fairytale character in existence. They did at least use smaller story arcs, to be fair, but they should have done away with the flashback ideas, especially ones which weren’t strictly essential to the stories that were being portrayed on a weekly basis.
Not only does it give you a supreme headache just getting one’s head around all of the happenings in the past couple of seasons (like honestly, my head is spinning after remembering all of the stuff that happened over Once Upon a Time‘s 7-year run), but it’s also somewhat of a scheduling nightmare. With American broadcasting, shows will randomly take a couple of weeks off and then come back and then go off again. It’s ridiculous, and difficult for any show trying to tell an ambitious story to gain any sort of traction because you forget what has happened in the intervening weeks. For shows telling weekly and episodic storylines, this is fine because you can ease gently back in – such is the case with the new Charmed series – but it simply does not work if trying to undertake a heavy story arc-based approach.
You can tell that the story arc craze has taken the Arrowverse in particular, especially in recent years. There seems to be an obsession with a through-line between the traditional Monster of the Week storylines – of a Big Bad which will culminate in a large fight that consumes the last couple of episodes of a season. Ambitious storytelling is great, but not, however, when it stretches on for 22 episodes. It also gets to the point where the bad guy on the periphery of the storyline starts to overshadow the weekly storytelling, almost forgetting that the main objective of the programme is to entertain. I am not entertained, I am very sweaty and confused, please stop doing this. Were these shows to employ shorter story arcs, this could be a solution. It would be easier to keep up with them and you could make more of a thing of midseason finales and premieres with these dramatic altercations and the resultant fallouts, though you do risk then falling into Once Upon a Time territory where, simply put, too many large things of consequence have happened as opposed to just a revolving door of villains.
A solution, should they want to tell this sort of a story, would be to take a shorter amount of episodes to tell this story in, such as a reduction in episode count to only 13. This would allow for epic storytelling, and – in the case of the Arrowverse – would even still allow for the annual crossover, as well as being much less work for the people involved. Result: increase in quality, and viewership, as people no longer need to keep up with four increasingly complicated longstanding series simultaneously.
It begs the question as to what you view the purpose of your TV show to be. Doctor Who, for example, has always been about different locations and variety, which would be completely lost if it tried the serialised approach of telling one story throughout its run. It’s here where we see a compromise, where instead of one solid storyline lacing throughout, we see lots of self-contained episodes, with merely the characters connecting them, and then small hints towards a climactic finish to the season each year. This is also the approach that Torchwood took in its first two years, where they had allusions to particular plot points, which were not the focal point, which then came to a head for an epic conclusion.
Personally, I view the purpose of the Arrowverse programmes to be a superhero programme. The focus is less upon the characters necessarily and more emulating the vibe of the comics. Superhero stories feature supervillains who are menacing a city and inevitably a fight between the two in which the superhero emerges victoriously. If you want some added stakes then, by all means, add in an incapacitated superhero for more fun. I suppose the downfall, in a way, of the Arrowverse programmes is to make an ensemble piece out of a comic which is squarely based upon one character. This makes it somewhat more difficult to tell this sort of story, except in the case of Legends, which as I note here is also forgetting its superhero roots somewhat. Perhaps a single through-line is inappropriate, therefore, as just one storyline isn’t really friendly to the comic book format.
The problem with the Arrowverse, therefore, is a tricky one. Retaining the 22-episode series is of course an option, should it be done well. I honestly don’t think that viewers can be expected to be watching all of the series though as this is somewhat of a Herculean task, which seems a bit strange that one network would literally want to compete with itself. It could take a leaf out of Black Lightning‘s book, in which for their second season they are telling smaller story arcs, with Book titles, much as comic books would have done. This seems dramatically more appealing to me, and would be how I would expect an X-Men TV series to be handled nowadays, with multiple episodes given away to recreations of comic book storylines. I would like to see the DC TV programmes attempt this, personally, but I also do feel that in today’s climate of self-scheduling, they should cut the episode length considerably to ensure viewer engagement. If your show is meant to be for escapism, stop hurting my brain with trying to remember what is happening with all of your characters. Also, reassess what you want the purpose of your show to be. If it is a superhero show, you need to make the superhero aspects the centre of the show – and the weekly saving the day should be higher on the list.
You’re waffling again, Goodwin. To summarise?
Being able to binge our shows has adapted what we view good TV to be. If we want something that is a weekly commitment, it should be more of a relief or escapism than it should be a hard slog. When we want something a little more intense, we need to devote more time and concentration to it per-episode for our concentration, and that simply does not work when you try to adapt that format into 22-episodes. If you want to use 22 episodes, make it easier for us. Have less going on in the main character’s lives for me to follow – just a simple relationship or career progression, it’s all good – and fewer characters for me to have to focus upon – and then put lots more effort into making an entertaining episode week on week. Bring out the big guns for the season finale, and we’re all good. Alternatively, if you’re going to try and emulate the big-leagues, then take a leaf out of their books. Shorten your episode count and you can keep your story more streamlined and to the point and make “easy watching” easy again. There is a reason, after all, that none of the original Netflix productions have more than 13 episodes a season.