Sunday, October 29, 2006

Don't touch that dial

Article in the NYT about the pleasures and pitfalls of serialised dramas, and the extremely Darwinian world in which they live and battle for a now more than once-bitten audience’s commitment. Like many viewers now, I won’t even look at a show until it’s aired four or five episodes and isn’t in apparent danger of cancellation.

My own feeling has always been that twenty-two episode seasons are too long for this type of storytelling. Too much padding, with time often wasted on third and fourth-tier characters, and lashings of deliberate ambiguity to pad the season out, makes me tune out pretty quickly. I’m loving Heroes at the moment, but if they haven’t averted nuclear apocalypse before the end of the season and moved onto the next challenge, I’m out of there.

The thirteen episode model seems much better to me. It focuses the storytelling on what truly matters, and does away with the myriad and meaningless sub-plots I always want to fast-foward through. No-one can tell me that The Wire would be improved by the addition of nine episodes per season, and I don’t think you can find tighter storytelling than that. Even the credits are meaningful.

More importantly, though, it requires less commitment from a curious audience to catch-up with just thirteen episodes on DVD. Lost is shedding viewers between seasons, because potential new eyeballs don’t have time to squeeze in twenty-four episodes between finale and premier. As talk in the UK about committing to longer runs of shows ramps up, I wonder if there’s too much effort being made to imitate a troubled model rather than stick with something better for the audience.


  1. Absolutely. I think Lost really suffers for having so many episodes a season. I've stuck with it, but only because I'm stubborn like that. There's definitely such a thing as dragging out the tension for too long. If you don't reveal what's going on at the right time audiences just get bored and frustrated.

  2. Personally I love serialised drama because it allows for actual character development and more complex plots. Then again, growing up I read more than I watched television, so I like a story that unfolds.

    With American television, I tend to watch more US cable shows that network dramas. You're absolutely right about The Wire. Any longer just for the sake of being longer and it would dilute the punch.

    Of course the 13-episode drama format was what the UK used to have -- Colditz, Secret Army, Between The Lines for example -- expect now, over the years it sharank to about eight episodes, gone back up to ten.

    At 20 episodes, the second season of Battlestar Galactica had a few not to par episodes toward the end of the run and probably would have benefited from dropping a few.

    I guess it comes down to battle fatigue from keeping the Sisyphian production process grinding along. If you haven't got the story, you're just filling airtime. In that instance we might just as well be watching the kitten and the ball of wool.

    Obviously 24 would suffer from a reduction in episodes. (Thought I had to get that one in).

    Lost, though, I have a lot of time for. If they did cut back on episodes they would have to drastically cut back on characters because I'd argue it's more of a character-centered drama than an action/adventure series.

    It may take it's sweet time revealing the secrets of the island, which is what people seem to want, but it reveals more about the survivors and how their past influences their present day actions.

  3. Ahhh, kittens.

    You've reminded me, I have to get around to watching season three of Between the Lines, even though I believe it went a little bit wobbly at that point?

    I've seen all of the fourth season of The Wire, and it's humbling how magnificent the plotting is on that show. It doesn't waste a moment, and doesn't need a single one more. People are going to be discovering this series for years to come, and wondering why they didn't watch it when it was on.

  4. Yeah, the third season of Between the Lines seriously wobbled. They should have finished on the second. The final scene with the bloodied and bruised Tony Clark in the interview room... "Prove it!" Just brilliant.

    From the first scene of The Wire I was hooked:

    McNulty: If Snotboogie always stole the money, why'd you let him play?

    Kid: You got to, this is America, man.

    Awesome. Have you read any of David Simon's books? Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (which obviously inspired the series) is superb. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, by David Simon and Edward Burns is really terrific.

  5. I'm actually exploring the idea of an anthology with some recurring characters.

    I think that might satisfy some of the warfare between the "self-contained episode folk" and the "serial dramatists".

  6. I think ideally you would have a serial element but also a story of the week so new people can get interested.

    I was also just thinking about the 13 episodes thing for the same reasons. The UK would be foolish to go to 22 but 13 is reasonable if the quality in the scripts is there.

    I like looking at all shows and working out which ones are likely to be cancelled and why. Only Smith has been the shocker so far but hopefully ITV4 will have the full series to show. But it does mean I've got addicted to serial stuff like Six Degrees which is quality but low-rating and might get chopped.