Storytelling on TV

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but most recently it’s because of new TV series appearing from new places like Netflix and Amazon Prime. These series are shorter, in terms of the number of episodes, compared with the traditional network shows, which can vary from 22 to 26 episodes. This isn’t a new thing of course. Shorter TV series have been around for years with the likes of HBO and for the last 8 years one of my favourite shows ever, Dexter, had seasons that were only 12 episodes every year. More recently some American TV channels have moved away from their traditional content, creating fresh new stuff which starts out small and if successful grows to longer series. AMC did it with The Walking Dead which was only 6 episodes long in the first season. By season 4 it had swelled to 16 episodes and it seems to be holding at that number for now and I hope it stays there. All of which brings me back to my original thought.

There is so much more content out there now than ever before across all media. Hundreds of TV channels filled with content, some good and a lot of it quite poor. Then you’ve got all of the stuff on the internet and the free content that people create, plus books, comics, video games and so on. Maybe our attention spans are shorter, or maybe we’ve just become more demanding, but I’m steadily falling out of favour with the longer TV series that are still in that traditional 22+ episode mould. There are a couple of exceptions, but even then I have a few issues.

Very recently season 2 of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD concluded and I won’t spoil it, but in general terms, I feel that it was all over the map. There was a lot of bloat, lots of sub-plots that were started and then skipped over, then picked up a few episodes later which I think leads to uneven storytelling. I appreciate with more episodes there needs to be more content to fill the screen, but it’s very rare that a show keeps a very tight focus over 22 episodes. Even some of my favourite shows that are longer, like Arrow and The Flash, have wobbled in places. Although to be fair, Flash season 1 has to be one of the strongest I’ve seen in a long time. It came flying right out of the gate, it knew what it was and where it was going and never stopped. The cast did start to bloat after a while, which created some problems, but now that DC has spun out a new 3rd show, Legends of Tomorrow, several characters from both Flash and Arrow will emigrate over there. Both shows will have a stripped down cast, back to basics really, and I think both will be better for it. It allows them to explore the characters they have in more detail. It allows the stories to breathe and have room for quiet moments. It doesn’t always have to be pace, pace, pace in every single scene.

There is also the problem of scheduling. In the UK we sometimes have breaks, but I believe it’s fairly common in America to air a few episodes in a row, then break off, then come back later and this can occur several times in one season. Even if that didn’t happen, keeping someone entertained for 22 consistent weeks is not easy as there is so much more noise to pull them away and make them forget.

This won’t happen but I wonder what would happen if the network went to the people running Flash and Arrow and said, ok this season we’ve only got 16 episodes, so you need to cut out some stuff.  There would be fewer monster of the week episodes. They would strip out certain plot-lines and push them to next season or just dump them altogether.It would be a fascinating experiment.

There are some shows that I absolutely love, and I always want more episodes, like Person of Interest, Castle or Blue Bloods, but these are more episodic and not really constructed around a seasonal arc like a lot of genre TV, for lack of a better term. You can go away, miss 6 episodes and come back and pretty much catch up. So I’m going to put them to one side for now, shows like CSI and NCIS etc.

Looking at some of the shows I’ve been watching in about the last ten years, some of the most memorable have been those with shorter series. Even BSG, for all of it’s problems at the end, started on 13 a season and then went to 20. But looking at other shows that stick out in my mind they are things like Dexter, Six Feet Under, Longmire, Sherlock, Haven, Game of Thrones, The Shield, The Wire and Deadwood. There are some shows I’ve not mentioned that are critically acclaimed with shorter series, but either I’ve not seen them or was not a fan.

Do we have shorter attention spans than we used to in the past? Is the old 22+ episode model just too long these days? Do prefer more episodic TV or shows with more of a seasonal arc?