by wjw on January 4, 2017

Stranger_Things_logoI’ve complained here and there about stories that don’t actually seem to get anywhere, or which get lost in a detour for a few hundred pages before finding the path again, or that can’t seem to work out what they’re about.

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of television with much the same problem.  Original Netflix series, Amazon Prime series, and series off regular ol’ TV.

Most of these original series have thirteen episodes per season, because as we all know, God cleverly arranged a year to consist of four seasons of thirteen weeks each, and producers like to do what God suggests.  Therefore these series are purchased in blocks of thirteen episodes, except for network television, where a season will run 22 episodes or so.

But good lord, there’s a lot of padding out there.

Stranger Things would have been so much better at half its length or less.  Likewise Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Orphan Black, Mr. Robot.  The writers have a very hard time finding a story that’s actually thirteen hours long.  (Which is actually a terrifically difficult thing to do, particularly considering the hectic constraints under which episodic TV is made.)

Luke Cage was viewed most recently.  I loved the setting, the actors, and the smart dialog, but along about the eighth episode I began to think to myself, Luke, just punch the villain already!  Everyone knows it’s coming, everyone knows that’s how the series is going to end, so just do it already!  Just as I began to desperately need Jessica Jones to kill off David Tennant by Episode Ten or thereabouts.

I was unable to get more than a few episodes into the latest series of Orphan Black and Mr. Robot because (1) either it went nowhere, or (2) the story began to repeat action done better earlier in the series.

The Netflix series Bloodline was an extreme example of this.  It started off nicely, with well-played characters, a pleasing Florida Keys setting, and a cast headed by Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepherd, but there was only three or four hours of actual drama, after which every episode began to seem like a long stall to postpone the finale till the end of the series.  I gave up partway through the first series, and I now see there’s a third season available, and I keep thinking, “My God, it’s still not over!

Oddly enough, the 22-episode network series seem to be doing a better job of keeping their momentum.  The extra hours allows more story lines, but also it allows for a lot of episodes to be self-contained, outside the series arc, in which the detectives just detect, or the lawyers take on an interesting case, or the docs deal with a weird disease.  (And if it’s the third season, when all the good stories have been done and the writers are getting desperate, the entire cast gets held hostage by criminals or terrorists.)

The trick to getting this right is to have the characters well established before you wander away from continuity.  The viewer should be able to enjoy the characters doing character-like things for an hour.  (Besides, I always enjoyed the episodes where Xena got to have an adventure instead of dealing with Eli’s tendentious metaphysics.)

Going outside of continuity seems to be allowed on the networks, but not on an original series.  You don’t see Luke Cage taking an hour off to fight the Green Goblin before he returns to continuity.

Given the time constraints in the way television is made, I’m not sure there’s a solve for this problem.  Either your story will fill up thirteen episodes or it won’t, and when it won’t, you’ve got a very short time to find a solution, and you improvise something to fill up the time.  Odds are against its being brilliant.

So what the hell, just have the characters be the characters.  If they’re good characters, they’ll entertain the audience just by being themselves.

pixlaw January 4, 2017 at 2:08 pm

Or, you can pull a Buffy-style trajectory and alternate long-arc episodes with one shot episodes, and then for good measure every so often go COMPLETELY off the wall and throw in a musical episode or or an alternate reality or something like that.

wjw January 5, 2017 at 12:41 am

Well yes, that’s what I was hoping for. But there’s less room for that in a thirteen-episode series, or at least people seem to think so.

Privateiron January 5, 2017 at 9:14 am

I thought Daredevil broke down into three arcs: Punisher; Electra-Catwoman and Electra-Talia Al Ghul.

Dirk Gently was pretty tight and well executed in 8 episodes. Sherlock seems overly busy and melodrama’d to 11 because it only gets 3 episodes.

Mastadge January 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm

Yes yes yes. There’s no excuse for the online platforms like Netflix: tell your story at the right length, regardless of what the length is.

For network shows, years ago when I watched, for instance, Supernatural, they always had such a hard time balancing the one-offs with the proper stakes and tension of the ongoing arc. Would have been much better, I think, to have a really tight, focused mini-season with no one-offs, and then alternate those with the episodes of the characters getting to do other fun things without the knowledge that there’s a “Big Bad” waiting in the background for episode 18 to roll around.

Scott Hawkins January 7, 2017 at 6:45 pm

Thinking back on Westworld in light of this post, the fluff-to-story ratio is pretty high. But that was some damn tasty fluff. I’ve watched it twice already.

wjw January 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm

Mastadge, you are perfectly correct that a story that can be covered in five episodes should be filmed in five episodes. But as long as producers get paid more for thirteen episodes than for five, that won’t happen very often.

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