On Monday, Ryan McGee laid down a marker in the AV Club, arguing that HBO’s success with shows like The Sopranos deemphasized the need to make individual episodes of television compelling as long as they served a larger narrative, and urged episodic shows to adopt at least the facade of long-arc stories even if they weren’t well-suited to do so. James Poniewozick at Time suggested that Ryan’s overstating the extent to which this has actually happened, and make a point that I think gets at a gateway that precedes Ryan’s piece. “It’s true that a TV series is not a novel,” James writes. “But it’s also not a movie. Every medium works best when it takes advantage of what’s distinctive about it. TV is linear and cumulative, allowing a story to unfold over weeks, months or years.” So what is it that makes it a distinctive medium? And how can we best nurture that?
To answer the second question first, there’s an extent to which television is the least flexible of the major media. While it’s absolutely true that the networks are becoming somewhat more flexible about season lengths—something like ABC’s found footage horror show The River is a good example of this—and cable channels and network do make miniseries, it’s true that the standard network season is 22ish episodes and the standard cable season is 13ish episodes. The episodes are of a relatively standard length: 22ish minutes for a sitcom and 42ish for a drama on the networks and non-premium cable channels, and closer to 30 and an hour on the premium cable channels.
Those are astonishing formal constraints for an artist, even a commercial one, to work under, and it’s worth pausing to appreciate that. Standard-release movie features features can run from 80 minutes to well over two hours, and you can make something substantially shorter or longer than that and still find mass-market distribution for it. Novels are bound by some constraints on what a publisher can physically bind, but there’s a great deal of range within those technical specifications, and within them, no one’s setting limitations on how long or short chapters have to be, or even what they’re expected to look like: David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Eagan have helped shake that up. And one can only imagine, especially given the rise of e-books that can incorporate video, graphics, or animation, that experimentation will continue. Most pop songs hover in the three-minute range, but once again, that’s not a formal constraint, and iTunes may have hurt the album but it also freed artists like Robyn from its limitations. Web television may yet shake the formal constraints of television, but we’re far from a paradigm shift. Television is the most restrictive popular art form in existence, and I’m constantly awed that people manage to fit stories neatly into the space allotted to them without too much filler or franticness. But those restrictions are more than some sort of technical exercise: this is a multi-billion dollar industry, not a writing workshop handing out a structurally tricky assignment to talented students.
And television is hardly the first serial medium, either, nor is serialization the thing that most draws a line between novels and television shows. Both Alexander Dumas and Charles Dickens made much of their livings writing serial novels, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina were all published as serials. And while something like the Pickwick Papers can stand on its own, and you can drop into occasional chapters of The Three Musketeers and find a short story, most of these books are continuous narrative that occasionally require a chapter to act as connective tissue. The point in either form is to keep you coming back. And there’s room in that form for a pleasant and recurring visit to a group of friends you know well enough to anticipate the beats they’ll pass through, and for emotional journeys to unpredictable and constantly unfolding lands.
And this is the larger point: we focus on the serialized or episodic nature of shows because there are so few other ways to innovate within the limits of the form as it exists now. If we really care about shows figuring out what’s best for the stories we want to tell, our biggest concerns shouldn’t be about the gloss of serialization that takes up space in an essentially episodic show or the episodes in serialized shows that act as tendon rather than muscle, pulling us forward into the narrative sweep even if they aren’t utter gems in our own right. Instead, we need to champion flexibility that would let creators match the stories they want to tell with the formats that will best let them be told. Whether it’s Masterpiece releasing three 90-minute episodes of Sherlock at a time; a show like Revenge that seems like it could (though of course it won’t) spin itself out compellingly in a single season, we should be looking at experiments in episode orders, episode length, and number of seasons as the lab in which we finally figure out how to fit television’s form and function.