A great deal of discussion about television’s breakout period has focused on the extent to which television has equaled, or even replaced the novel in the best shows’ sprawling explorations of huge groups of characters, social issues, and the idiosyncrasies of American life. But last season, and I think in this upcoming season of television, we have a number of shows with different ambition that are struggling within their forms: they want to be movies or miniseries, and are trying to figure out how how to stretch their plots over 22 episodes, much less multiple seasons. The prime existing example of that kind of show is Revenge, the story of a woman coming back to have her way with the people who framed her father for complicity with terrorism, a decision that lead to his death. The show initially started with its protagonist, Emily Thorne (Emily Van Camp) doing in an enemy per week, but given how short her enemies’ list really was, the show lost momentum after she got rid of the easy marks and had to stretch out her stalking of the Big Bads. It’s a setup that might have worked brilliantly and nastily as a six-episode miniseries, but got ponderous towards the end, and is hard to imagine working all the way through a second season unless her battle escalates to full-on trench warfare in the Hamptons:
This fall television season features a number of new shows, all of which I like, but none of which seem sustainable over the long term. On ABC’s Last Resort, the crew of a nuclear submarine refuse their orders and take over a small tropical island which they declare independent. The idea of taking Gotham hostage with a nuclear weapon barely seemed plausible over a period of nine months in The Dark Knight Rises, and it’s hard for me to see how a viable stalemate would persist for years or the conspiracy around the orders the crew got to nuke Pakistan can stay undetected and unbusted for that long either. Nashville, also on that network, features a rivalry between two country singers played by Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere, but it’s hard to believe they can remain in a perpetual state of animosity—tours last only so long—or what the show plans to do after playing out its B story, about the Nashville mayoral election. Fox’s midseason show The Following, about a serial killer who develops a following during his imprisonment, has an even more limited premise: there can only be so many people willing to sign up to commit mass murder or to stab themselves in the eye to mess with the FBI. The case can’t go on forever unless the show wants to abandon its core dynamic, a rivalry between Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. That show, at least, is beginning with a 15-episode season because that’s the number per year Bacon was willing to commit to.
To an extent, it seems like Revenge was written with the expectation that it couldn’t possibly get a full-season order, and the same may be the case with Last Resort, which is excellent, but high-concept and will air in an extremely difficult 8 PM Thursday timeslot. But it’s really too bad that networks don’t have some quarterly or mini-series sized time slots that they could use for concepts that are fascinating, but don’t fit neatly into the 22 episode season. The season length is essentially arbitrary, and in so much as it has a rationale, it’s a commercial rather than an artistic one, a way to get to the syndication threshhold of 100 episodes as quickly as possible without burning out actors or writers. But miniseries or shorter runs could be a way to make truly must-see TV again, as appeared to be the case with Kevin Costner’s run on Hatfields & McCoys earlier this summer. I understand the difficulties of sinking resources into one-time productions for a business model that’s based on monetizing the same content multiple times.
But when I think about it, I still think one of the shows I enjoyed last season was ABC’s The River, a horror story about a group of Amazonian explorers who go looking for their long-lost leader. The show had its flaws, including some casting problems. But when it was cancelled after the short run of its first season, it went out with a genuinely terrifying image, of the river shifting to trap the crew forever. That, more than a clear resolution or explanation, or wringing everything out of the characters that could possibly be obtained with them, was some thrilling television. There wasn’t a repetitive episode, a moment that made me feel like the show was in a rut, just a scary economy to the show’s forward progress. I’d rather have less of a good concept executed well than one wrung painfully dry, as CBS is doing to How I Met Your Mother right now. And I’d love for networks to find their way to building some flexibility into the schedule to give stories the amount of space they actually need. It’s not only in my interests. If the broadcast networks are going to complain that cable’s beating them in awards nominations because those networks only need to produce eight to fifteen episodes of a show, the broadcast networks might consider whether it would behoove them to play the game, at least sometimes, by the new rules.