Urging—as I would—readers to watch Top Of The Lake, David Haglund uses the excellent Sundance series to make an important point. American television, he argues, needs to rediscover the miniseries if it wants to retain its creative vitality:
Characters interesting enough to serve as engaging companions week after week for years are wonderful creations, but their stories lack the meaningful shape found in the best novels and movies and plays. We may get glorious moments, and terrific episodes, and occasionally excellent multi-episode arcs. But the need to leave the door open, to keep the story going a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer, is an artistic impediment. Breaking Bad aside, there are few if any shows which have run for more than a couple seasons that one can hold in one’s mind complete and consider as an artistic whole. Contrast that shapelessness with, say, Scenes From a Marriage, or The Best of Youth, or The Decalogue, all limited-run TV programs from Europe that are better than just about anything American TV has ever made.
Many viewers are fine with baggy imperfection in exchange for more of their favorite shows, of course. Why ask for less of something as good as The Sopranos? But perhaps if David Chase had been able to tell The Sopranos in 12 or 15 hours of perfect television, he could have then moved on to another epic story—instead of stretching it out for 86 rather up-and-down installments and then leaving TV behind to make a movie. And really, if The Sopranos had to be an uneven, six-season show, then fine. But can’t we have great miniseries, too? Given how much quality TV the U.S. churns out, why does Europe have better miniseries than we do?
I think Haglund is right, and that he’s correct that financial implications are the main reason that we don’t see more miniseries: you can’t race to syndication with something that’s only going to last six or seven hours, and it’s hard to recoup the investments in sets and costumes, which are fixed no matter how many episodes you produce. But granted those factors, I actually want to take a step further: television’s continued creative vitality depends on great flexibility on episode numbers across the board.
I’ve been a long-time advocate for shorter seasons, because I think the 22-episode season is a disaster. It requires shows with overall story arcs to write in a lot of filler. It means that shows are off the air for almost half of the forty-ish week-long television season, which alone makes it almost impossible for fans to regularly shape their weeks around their favorite television shows. It makes much more sense for fans to schedule a single or several evenings of television-watching and to see everything in their DVRs. And most importantly, it’s arbitrary. Part of the reason a show like Enlightened feels like it’s going out on a tremendously high note is that the short seasons fit its arcs well: it was believable that Amy Jellicoe could become a whistleblower and the story she wanted written about her employer, Abaddon Industries, could come to fruition, or something close to it, in eight episodes.
But lately, I’ve been feeling that the problem of arbitrariness applies to shorter seasons, too. I completely understand that Game of Thrones can produce about ten episodes a year, but there are times when I’d prefer to miss a year so the show could handle whole story arcs in a single season, or simply devote more time to certain characters who inevitably are getting short shrift in a ten-episode season. I’d argue that Girls‘ second season was substantially hurt by the fact that it only had ten half-hour episodes—there wasn’t enough time for developments like Hannah’s rise to a book deal or her OCD to percolate. Luther, a wonderful British miniseries, took six episodes to cement the bond between its main character, a detective, and the psychopath who understands him better than anyone else, but then went shorter in its second season to mixed effect. Similarly, Sherlock has felt more like the product of constraints on its in-demand stars’ time than the actual creative needs of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.
There’s no question that variable scheduling causes headaches for networks, and complications on the overall mix of advertising sales. But it’s not as if they don’t do it already. Shows like Scandal and Don’t Trust The B—- In Apt. 23 were launched with short orders. ABC Family premiered Melissa and Joey with 35 episodes. NBC was able to adapt both 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation to Tina Fey’s pregnancies. It would just be nice if networks could expand or contract the length of seasons for creative reasons, rather than simply for logistical ones.