In tonight’s finale of Parks & Recreation, we’ll find out if Leslie Knope won or lost the City Council seat she’s been campaigning for all season, but it’s still not clear if we’ll return to Pawnee next season to see Leslie take her place alongside Councilman Hauser in victory or revitalize the Parks Department in defeat. The same is true for Greendale Community College and the TGS writers’ room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The speculation is that 30 Rock will be back for a short season, and that if Parks & Rec and Community get pickups, they’ll be shorter orders as well. That might mean fewer episodes of shows we love. But creatively, it strikes me as a good thing.
I’m a long-time advocate of shorter seasons, and I think we’ve seen a lot of illustrations of the foibles of trying to fit 22-episode orders into a 40-week period this year. Revenge’s long hiatus slowed the momentum of the ABC Hamptons-set thriller down to a crawl, and the show’s gotten baroque and full of moody shots in its attempt to fill up episode space since its return. Community’s disappearance from NBC’s airwaves for an agonizing and indefinite period left fans waiting, and while NBC tossed out and then yanked sitcoms like Best Friends Forever and Bent in quick succession. Now I understand that shows fail, networks need to replace things that aren’t working at all, and fans don’t want to wait a long time for their favorite shows to come back. But I’d much rather see short, excellent seasons of shows that are suited to it, and to see them run continuously rather than spaced out in seemingly random ways.
NBC’s Thursday night comedies seem uniquely suited to shorter, smarter seasons. 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation’s shortened seasons were their best for entirely different reasons. 30 Rock’s second season was shortened by the writers’ strike, but it was a hilarious, joke-dense season. “SeinfeldVision” and “MILF Island” were fantastic riffs on the industry that preceded the “Queen of Jordan” running gag the show is using now. “Greenzo” featured two of the show’s best-ever cameos in David Schwimmer and Al Gore. And “Sandwich Day” turned Liz’s love of food into a sign of something other than middle-aged singleton schlubbiness. No one has ever made scarfing a sub look so poignant before or since.
Parks and Recreation’s shortened third season had tons of great comedic beats as well, but it also illustrated how sitcoms can pull off strong serialization without dropping plotlines for a long stretch of episodes or producing episodes that don’t work as standalones. The stated major arc of the season was the question of whether Ben and Leslie would get together, a will-they-or-won’t-they that fit neatly into a wide variety of settings. And it turned out that Leslie’s victories in restoring the Harvest Festival, over her rivals in Eagleton, and in organizing Lil’ Sebastian’s funeral were actually setting up Leslie being asked to run for office. The show didn’t always hit the same beats, and in fact in episodes like “April and Andy’s Fancy Party” and “The Fight,” we got to see a number of the vulnerabilities that would plague Leslie in her campaign this season, namely her desire for control.
The 22-odd episode season may be an industry convention, but that doesn’t mean it’s a creative imperative. If the 2012–2013 season is going to be the last year we have 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation and Community, I’d rather have one of those shows on every night for 36 to 45 straight weeks (with exceptions for holidays), and to have those episodes be uniformly excellent, no filler. And if television’s really just about selling soap, I’ve got to believe it might sell better with new programming rather than reruns and schedule gaps.