The latest trend in TV is shorter seasons. Unless you’re talking about the major broadcast networks, it’s rare to see a show go more than 10-12 episodes in a season now. Most broadcast TV shows do somewhere in the low 20s per year, and it was common in the 20th century to see a show get a 30-episode order per year. Due to airing twice a week, the mid-1960s Batman actually did an amazing 60 episodes in one year. Holy fatigue, Batman!
Now, it’s more common to see a show come to an abrupt halt much more quickly. If you think of the most-talked-about shows of the last few months: American Gods, Orange is the New Black, and The Handmaid’s Tale, each came in about ten episodes. That’s good and bad, and here’s what I mean:
GOOD: A show doesn’t wear out its welcome.
A ten-episode order lets the scriptwriters concentrate on quality over quantity and turn out incredible work. It also turns out that if you’re trying to tell a single story, ten hours turns out to work pretty well. Twenty-five or thirty hours can make things wear a little thin.
BAD: Sometimes it isn’t enough to tell the whole story.
In both American Gods and Better Call Saul I felt like the show was just getting out of the gate when it stopped for the year. Saul finally got past the consequences of last season when it ended, and Gods just finally introduced all the characters and got them to the right place. Now I have to wait again. Orange Is The New Black’s fifth season took this to the extreme, giving you a closeup of 72 hours in the lives of the inmates before ending for the year. This didn’t really work for everyone and it seemed forced.
GOOD: You get a whole lot more variety that way.
The 10-episode model is similar to what the BBC does, and it works because you get a lot more variety in television watching. There are always new shows coming up and this means a little something for everyone.
BAD: Too much variety means you don’t establish habits.
Of course, the streaming people don’t care if you bingewatch everything in one night, but networks (even cable networks) hope you’ll tune in every week. If a show stops after 10 episodes, you haven’t really had time to become accustomed to seeing it every week before it’s gone. Even dumb reality shows will run 12 or 13 weeks at the minimum, to allow people to become invested.
GOOD: 10 episodes REALLY works for bingeworthy dramas.
If bingeing is your thing, you’ll wear yourself out trying to do a whole season of 24 (notoriously 24 episodes long.) On the other hand, you can have lunch and finish a season of Master of None in one night if you order pizza sometime in the middle. It’s a good chunk of time for that purpose.
BAD: 10 episodes really DOESN’T work for a “reliable” sitcom.
Something like Angie Tribeca, which doesn’t really require you to tune in every week just needs a long time to find an audience. This is one of the reasons that network shows tend to stay up around 20 episodes, especially the sitcoms. They rely more on the idea of “habit watching” which as I said isn’t something you can achieve in 2 1/2 months.
All in all I have to say that I like the idea that stories take the time they take, and that you’re not locked into very long seasons. However, I think that we’ve swung too far the other way in some cases. Dark comedies in particular work very well if you have time to get to know the characters, and the darker the comedy the more time it takes to get that understanding. In cases like Curb Your Enthusiasm it can take years and it takes a long time to like the characters again if you haven’t seen them in over a year.
Of course the world of TV is notoriously cyclical; for example it wasn’t that long ago that the TV theme song and opening sequence was pronounced dead, yet thanks to streaming series it’s back big-time. Streaming shows can run long or short, and so there’s always time for a good opening. I hope that we see the same thing with season orders, that they become longer on some shows when there’s a good reason for it. After all, who wants to wait a whole year to find out what happened?