Culture Crash 18-31: TV Episode Bloat: Too much of a good thing

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine American culture.  What’s new and old in books, film, and entertainment.

Since pretty much the dawn of the medium, a television show was either 30 minutes or 60 minutes long. With commercials, that put 30-minute shows at about 22 minutes of actual content and hour-long episodes somewhere in the 40 minute range. It wasn’t until the dawnspread of premium cable channels like HBO, and then the rise of streaming networks that this model was really disrupted.

Episodes now run anywhere from 20 minutes to 90 minutes, and there doesn’t have to be any consistency from one week to the next. For example, most episodes of Mindhunter on Netflix run between 45 and 60 minutes, but episode 6 was randomly only 34 minutes long. That kind of variance I like, making an episode shorter is better in my mind than adding 20 minutes of lower quality scenes to fill the episode out.

But what happens when a show goes the other way? The season two finale of HBO’s Westworld ran 90 minutes instead of its more typical 60 minutes. It felt way too long. And I like the show! But a TV episode doesn’t need to be a movie, and 60 minutes is already a long haul for an episode.

Even on a smaller scale, episode bloat is a real issue. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy series written by Tina Fey, had a stellar first season that was originally supposed to premiere on NBC. After some shuffling, the show was left to Netflix. In its subsequent seasons, the writers have had the flexibility of knowing it would run on a streaming platform. There are no advertisements to accommodate, no network schedule they have to fit into. In season two, the episodes almost all ran a full 30 minutes instead of the tighter 22 minute format of season one. A couple episodes even ran as long as 35 minutes. It was during this bloated season that I stopped watching. Season one of Kimmy Schmidt benefitted from its shorter run-time. The episodes were punchier, the jokes came faster. With an additional 10 to 15 minutes of content, the show dragged.

Obviously, expectations play a huge part in this phenomenon. With an hour-long show like Mindhunter, the occasional 34 minute episode feels like a breeze. With a half-hour comedy, that same 34 minute length felt like an eternity. But it also makes sense. We live in “peak TV.” There are more options now than ever. If you set my expectations at 22 or 23 minutes and then take up an additional 10 minutes, I lose my patience.

What I’m getting at is this: If you want to impress me in 2018, make an episode or two that runs shorter, not longer. The best thing a creator of a show can do is value my time and cut to the chase a little quicker. There are plenty of other seasons of television I want to get to, and I can’t do that when your episodes never end.

I’m Evan Rook.

Coming Up on Viewpoints Show 18-31

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Culture Crash: TV Episode Bloat: Too much of a good thing

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