You know television was created to sell soap, right?
After the decades of perfecting the box of pretty lights and sounds, even the most idealistic engineers had to conclude: television was perfect for selling sh*t to our lazy, soon-to-be-very-fat asses. Problem is even the laziest of us can at times require emotional engagement from glowing boxes beyond 30-second advertisements for Ovaltine.
That’s how TV ultimately began: in the most cynical way possible.
And the number of weeks a TV show aired during a 52 week year was equally as arbitrary and cynical. I Love Lucy aired 35 weekly episodes during its inaugural season, presumably because that was as much as it was possible to film during a calendar year while still being physically capable of filming a season 2. Other shows followed suit and the 24-35 episode season became the norm…for 40-some years.
But now, in 2013, with TV as American culture’s most dominant medium (This is, of course, up for debate…if you want to lose) it’s time to kill the 24 episode season once and for all.
We’re deep enough into the cable renaissance to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that less is more when it comes to televised entertainment. HBO got the ball rolling (as it usually does) in the ‘80s with relatively puny 13-episode seasons of comedies like Arli$$ and the Larry Sanders Show. Then The Sopranos (TV’s Citizen Kane) debuted and quickly set off a trend of 12-13 episode drama series on cable networks like FX, Showtime and AMC. Now, if you were to make a top ten list of your favorite shows, it’s fair to assume more than half of them would be 13 episodes a season or fewer.
Sure, it isn’t just the smaller episode count that makes these shows so excellent. A dedication to quality writing and acting to go along with a cavalier attitude regarding sex and violence certainly helps. But the impact of a TV season not overstaying its welcome cannot be overstated.
The most recent example, Breaking Bad, just finished its breathtaking and near perfect sustained run of excellence in large part due to the writers ability to keep filler episodes at a medium. Breaking Bad on a 24 episode schedule wouldn’t have had the same impact.
Shows that currently trot out the 24-episode format (most of them on the networks, naturally) are struggling creatively or at the very least aren’t as strong as they could be with truncated seasons. After improbably turning in a very tight, exciting second season, ABC’s Scandal has had to pump the brakes a little bit – overloading its plot lines with too many interlocking story lines in order to keep audiences locked in on a roller coaster ride that’s entirely too long, mostly due to the constraints of having to turn a near-full day of television into a non-stop adrenaline rush.
Even the mighty network comedy, when trying to tell a linear narrative, is clearly running on fumes. How I Met Your Mother, once one of TV’s most innovative sitcoms has attempted to stage a whole season over a 48-hour wedding weekend and was already airing shameless filler episodes by week six.
Thankfully, it looks like shows with smaller episode orders’ popularity are beginning to match up with their quality. The Walking Dead, while not necessarily the second coming of The Wire, is still a quality show that strictly adheres to AMC’s shorter episode counts. And it’s also now the most watched scripted show on the planet. FX’s Sons of Anarchy is routinely making appearances in the Nielsen cable show top ten list as well.
Even the networks, the creators and longest perpetrators of needlessly bloated seasons are starting to rethink their strategies. NBC’s Hannibal didn’t exactly set the world on fire with its ratings (mostly because it airs on NBC) but it still had a successful 13-episode season that brought the Reddit and Tumblr crowd to a network that they’ve long ignored outside of the Thursday night sitcoms.
And when Fox announced that it would be reviving 24, a show that’s entire concept was based on airing 24 episodes exactly every season, they claimed that it would be a “limited series” like the 12-13 episode cable shows.
Ultimately, quality matters more than anything. The 22-episode Scandal seasons are faring just fine and Lost somehow told a story with a beginning, middle and end (regardless of how you may have felt about that end) over 121 episodes but it’s time that every TV writer gets the opportunity to tell a story without burning themselves out.
It’s 2013, this sh*t isn’t just about buying soap anymore.
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