Less Can Be More: In Defense Of The Half-Hour TV Drama

Senior Television Writer
05.03.18 7 Comments

Starz

Starz’s new drama Vida isn’t perfect, but it has several things working in its favor. The story of two Mexican-American sisters (Mishel Prada as sophisticated professional Emma, Melissa Barrera as younger free spirit Lyn) returning to their East LA childhood neighborhood in the wake of their mother’s death, it has a vivid sense of place, time, and culture. It manages to turn a potentially abstract subject like gentrification into potent and personal material for drama, and smartly views the way different characters are either linked or divided by blood, ethnicity, sexuality, and more.

But perhaps the biggest thing Vida has going for it is that each episode is only a half-hour long.

That’s not a unique distinction, not even on Starz, which has aired two seasons of The Girlfriend Experience and will be pairing Vida on Sunday nights with the restaurant drama Sweetbitter. But it’s significant in an era when there’s more scripted TV than ever, and where the direction has generally been towards dramas making longer episodes, not shorter ones.

The very compactness of Vida — not only half-hour episodes, but only six of them in this first season — makes it feel far less daunting than trying out a new hourlong drama whose season will be 3 or 4 times longer at minimum. Vida, created by Tanya Saracho, can suffer at times from the same meandering pace of many streaming dramas, treating its entire first season as a long pilot for what the series seems like it will actually be, but a three-hour version of that is far more palatable than the 10-13 hour version Netflix so often offers.

These Starz dramas are also noteworthy for coming right out and calling themselves dramas, when for most of TV history — including a recent stretch of time that’s given us the likes of Louie, Transparent, Atlanta, and so many others — any half-hour show tries to operate under the pretense of being a comedy, no matter how low the humor content may be.

This wasn’t always the case. Television formats weren’t quite so rigid in the early days, when some shows would run only 15 minutes, and half-hour dramas weren’t rare. Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone, for instance, both started out doing half-hours, though both would shift to hour-long episodes after a few years. (Twilight Zone shifted back after a while; Gunsmoke stayed long.) Even into the ’60s and ’70s, there were a few visible half-hour dramas like Dragnet and Adam-12, while M*A*S*H started out as an overt comedy before gradually dropping almost all of the jokes in favor of earnest commentary on the nature and impact of war.

But M*A*S*H was still talked about as a comedy due to its origins, and the next wave of half-hour dramas from the mid-late ’80s were given the ungainly classification of “dramedy,” because some network executive somewhere feared they might seem too grim to a viewer looking for light entertainment at the end of a long day. The likes of Hooperman (John Ritter as a San Francisco cop), The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (Blair Brown as a single woman in New York), and Doogie Howser, M.D. (Neil Patrick Harris as a 16-year-old doctor) aspired to comedy on occasion, but no more than dramatic contemporaries Hill Steet Blues or Cagney and Lacey did, and were all far more comfortable when things were serious.

Nobody much liked the dramedy moniker, but it stuck (in part because the alternative was “comma”), and for a while there in the early ’00s, there was a group of shows where the portmanteau fit, as Scrubs, Sex and the City, and others tried to keep the ratio of ha-ha to oh-no in relative proportion. But then cable channels like Showtime began making what Matt Zoller Seitz later dubbed “comedies in theory,” like Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara, which could offer humor at times (the first few Weeds seasons especially) but were primarily interested in their main characters’ inner darkness, and were classified as comedies as much for awards consideration as to appeal to anxious would-be viewers. Edie Falco, winning a lead comedy actress Emmy for Nurse Jackie, summed it up nicely by beginning her acceptance speech with a puzzled, “Thank you. I’m not funny!”

And that’s more or less how it’s gone ever since. Every now and then you get an outlier like HBO’s amazing psychiatry drama In Treatment, which was so heavy it could never even pretend to be a comedy — and worked perfectly in the half-hour format, where episodes that were roughly the length of an actual therapy session would have dragged — but for the most part the trend over the last decade, by both the Emmys and the industry as a whole, is to treat every hourlong show as a drama, every half-hour one a comedy. (It’s also telling that hourlong shows occasionally petition the TV Academy to be classified as comedies, where the inverse almost never happens, because the comedy categories are viewed as easier to win.)

In a lot of ways, this blurring of genre and format lines has been to the creative good of TV. Atlanta, Louie, Transparent, BoJack Horseman, Enlightened, Girls, and Master of None, to name a small sample, have been some of the best and most exciting shows of the last decade, and they’ve pushed the limits of what a TV show can do and be. Perhaps most importantly, what they and others like them have done is to push back on the long-held wisdom that a series has to run an hour to be Dramatic, or Important, while demonstrating how padded and unnecessary a lot of the things traditionally-formatted dramas, even really good ones. Could Atlanta‘s “Teddy Perkins,” Girls“American Bitch,” or Enlightened‘s “The Ghost Is Seen” have been expanded into great hour-long episodes? Probably, but they said all they needed to say, beautifully, in 30-odd minutes.

There’s value to concision, in drama as much as comedy. A lot of these “comedies” tell very small stories that benefit enormously from the 30-minute format. Something like the Duplass brothers’ HBO relationship show Togetherness would have risked feeling leaden and self-important if they’d made it as an hour, but there was always just enough material to clock in at half the length and fully explore the stories. Vida works similarly. There are Six Feet Under echoes to it, with the sisters coming home to deal with a failing family business in the wake of a parent’s death, but their mother’s neighborhood bar doesn’t lend itself to extended narrative time in the way the Six Feet funeral home did, so the stories and conflicts — like Emma’s incredulity at learning that their mother had married a woman named Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), despite reacting very badly to learning about teen Emma’s sexuality — generally don’t overstay their welcome.

Shows should ideally just be more flexible about their runtimes(*), particularly in an era when streaming services and DVRs have made tradition 30-60 minute timeslots feel antiquated. But the thinking on this is fairly binary, and more-is-more remains conventional TV wisdom over the idea that less can be more.

(*) Both the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and TNT’s underrated Ray Romano/Andre Braugher/Scott Bakula dramedy Men of a Certain Age were originally developed as premium cable half-hour series (for, respectively, Showtime and HBO) before being expanded in their new homes. But where Crazy Ex feels formatted about right, Men was a terrific show that was nonetheless palpably carrying 5-10 more minutes of material than it needed most weeks. So there’s no one magic number.

None of this is exact. I wouldn’t have wanted last week’s The Americans to be a second shorter than its 58-minute running time, and Vida‘s companion series Sweetbitter — based on the novel by Stephanie Danler about a young woman (Ella Purnell) waitressing at an upscale New York restaurant — feels thin and laborious even at a half-hour. I watched only three of the six episodes available, even though finishing out the season would have taken roughly as much time as watching another Westworld. But as I contemplated whether to stick with Vida as each episode ended, I was as motivated by its runtime as its potential, thinking, This isn’t quite there yet, but I like the world and the ideas. And hey, it’s only 30 minutes at a time. I can watch that.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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