Okay, quick, tick off the shows on your Best of 2019 list so far. Don’t think about it, just go. There’s Fleabag, of course. Fleabag rules. And Russian Doll, too, with its time- and reality-bending mix of comedy and drama. Barry is probably in there, too, right? How good was season two of Barry? And Better Things, if that’s your jam. Let’s toss that in. What else, what else? The goodbyes from Catastrophe and Veep and Broad City, the hellos from newcomers like The Other Two and Tuca & Bertie, Hulu’s combination of Pen15 and Ramy might be in there, hell, even — maybe especially — Tim Robinson’s lunatic Netflix sketch series, I Think You Should Leave, which everyone who isn’t a total tuna can has been screencapping into your social media feeds for weeks now. That feels like a decent start.
Now look back over that list and ask what these shows have in common. Yes, they can all be loosely defined as comedies, even though some of them are just plain goofy and some contain moments that are more affecting than anything you’ll see in a straightforward drama, and some somehow balance those two extremes. Yes, a number of them feature their creators bleeding from the face at some point. But there’s one thing that really jumps out at me when I look at the best and coolest and most exciting shows of this year so far: almost all of them wrap up their episode in 30 minutes or less.
To be fair, this is something that has been brewing for a while. Shorter shows have been experimenting with the form in new and strange ways for a few years now. BoJack Horseman is one of the silliest shows on television but also one that is capable of absolutely gutting you once or twice a season. Atlanta does things I did not even realize television shows were allowed to do and makes it all seem normal. (I’m still not entirely over the “Teddy Perkins” episode, which was so much weirder and more disturbing in the moment than a lot of us remember.) Master of None tells individual stories in 30-minute chunks to tell a fuller story by the season’s end, and some of those individual stories — “Thanksgiving,” to name one notable example — are as freaking beautiful as they are funny. None of this is a new development, exactly. It’s more of an explosion.
It’s also worth noting that some of the recent hour-long offerings have been underwhelming, which has created a void that needs filling. Killing Eve was a comet streaking across the sky in its first season, but hit a creative plateau in season two. The third season of True Detective was really, surprisingly good but, in hindsight, that was because it played a lot of the revolutionary first season’s greatest hits. And Game of Thrones, that ratings monster, that cultural monolith, that sweeping epic that captivated audiences for close to a decade… kind of clunked its way toward a conclusion. What hour-long shows have really stood out this year? Billions remains fun and fast and mean, people seem to think the parts of Chernobyl they saw between the fingers covering their face were good, but then what? And even if I concede that some of your favorite hour-long shows were/are good, are any of them doing anything truly cool and revolutionary and exciting? Think about it. I’m happy to hear you out.