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.
There are a few reasons for this development, as there are with most developments. Some of it is just cyclical. Television has been dominated by big fancy prestige dramas for a long time, starting with The Sopranos and The Wire and running through Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Game of Thrones, with a bunch of others sprinkled in throughout. There were still great half-hour shows in that period — The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, etc. — but they were never the cool shows that drove the conversation. Things change, though, and bounce back and forth. New things get stale, old things become new. At some point, the coolest television shows, like basketball shorts, were bound to get shorter.
But I think another part of it is a reaction to the Peak TV of it all. There are so many shows and so many outlets on which to consume them. It’s daunting to keep up with everything everyone tells you “you have to watch, oh my god.” There are shows I admittedly enjoy that I’ve been dragging my feet on plowing through just because I’ll see 12 hour-long episodes remaining — “It’s a 12-hour movie” they say, as though the concept of sitting through an actual 12-hour movie doesn’t sound like actual torture — and I’ll sigh with enough force that Siri asks me if I’m doing okay. (I’m fine, Siri. Stay out of this.) With all that going on, and with the very heavy and dark and bleeeeaaak tone of a lot of recent dramas, combined with bloated runtimes and bloated episode counts, there’s something pretty refreshing about a funny and heartwarming and/or emotionally affecting show you can start and finish in a single rainy Saturday afternoon if you want.
(Think about it this way: The total runtime of the final six Game of Thrones episodes was 432 minutes. In just about that same amount of time, give or take an aftershow or two, you could also watch this year’s entire seasons of Fleabag, Russian Doll, and I Think You Should Leave. I’m not telling you how to spend your time. It’s too late for a lot of us anyway. But it is a little startling from a time management perspective.)
Again, these things are always cyclical and the cycles are getting compressed as we all collectively shovel as much content into the universe as we can. Next year could greet us with a dozen new, groundbreaking hour-long dramas. It could happen this year. Hell, something none of us even have on our radar could swoop in next month and render huge chunks of this entire article irrelevant. But so far, halfway through 2019, it’s undeniable. The revolution is here and it’ll only take 30 minutes — 22 if there are commercials to skip through. That’s efficient, which I appreciate. We’re all very busy.
Someone please try to get movies on the same page next. If Fleabag can be a contender for best show of the year in six 25-minute episodes (half an hour shorter in total than Endgame was on its own), we can get action movies in under two hours. I have faith in us.