Twenty years ago, back in March, I started feeling a nebulous but very intense aversion to watching anything longer than 25 minutes. There have been some exceptions—I can get through movies under the right circumstances, and I would probably watch another 10 hours of The Last Dance, despite knowing nothing about basketball, Michael Jordan, or the intricate politics of sports franchises (but being deeply committed to pettiness). A 57-minute episode of television, though? And then nine more just like it? Now?
It’s no secret that prestige television, for the most part, has gotten flabby in its later years. But as streaming services and premium-cable networks have stretched out dramas toward tedium, they’ve also been enabling experimentation in the half-hour format. Here, you can find dreamlike odes to the work-life balance, bleakly comic explorations of what it means to be a better person, fragmented portraits of the rot in the American dream, and Hitchcockian mysteries that look like nothing else on the small screen.
Practically, shows whose episodes run 30 minutes or less are also easier on viewers whose attention spans are frazzled, whose emotional bandwidth ran out during the eighth Zoom call of the day, and whose current side hustles as math teachers, peacekeepers, and Bob Ross might leave them with little left at the end of the day. This list of 25 series compiles some of the most original and affecting shows from recent years; all of them run at about half an hour per installment, or less. Rather than include sitcoms or outright comedies, which have been exploring the boundaries of the 30-minute episode forever, this list focuses on dramas and shows that blend genres. Each series is worth the smaller amount of time it takes to watch them, and some even have themes that align with this deeply strange and very exhausting era.