Making All TV Like the Stories?

[Alyssa Rosenberg]

First, huge thanks to Ta-Nehisi for having me back.  I love hanging out here with you guys, and I hope it'll be a fun week.  For those of you who don't know me, I blog about pop culture here and write about the management of the federal government here.  This week'll be more about the former than the latter, unless some of y'all are really interested in the intricacies of federal personnel reform, in which case I'm happy to oblige.

In the wake of Ugly Betty's cancellation, I've been watching a slowly-developing debate, begun by Gawker, and continued by Televisual, about whether American television should move towards a telenovela model, where shows have a fixed end point when they debut, and perhaps only a single-season commitment.  At Gawker, Brian Moylan argued that these shorter runs would allow better (or at least, more in-demand) actors to commit to the shows, and prevent networks from ringing every. single. dollar. out of franchises that had long outlived their narrative viability, and Aymar Jean Christian points out that some shows like Damages and 24 already work within fairly limited, self-contained arcs each season.

I think this is an interesting proposition, but I'd like to suggest an even more pernicious problem and a more radical solution: I think the standard 22-episode season is actually to blame, and dramas, though not necessarily sitcoms, might flourish in the British series model.  Now I'll admit to a bias here.  My favorite kind of television show to watch is a procedural, but I think most shows these days, not simply cops-and-robbers ones, tend to fit into a model where there's a season-long problem that needs to be solved.  And I tend to think that State of Play, the original British mini-series on which the mediocre American remake was based, is kind of the holy grail of the six-episode program.   

But even with those biases in play, I think a move towards more miniseries, or to seasons that consist of six or eight episodes might make a lot of sense.  First, it's a length that's perfect for solving an actual crime or actual problem.  In The Wire, 12 or 13 episodes always seemed like a period appropriate to unraveling part of a complex criminal conspiracy.

But individual crimes, whether one murder or several, deserve more time than they actually get on Law & Order or CSI, to be solved (policework isn't easy!) even though they probably couldn't sustain an entire 22-episode season.  State of Play, and Prime Suspect, the British detective show for which Helen Mirren was justly famous before her revival over in the States, both use six episodes to solve single crimes.  State of Play was a one-off, while Prime Suspect ran for seven series, in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996-1997, 2003 and 2006.  The size of the arcs let the main characters in both solve the crimes at stake while creating plenty of room around the investigations for character development not prompted by the immediate case at hand (something I think has always been a flaw of the Law & Order franchise: of course Fin meets his son on the job.  Where else would he have time?).  The shows felt more like watching the real lives of the people involved in the events in question, and the crimes feel like actual, extended, frustrating investigations.

And it doesn't just have to be individual crimes.  Spooks, the series about the UK's internal intelligence service, sticks with a caper-per-episode formula, but tends to tackle a larger problem, like the integration of a new team member or the fraying psyche of a team lead, across each year's arc.  (Spooks is also unusually, in my experience, willing to kill characters off [for real, Lost, this means you] or add new ones, a commendable ruthlessness that American producers would do well to note.  And the show is very, very good about integrating other high and low culture in a way I find effective.)  But there's space in there to draw out all the characters in a large cast, without unduly and embarrassingly extending personal developments that ought to happen more quickly if the characters are not morons.  Mad Men, which I don't watch, though I follow the coverage, seems to understand this kind of emotional pacing.

In other words, I tend to think shorter arcs, even if there are a bunch of them, tend to suit the kinds of stories Americans like told better than the 22-episode season.  And I think it's a real benefit for characters and the actors who play them, too.  It's hard to get sick of DCI Jane Tennison when you only get six episodes of her a year, but it's very easy to want more--and for Helen Mirren to commit to giving audiences more of her, as she did after six- and three-year hiatuses in the role, during which her international career blew up.  Sure, limited runs and shorter seasons may require networks to invest more in genuine creativity (the horror!), and more advertising of series as events.  But given what they're plowing into existing and longer series, that doesn't seem too onerous, considering the potential artistic gains.