Chernobyl, which wrapped up its five-episode run on HBO last week, is one of the more unlikely hits of 2019—a bleak, panicky, emetic drama about a nuclear disaster whose defining stylistic qualities were British accents, a fanatical commitment to historical detail, and a score that sounded like two pieces of metal being scraped together. And yet: I loved it. Lots of other people did, too, so much so that it’s currently the highest-rated drama on IMDb of all time. Chernobyl was urgent. It was the kind of show whose stakes were so high that a two-degree helicopter detour could mean death. It was allegorical. And, best of all, the whole thing concluded in less than six hours.
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that television episodes are getting longer. The paradox of living in this specific cultural moment is that people have less free time than ever and infinitely more things to watch—and yet the powers that be have been compelled to stretch many of those shows into packages that rival, in their running time, the audiobook of Moby Dick. Single installments in dramatic series run 70, 80, even 90 minutes long. Mid-season streaming episodes in which not a single dynamic thing happens reliably last an entire hour. Even existing shows returning for contemporary continuations or reboots are getting drawn out into formats that simply don’t do them favors. PBS’s 1993 miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City clocked in at six episodes; the new Netflix update runs to 10. The Twilight Zone, that paragon of cogent speculative storytelling, has been stretched out into a flabby, hour-long format by CBS All Access.
What’s also noteworthy, though, is that the best TV shows of recent months are the ones embracing restraint. Netflix’s Russian Doll; Amazon’s Fleabag, Homecoming, and Catastrophe; Hulu’s PEN15 and Shrill; IFC’s Documentary Now!; and FX’s Better Things all craft entire seasons that can be watched in less than six hours. The stories they tell are not only ambitious and evocative, but also concisely rendered. The first episode of Season 2 of Fleabag functions as a one-act play on its own, as does the Marina Abramović pastiche in Documentary Now! starring Cate Blanchett. They’re carefully structured and intentionally taut. And they reward viewers who enjoy engaging mindfully with shows, rather than listening to them with one ear while idly scrolling through Instagram.
The scourge of overlong television episodes—as has been thoughtfully documented by Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture—is a reaction to the rise of prestige television. On premium cable, where shows can fill a whole hour without ads, the 55-minute episode used to be a hallmark of series such as The Sopranos and The Wire. And over time, length came to be correlated with quality, and with TV auteurs who declined to have their genius constrained by such arbitrary forces as “formats” or “editors.” It’s a gendered phenomenon that VanArendonk called “the manspreading of TV,” where creators demand the same time privileges as other prestige dramas, and so episodes creep further and further beyond the boundaries of the 60-minute mark. Overlong episodes have come to be associated with quality, but also with power. All eight episodes of Matthew Weiner’s recent Amazon series The Romanoffs ran between 63 and 90 minutes. Four out of the six final episodes of Game of Thrones ran at least 75 minutes long—not because they needed to, but because who, at HBO, could say no?
The trend plays out slightly differently on streaming television, where series feel like they’re running long for no reason other than that they can. At this point in life, I’m habituated to the inevitability that the most impotent mid-season episodes of a Netflix drama will also be the ones that are 57 minutes long. Netflix seems, thankfully, to have moved away from the 13-episode standard of its Marvel superhero shows, series that padded out TV episodes as if they were mountaineers dressing for Everest. All too often, though, success means extension, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel being bumped from eight episodes to 10, or The Handmaid’s Tale from 10 to 13, a creative decision that’s only further exposed how challenging the Hulu series finds plotting.
The phenomenon of stretched-out television is frustrating because, among other things, it isn’t necessary. It’s cheaper to make shows with fewer episodes, and it doesn’t mean viewers will enjoy them any less. Gentleman Jack, HBO’s co-production with the BBC about the architect of Britain’s first lesbian marriage, could have been an exceptional costume drama in the standard three- or four-episode miniseries template; drawn out across eight hours, it struggled to find things for its heroine to do. Amazon’s Hanna, based on a movie that told almost the exact same story in two hours, sagged more heavily in the middle than an overloaded washing line. That’s not to say that the eight-episode drama can’t be well crafted. HBO’s Big Little Lies, told across seven installments that usually run about 50 minutes, is a masterpiece of pacing that somehow does justice to its sprawling cast of characters within tight time frames.
Shorter series don’t just represent less of a time commitment. For creators, they mean having to agonize over which scenes matter most, which lines are most crucial for plot and character development. The end result, pruned into its most succinct form, is loaded with intention. As viewers, we don’t need to see and understand everything. Shows that feel fragmented like Atlanta and Better Things, that let us read between the vignettes and scenes we do get to see, can feel bracing. Equally, series such as Fleabag and Russian Doll, which craft scenes around specific purposes and use flashbacks to fill in the rest, show how much can be done within a short space. The result is that they’re redefining what quality looks like on television: Of Vulture’s ongoing list of the best TV shows of 2019, 16 out of 22 on the list run under six hours in total per season. May producers and showrunners only pay attention.
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