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.