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'Breaking Bad' and TV's Latest Trend: The Incredible Shrinking Television Season

by Maureen Ryan, posted Aug 23rd 2011 1:00PM
'Breaking Bad's' renewal is old news, of course, but I've been on vacation and haven't had a chance to weigh in.

In any event, the most noteworthy thing about the renewal isn't the fact that the show is going away. Vince Gilligan, 'Breaking Bad's' creator, has said for some time that he doesn't want the taut, terrific drama to overstay its welcome, and that's a laudable idea.

No, the most noteworthy thing about 'Breaking Bad's' exit plan is that it fits into a pattern I like to call the Incredible Shrinking Television Season. AMC hasn't confirmed this, but credible news reports have said that the final season of 'Breaking Bad' is likely to be shown over the course of two years, in chunks of around eight episodes or so.

If that happens, we'll be getting two semi-shrunken seasons, which fits in with what's been happening to a lot of scripted shows, mostly on cable but also on the broadcast networks. The standard episode order for a new or returning cable show used to be 13 episodes, but now it almost seems as though that's the exception, not the rule.

This concerns me.

I know that having a 13- or 22-episode season has never been a hard-and-fast rule (networks are certainly happy to whack season orders when things aren't going well, and they like to super-size seasons when they've got a hit on their hands). But a few years ago, a network asking an Emmy-nominated drama to only air eight episodes in a calendar year would have seemed unthinkable. Now it's much more thinkable.

I began to notice a couple of years ago that HBO -- not usually a place known for penny pinching -- began to shave the lengths of seasons. 'True Blood' has always had 12 episodes per season, and that's the length of both 'Boardwalk Empire' seasons (and Showtime's 'Dexter' as well). 'Treme' got only 10 episodes its first season, and 11 in its second. The new HBO comedy 'Enlightened' will have 10 episodes in its debut season as well.

The shorter-season trend has really gained steam in the last year or two, partly driven, I'm sure, by the economic climate. As 'Spartacus' creator and showrunner Steven DeKnight said when I spoke to him last month, "I think 10 [episodes] is becoming the new standard in cable."

It sure seems that way. Check out this list of recent episode orders:

'Bent' (an NBC mid-season comedy): Six episodes for its first season.

'Boss' (Starz, Oct. 21): Eight episodes for its first season.

'Game of Thrones' (HBO, returns spring 2012): 10 episodes for its first and second seasons.

'Camelot' (Starz, cancelled): 10 episodes for its first (and only) season.

'Falling Skies' (TNT, returns summer 2012): 10 hours for its first and second seasons.

'Torchwood' (Starz, airing now): 10 hours for its fourth season (though that's up from the 5-hour 2009 miniseries 'Torchwood: Children of Earth').

'Hell on Wheels' (AMC, debuts Nov. 6): 10 hours for its first season.

'Spartacus' (Starz, returns January 2012): 13 hours for its first season, six hours for the prequel series, 10 hours for its second season, 'Spartacus: Vengeance.'

'The Walking Dead' (AMC, returns Oct. 16): Six hours for its first season, and though the network's president disputed it, the show reportedly has a lower budget for its 13-episode second season.

There is certainly an argument to be made in favor of varied season lengths. We can probably all agree that 'Lost' picked up momentum when its seasons were reduced in length from 22 episodes to a more manageable 14 to 18. 'The Office' and 'Parks and Recreation' benefited from short first seasons that allowed the writers to figure out what worked and didn't work, and both comedies came back much stronger after those "sample size" seasons. 'Torchwood's' first couple of seasons had a number of episodes that were repetitive space-fillers, and it's far from the only show to suffer from that problem. Most showrunners readily admit in interviews that the longer a season is, the more dodgy episodes a show is likely to have.

And I fully realize that not every show is meant to fit into the usual American formats. Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz made some excellent points in this piece about the dangers of making a U.S. version of 'Prime Suspect.' One of the main things I took away from that piece was the idea that, in an ideal world, a television writer would figure out what story kind of story he or she wants to tell, then find the format or season length that fits that tale.

But we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a world in which networks want to wring every possible drop of profit out of the properties they have. So that means we may get a stretched-out ending for 'Breaking Bad' -- which is ironic, to say the least. 'Breaking Bad' is a show that's always been economical and measured in its storytelling. A show that usually has tremendously pleasing pacing may go out in a fashion that goes against the grain of Walter White's adventures so far.

Granted, stretching shows out is what networks do. Syfy used to commission 20-episode seasons of 'Battlestar Galactica' and make fans endure long, unpredictable gaps between half-seasons. USA tends to order seasons of about 16 episodes or so, and the network chops those up into half-season chunks that air at different times of the year.

TNT gave us a 10-hour season of 'Falling Skies' that should have been, truth be told, four or five hours long. Here's some free advice to TNT: If you are telling viewers that you're making an alien-invasion drama, you should either A) spend money on showing people actually fighting aliens and/or B) have characters that are moderately interesting, so that watching them stand around talking about tangential matters isn't immensely frustrating.

But, like it or not, 10 hours may be the new normal, and rather than give us half seasons of 9 or 10 episodes, we're getting 10 episodes total for a season, whether or not the the tale being told is too big or too slight to fit the available space. To reiterate, I don't necessarily think being flexible about the number of hours in a season is a bad thing. But isn't it true that the most memorable shows tend to have seasons that are longer than 10 hours?

I fully understand that the 22- or 13-episode season is an accidental artifact of the TV business. And though many networks are still ordering standard-length seasons, I recognize that concept of a "season" may eventually become meaningless in this multiplatform world. After all, Netflix (which isn't even a network) ordered 26 hours of the David Fincher drama 'House of Cards,' which, presumably, you'll be able to watch as one long movie.

Still, I hold to the idea that there's something intrinsically pleasing about a story that has a dozen or more hours. Maybe television has trained me to think that. But I nevertheless believe that length allows a story to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and that's crucial. Having 13 hours or so also allows a show to give its characters more depth and to explore ideas, themes and moments that aren't merely about servicing the plot. A longer season allows a story to breathe and allows us to fully immerse ourselves in the characters' worlds. And we have to be interested in the people and be engaged with where they're going if the story's going to have a meaningful payoff.

I think back to my favorite seasons of 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Sons of Anarchy' or 'The Shield' and I know the emotional impact they had on me was cumulative. And I look at a pretty good show like BBC America's 'The Hour,' which sticks to the somewhat standard U.K. episode order of six hours, and I can't help but feel it'd be better if the story had more places to go, more complexity to explore.

Six or eight hours feels like dating; 13 or 22 episodes feels like being in a committed relationship.

But, as I said in this recent piece, I really wonder how committed the television industry is to the kind of Golden Age storytelling that has defined it in the last five or 10 years. If HBO, the standard bearer for the Golden Age, can't give one of its flagships shows, 'Game of Thrones,' more than 10 hours to tell one of the most emotionally and morally complex tales being attempted on the small screen, what does that say about the level of ambition TV is aiming for these days?

Speaking of HBO, in the final season of 'The Wire,' employees of a newspaper were told again and again that they should "do more with less." Having once worked for a newspaper, I can tell you that sometimes, less is simply less.

Though I'm not advocating a one-size-fits-all approach to television, I do think, in some cases, the smartest minds in television are being told to do more with less, and that's a little unnerving.

Do you agree? Do you think shorter seasons are just fine? Share your thoughts below, if you care to.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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March 20 2012 at 8:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Now that I'm only watching cable and British TV series', I'm beginning to find the standard 22 episode season really, really bloated. Sure, we have great shows that can fill the season with wonderfulness, and we have shows that needed more than 3-6 episodes, but the percentage on either end is minute. Who knows--perhaps many canceled shows would have lasted longer had we the option of 6, 10, or 13 episode seasons, and perhaps many shows wouldn't be limping into a tepid end after spectacular beginnings (I'm looking at you Desperate Housewives) if the writers were allowed to concentrate on crafting a great bunch of episodes rather than trying to create ratings' coups during the bi-annual sweeps periods.

September 05 2011 at 10:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo, Interesting piece but I have to say I totally disagree. Shorter seasons are a good sign. Shorter seasons mean more variety, better writing and better pacing. It also means that actors, directors, writers, hell, even grips can work on multiple projects.
Also, I am really surprised that you don't mention the way TV has totally changed. You are one of the few writers/commentators who seems to realize this. We all know that the upfronts, advertising in general, distribution, etc... (I won't even mention the horrid and stupid Nielsens!) are way out dated. More and more people watch blocks of shows in their DVR, online or through Netflix or a similar service.
This means that a show like Boardwalk Empire, which is so dense, seems way longer than it actually is. In fact, the length does not matter, quality does. With shorter seasons you get more quality. You complain about Falling Skies. Well, if that had been on NBC/CBS/ABC/FOX we would have had a four episode arc on why that annoyingly earnest religious girl liked playing the piano.
So, in conclusion, thanks for the article, but be thankful, TV is getting way better! Gosh, look how bad films have become!

August 24 2011 at 3:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I do not want "Breaking Bad" to end. Great show.

August 24 2011 at 10:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My problem with such short seasons isn't the lack of episodes, it's the 40-42 weeks (more or less) between seasons. It seems like we are just getting completely into the show again, reacquainted with the characters and invested in their stories, when all of the sudden the season is over and we're forced to wait almost an entire year for the next season. It's gotten so that I'd rather wait for a show to run for a few years on TV/cable and then watch it on DVD so I can flow the episodes with gaps of my choosing.

August 24 2011 at 8:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's different for US TV but not at all strange for, e. g., British "series" to have 6-9 episodes--therefore I don't see why it has to be negative. I just wish there more even distribution throughout the week and year--with a 2-tuner DVR box it's hard to deal with 3 shows in the same time slot on some nights when there are other nights there's nothing I want to see.

Shorter seasons might make it easier to transition away from watching series when they air, and even do away with cable service--with an internet-connected TV watch an entire season in a few days from the channel website or rent the episodes from whichever streaming vendor offers it. And if enough people start doing that, it might change the way writers approach serialized and episodic series.

August 23 2011 at 5:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The British version of Coupling was 28 episodes in all. The Office was about 14 episodes. Maybe shorter is better.

August 23 2011 at 3:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony DiMeo

I think that when it comes to drama it should be 13-16 but for comedy shows I think More is diefinetly better because you can do more in a sitcom that doesnot advance the story but entertains thats why I hate that HBO has only 10 shows for CURB and HUNG

August 23 2011 at 2:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's important to remember that in terms of storytelling time 10 episodes on HBO is different than 10, or even 13 episodes on a broadcast network or a commercial supplemented cable channel. 10 full 60 minute episodes on HBO is the same amount of storytelling time as 14.5 42 minute episodes on other channels. 13 episodes would be equivalent to 18.5 42 minute episodes...

August 23 2011 at 2:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's important to remember that in terms of storytelling time 10 episodes on HBO is different than 10, or even 13 episodes on a broadcast network or a commercial supplemented cable channel. 10 full 60 minute episodes on HBO is the same amount of storytelling time as 14.5 42 minute episodes on other channels. 13 episodes would be equivalent to 18.5 42 minute episodes...

August 23 2011 at 2:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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