clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu get one basic thing about TV very wrong

TV isn't one big story. It's a bunch of smaller ones.

Daredevil Netflix
Daredevil's seasons tend to sag in the middle. It's because streaming shows too often try to tell one big story, instead of many smaller ones.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even defenders of Netflix's Marvel shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, will admit they have one big problem — their stories tend to get really saggy in the middle.

This was particularly true with Jones, which reached a climactic point around the middle of its first season, then screwed around for several episodes before staging its final battle. By the time Jessica faced off with the season's main supervillain, their encounter didn't nearly have as much potency as it would have if the season had run for only eight episodes instead of 13.

On the surface, it would seem that an easy solution would be for Netflix (and Amazon, which suffers the same problem, but to an even greater extent) to stop ordering so many episodes of its original series. Instead of 13, why not eight? Or even six?

There are a bunch of reasons why Netflix and Amazon are essentially bound to order 10 or 13 episodes per season of any given show — mostly stemming from how television contracts work.

However, even if they could get away with cutting back, I'm not sure it would be enough to fix their problem of saggy seasons. That's because Netflix, Amazon, and even Hulu misunderstand what makes TV work.

The central flaw in streaming services' logic

Mad Dogs in Belize
Mad Dogs struggled to fill its 10-episode running time.
Amazon Studios

The way the three major streaming services program their big hit shows seems to suggest they believe the chief advantage available to them is how much time these series can spend telling their stories. And that's true, to a point. Whenever a viewer is likely to finish an entire season in a handful of sittings — as opposed to watching one episode per week over the course of a few months — there's more room to spread out the story, and you can count on the audience being able to keep track of plot points more readily.

There are clear benefits to this approach. The kind of expansive, character-rich storytelling present on, say, Netflix's Orange Is the New Black would be murderously difficult to pull off in a weekly model, where viewers would require constant reminding of how all of the characters and storylines are connected. On Netflix, the series' deeply interconnected web of relationships simply exists, and it's always there for viewers to drop into and out of at their leisure.

But streaming services have an unfortunate tendency to assume they should use all the time in a season — including the extra moments freed up by not having to remind viewers of certain plot developments — to tell a single story. Think of this assumption as a corollary of the fact that too many blockbuster movies nowadays run well over two hours, when they'd probably be better served at around an hour and 45 minutes or so. The longer the story, the more the storyteller becomes convinced that every detail matters, when that's really not the case.

The number of fictional works that are so dense that they require tellings longer than three hours is pretty slim. Certainly, gigantic epic novels like The Lord of the Rings or War and Peace fall into this category. But most other stories are rather slim when you come right down to it, and stretching them out just means adding pointless incidents and busywork, stuff that distracts from the story's "spine," or its most central conflict. (In The Lord of the Rings, it would be, "The good guys have to destroy a ring before the bad guys can get hold of it.")

Of course, stories are more than their conflicts. The best ones feature interesting characters who drive the plot forward, and those characters could help or hinder the progression of that plot through their actions. And all stories have obstacles that stand between the characters and their ultimate objective.

But the number of obstacles a writer can organically introduce into a story before those obstacles start to feel pointless and random is very small. For a good example of obstacles gone awry, look at Amazon's recent Mad Dogs, where the characters' main objective is simply to fly back to the United States from Belize. That's not a bad story for a short miniseries, but stretched over 10 episodes, the number of things the writers have to do to strand them in place becomes utterly ridiculous.

There's one simple reason that traditional TV has better luck telling serialized stories

Actor Bryan Cranston as Walter White holds a phone to his ear in Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad seemed to really need all 62 episodes to tell its story.

Whenever I start to talk about how very few stories need to be so long, those who disagree often bring up The Wire or Breaking Bad — two shows whose stories, at first blush, seem to justify having all of those episodes, spread over five seasons, in which to tell their tales.

But look at both shows, and you'll see that they're very smart about using every hour they have to tell an individual story that fits neatly into the overall season. Every Breaking Bad episode shows Walter White building a new tiny corner of his criminal empire. In every episode of The Wire, the cops open up a new part of their case, tracking down leads or setting up evidence.

This has always been television's chief storytelling advantage. Instead of having lots of time, TV actually has less time — in that each episode is a short story in and of itself — but it can use its smaller stories to give the appearance of larger ones.

The episode itself is the most important single unit of storytelling on TV, not the season or even the series. Without good episodes, shows inevitably end up feeling muddled and aimless.

And because the week-to-week model needs to give you incentives to keep coming back, it essentially puts the brunt of focus on episodes, not on the series as a whole, making the production of good episodes (and the ability to spot bad ones) more important.

And when those episodes are crackling along, series can get away with stuff that wouldn't work without them. Walter's face-off with Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad, for instance, might feel like a weird detour in a shorter story (like a novel or film) that was more focused on Walter's immediate quest. But on TV, where every single chapter centers on a new tale of the high-stakes chess match between the two men, it's thrilling.

And here's the thing: You can see how this is true on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, too.

The best streaming shows also have distinct episodes

BoJack Horseman goes on a book tour.
BoJack Horseman is one of Netflix's best shows.


For my money, Netflix has made three very good TV shows that have lasted multiple seasons: Orange Is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (Jessica Jones and Master of None have both aired debut seasons I liked very much, but I want to see more before adding them to the "very good" pile. And here, I guess, is where I reveal that I've seen and liked much of Kimmy's second season.) Amazon has Transparent, which I labeled the best TV show of 2015.

When you look at every show I've mentioned above, with the exception of Jessica Jones they all know how to make a great episode that's successful independently as well as part of a larger whole. Kimmy was developed for NBC, which gave it a more traditional sitcom base, where episodes are largely standalone. BoJack is animated, and the production process for animation means more discrete, independent episodes are encouraged. Orange Is the New Black, Master of None, and Transparent all hail from creators with extensive experience in TV.

Even if you binge-watched those shows in a single sitting, you would almost certainly have a "favorite episode," be it the one where BoJack travels to New Mexico to visit an old crush, or the Amish flashback on Orange Is the New Black, or Transparent's trip to a women's music festival. All of these shows are expert at using smaller stories to tell bigger ones, even the ones that are heavily serialized.

And here's the thing: I'm not 100 percent sure the single episode has to be the be-all and end-all here. One of the things I liked so much about House of Cards' fourth season was that it paused its larger story to concentrate on a three-episode tale about Frank Underwood facing a serious health crisis. That told us more about the people around Frank (who swarmed in to fill the vacuum he left behind) than the show ever had from trying to extend its other conflicts to fill full seasons.

A story can be told in a scene, or in an episode, or in a handful of them. But over a full season or series, it can easily fall apart, as writers lose focus and the obstacles placed in front of characters start to feel random and unmotivated. Streaming shows, because of how they're presented to us, tend to look at the wall of a great series like The Wire and assume they just need replicate that wall. But that's not the solution at all. Instead, they should start by replicating the bricks.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.