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TV is having an identity crisis. Here’s how to fix it.

The rest of TV can learn something important from Chernobyl and Superstore.

Chernobyl is a great example of what TV gains from being shorter and more concise. But what if TV should be longer, actually?
HBO
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.

Storytelling bloat — the inevitable result of an endless demand for original content — has swallowed TV drama whole. Since so few shows know what to do with their narrative real estate, many of them sort of run in place for weeks at a time, over the course of long, handsome, and ultimately empty episodes that often last well beyond the one-hour mark.

The above complaint is an increasingly common one in TV criticism, and I don’t disagree with the sentiment. TV drama has almost entirely lost its sense of brevity and its economy of storytelling, to the degree that when a show has episodes that don’t run over 50 minutes, it’s something critics will point out. (Hello to you, FX’s Fosse/Verdon, a show where over half the season’s episodes didn’t even crest 45 minutes.)

Many of those episodes increasingly seem like they have no reason to exist. They are there to mark time across the length of a story, but have no story of their own to tell. Too many shows spend eight or nine or 10 episodes on what they could have accomplished in three.

But I think the solution, weirdly, is the one that probably sounds most counterintuitive: Rather than pledging to tighten its storytelling to create more concise series, I think TV needs to lean into what makes TV great. The problem with most of today’s bloated shows isn’t the bloat, per se. It’s the stories the shows choose to tell and the way they tell them.

Really, this is a story about the collapse of the film industry

Fosse/Verdon
Fosse/Verdon is exactly the sort of project that would have been a movie 15 years ago.
FX

In the 2010s, one of the most irritating refrains from people who make television has been, “We think of this as an X-hour movie,” meaning that all involved think of the series or season as one long story, one that has a longer runtime than a typical movie, but is functionally no different. The reason the “X-hour movie” trope is so annoying is that TV and movies are built to tell different kinds of stories. A movie, traditionally, is a singular story, spanning one longer, singular period of time. A TV series is a multifaceted story, told over many parts, over many weeks or years.

Let’s look at a terrific example of how concision in TV can yield better storytelling: HBO’s recent miniseries Chernobyl. In some ways, Chernobyl truly is a five-hour movie, telling one relatively concise story, with a small core cast of characters who recur across the whole story. But the miniseries’ episodic structure also marks it, irretrievably, as TV.

I agree with those who praise the show for its concision on a key point: Chernobyl is very, very good, and its short runtime of just over five hours total is one reason why. (Most of its five episodes are a little over one hour.) In a recent interview, the miniseries’ writer, Craig Mazin, told me that he was originally commissioned to write six episodes, but quickly realized he could do with five. Rather than force a sixth, he condensed the story — a smart and admirable choice.

But Chernobyl also makes the case for more thoughtful episodic construction of TV shows. Each of its five episodes is a taut, controlled tale of certain incidents that happened during the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath, and those five episodes span different genres, from disaster movie to courtroom drama. That each one has a distinctly different feel from the other four is a sneaky element of the show’s success.

I want to think about Chernobyl slightly differently, however. While it very well might have still been a TV miniseries if it had been made 15 years ago, it would have been far more likely to find a home as a movie at that time, perhaps even one with Oscars in its sights. But to my mind, that version of Chernobyl — which surely would have been crammed into a two- to three-hour running time — would have been less than the one we have now, though it still might have worked, and worked well.

The reason Chernobyl might have ended up a film if it’d been shopped around 15 years ago is simple: Hollywood used to be more welcoming to more types of projects. But we now live in a world where it has become much, much harder to make movies that aren’t mega-budget blockbusters, micro-budget indies, or relatively inexpensive genre fare (like low-budget horror movies).

Today, the kinds of mid-budget movies that used to lure adults into the theater are increasingly consigned to streaming services and cable networks. And because the success of those services often depends on how much time they can get you to spend watching them, they stretch out too many of these stories like taffy if they can.

This approach has essentially collapsed TV storytelling and film storytelling into one another, creating shows that are neither here nor there, trying to take three-hour stories and stretch them out over six hours, or eight, or 10.

That’s why so many projects like Chernobyl or FX’s recent bio-miniseries Fosse/Verdon have wound up on TV. They often boast tony casts of award winners and impressive talent behind the camera. And at their best — as I’d argue Chernobyl and Fosse/Verdon were — they manage to both be the jaw-dropping, spectacle-filled entertainment we associate with movies and the longer-form stories we associate with television.

But the problem comes when you don’t shift your story to accommodate the fact that it’s now being told on television, which leads to lots and lots (and lots!) of series that clearly originated as two-to-three hour movies but were subsequently stretched out for no discernible reason. Too few of these projects think about the fundamentals of television. Too many simply try to tell one story over as long a period of time as possible.

Don’t make TV shorter. Make TV longer.

Superstore
Superstore is a great example of how TV can use time to become even greater.
Eddy Chen/NBC

I’ve been thinking about the fundamentals of great TV since a recent conversation I had with a fellow critic, where we bemoaned how the era of Peak TV — in which there are more shows than any one person (and certainly any one critic) could ever watch — has led to a focus on the short and the new.

A show in its third or fourth season now has a much higher critical bar to clear than a show in its first season, because the amount of stuff that critics have to watch has drastically increased, while the amount of time we have to watch it in has stayed the same. Predictably, a five-episode miniseries is more likely to earn our attention than a much longer program. The same is true with viewers, who are just as overwhelmed with viewing options as critics, and have made Chernobyl the best-rated TV program in history on IMDb.

But a focus on the new and short to the detriment of the old and involved is not how TV criticism has functioned throughout most of the medium’s history; it used to be the opposite, with proven favorites getting the benefit of the doubt while new shows were asked to prove themselves. This shift, while understandable as a reaction to the sheer glut of programming, neglects the ways that TV is a medium all about change, about the ways that characters and their relationships evolve over time.

Here’s an example: In the same conversation, my fellow critic and I talked about the recently concluded fourth season of NBC’s Superstore, a show I never stop singing the praises of and one that had the best serialization of anything on TV in the 2018–’19 TV season, to my mind.

Because Superstore was telling traditional standalone sitcom stories in its main plots every week, it satisfied viewers with small, funny scenarios that showed off the characters at their best. But along the way, it also set up tons of other ideas that it then paid off, one by one and with thrilling economy, in its final handful of episodes. It’s a prime example of how serialization worked in the 1990s and 2000s — think of Friends or ER or Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and we were impressed by how good it has been at simply executing the basics.

It’s these basics that are in such short supply in the Peak TV era, particularly in the hour-long sphere. The reason that almost all of the most acclaimed shows of 2019 so far — from Russian Doll to Fleabag, from Pen15 to Ramy — have been half-hour shows is that half-hour shows are still slightly less beholden to the “serialize at all costs” idea that has become unfortunately synonymous with prestigious TV drama.

In the comedy space — and most half-hour shows are labeled as comedies, no matter how dramatic they may be — there’s much more freedom to tell smaller stories within the framework of a single episode, rather than trying to make everything add up to one story across a full season. So when a straightforward workplace comedy like Superstore is able to do both simultaneously, it feels like a revelation, instead of like something that would have been standard in 1997. But it’s also the kind of story development that simply isn’t possible in a more limited space, even one as expansive as an eight-hour miniseries.

This is not to say that “TV should be shorter” isn’t sometimes a cure for the medium’s ills. Some stories really are best told over four or five hours, which don’t fit easily as either a TV season or a film. And the more that miniseries like Chernobyl experiment with porting the episodic model of traditional television into tightly constructed narratives, the better off those narratives will be.

But in general, let me suggest that exactly the opposite is true: TV should be longer. Not on a per-episode basis (50 minutes or less, please!), and not in the sense of figuring out how long one story can be made to last. Rather, networks should challenge themselves to find stories that fit the particular strengths of television — breaking down a larger story into smaller chunks of seasons, and episodes, and acts, and scenes — and lean in.

Veteran TV writers talk about something called “the franchise,” which is the core of a show and what makes it tick. The franchise is obvious on a comedy, or on a procedural show like ER — where someone with a medical emergency arrives at the hospital, and the doctors help. But it exists on highly serialized shows, too; on Breaking Bad, for example, the franchise was “Walter White gets backed into a corner and fights his way out.” Even Chernobyl has a franchise: A problem at the nuclear power plant (or within its immediate environs) must be solved before it gets substantially worse.

It’s true that a franchise can make a show seem formulaic. But as anyone who’s whiled away a weekend afternoon in front of a Law & Order marathon would tell you, even a formulaic show with a great franchise can be terrifically watchable. And even a formulaic show with a so-so franchise (say, NCIS) is often more watchable than a series that has given little thought to the most basic levels of its construction (say, Netflix’s Bloodline). TV isn’t about big stories; it’s about lots and lots of small ones that add up to something larger in the end, a kind of magic trick that unfolds across years.

This is why, whenever someone asks me where I think TV is headed, my very real answer is that I think there will be a reinvention of the wheel that takes the country by storm. Some network somewhere will realize just how potent a powerful workplace drama with compelling characters and a low-concept premise (something like “these doctors work in a hospital”) can be if it’s executed well.

Audiences will flock to it, drawn by some combination of craft and impossible-to-predict zeitgeist lightning. And it will run 13 ... or 18 ... or 24(?!) episodes per season, and we’ll all gobble up exactly as much as we can get. Arguably, the recent success of Empire and This Is Us — both of which offer slightly new spins on very old TV formats — has shown there’s a very big potential audience for such a thing.

The problem with too-long TV isn’t about length; it’s about stories, and how they can’t all be stretched to fit a certain number of episodes. TV can’t move forward simply by becoming a slightly longer version of the movies. Instead, it’s time to make TV TV again.

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