To save its long-term future, television needs to think about going short.
This isn’t a plea to dumb down ideas, shrink budgets, or otherwise harm the medium. But it’s clear that the current model isn’t sustainable for the long-term future of the industry as a whole. This isn’t about whether or not “House Of Cards” is the future of television. Spoiler alert: It’s not, and that assessment has nothing to do with anything that may or may not happen in episodes you’ve yet to bingewatch. Dropping the sum total of what we normally call a “season” is a novel approach, but it’s hardly a gamechanging one for whatever we’re going to call “television shows” in the semi-near future.
What WILL change things, however, is an approach by those greenlighting the production of these types of narratives and those who disseminate them in some way, shape, or form to the eyeballs of the world that takes into account not simply the quality of the narrative, but the proper length at which said narrative such unfold. There always will be a place for a show that follows a procedural model and can sustain stories for decades on end without worry of running out of criminals to catch, patients to heal, or a family crisis to handle before dinnertime. What follows here isn’t a rallying cry to abandon those types of shows. Nor does this stem from a desire to stop any attempt to unleash a complex, multifaceted story that necessitates years in the telling of it.
However, I would say that those are almost the only two models currently in play, and that’s hurting the medium as a whole.
We’ve seen recent evidence of networks trying to dip their toes into the water of something aside from “Law & Order” and “Lost”. ABC unspooled “The River”, which was a novel attempt at creating a sustained sense of dread over its two-month run. FOX is getting into bed with M. Knight Shyamalan on a 10-12 episode show that will debut in 2014. (Or WILL it? Twist!) CBS is launching “Under The Dome” this summer as a television “event” which will possibly cover the book’s events in a single run. But all of these shows came/will come with asterisks attached. If “The River” hadn’t tanked in the ratings, do you think that would have been the only season? If Shyamalan recovers some of that magic seemingly lost after “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”, would FOX be content to let the show never reappear? And “Under The Dome” has come with a huge caveat that if the miniseries is successful, a proper series might emerge thereafter.
Leave it to FX’s John Landgraf to lead the way towards a more manageable scenario in which story, not profit, dictates the total length of the show. As he told IGN’s Eric Goldman during this past Television Critics Association, Landgraf is starting to think past a mindset where he’s creating what he terms “90-hour movies” such as “Sons of Anarchy” and towards one in which the story dictates its overall run.
“If we just open the door for everything between two hours and 90 hours, of any length — four hours, six, eight, ten, 13, 26, 40, 50, 60, anything — then in a way what we’re doing for creators… Because that’s what this is all about. Storytellers are saying the same thing we’re saying to David Chase and others, which is, “We don’t care. We’ll figure out the business. You figure out the epic journey, we’ll figure out the business around it.”
Landgraf credits Ryan Murphy for this shift, and Murphy is an unlikely but pivotal figure in the movement to steer away from preconceived notions about how shows are meant to functional over the long haul. In fact, the “long haul” is vastly unappealing to Murphy, which makes “American Horror Story” simultaneously the best representation of Murphy’s strengths and weaknesses but also a case study in how to use a shorter length to take risks within a show’s storytelling. The first season of “AHS” is, quite frankly, a horrid mess. But it’s also a mess that lasted thirteen hours and was over. Any mistakes made or problems accrued ended the second that season was over. “Asylum” not only honed the show’s missions statement, but also ended up landing upon a settings and themes that allowed Murphy to better explore the parameters of this shorter form of storytelling.
After all, if he’s bored, we’re bored, as anyone who watches “Glee” can attest.
And boredom’s the enemy of any artistic medium. So why not aim for as many self-contained stories as possible to integrate within those that can more easily stand the test of time? The sheer volume of ideas being turned over would be intense, but…look at any pilot season. The medium’s already flooded with ideas that are being produced in a system designed to only make huge hits with almost no room for failure. And when a network does take a risk (such as ABC did with “Last Resort”) and it fails, it only serves to reinforce the idea that taking any risks at all isn’t worth it.
But what if “Last Resort” weren’t a show that prematurely ended after 13 episodes, but in fact concluded its self-contained story after 13 hours? How might we view that project now? How might we view ABC? How might ABC have better planned its season understanding that it only had thirteen original hours in the 8 pm Thursday time slot? How might that have helped it slot in another show to start right after that, and another show three months later? Cinemax has built a nice little brand for itself as the B-movie action cousin to HBO. People known that any show on Friday nights on that network will offer some solid ass-kicking action. Why couldn’t 8 pm on Thursday on ABC serve that function to those that don’t have Cinemax? (More on this below.)
In thinking about the ways in which this plan can work, we need to look not just at why this makes sense for viewers, but for those making these shows and airing them as well. This isn’t about some vanity project by which new TV gets constantly lobbed at my eyeballs until I bleed. (Though shit, that sounds AWESOME.) So let me break down a couple of areas in which different parties can benefit from this mixture of short-term shows within the traditionally long game of television.
1) The creative risks can be higher because the fiscal commitment is finite. Note I said “finite”, not “inexpensive”. Sure, a network could fund something on the scale of FX’s “Legit” (which, so near as I can tell, is being funded from the change found in those “Take A Penny, Leave A Penny” dispensers at most gas stations) at next-to-know risk. Something like “Awake” was essentially destined to attract a small audience, but NBC could have earned points for simply airing it in the first place rather than piss off the small but extremely vocal crowd that fell in love with it. It wouldn’t matter if the show attracted a dismal number of viewers, since the aggregate results of these attempts would eventually even themselves out over the long haul.
But it could also go all-in on something like, say, “Terra Nova”. No need to hold back on the dinos. Let those bad boys rip. You only have eight episodes. Go crazy! Shows that need to parcel out budgets across 22 installments a season times a theoretically infinite amount of seasons often find themselves doing bottle episodes out of necessity. If you need to tell a story with a vast scope, get in, get out, and leave a big mark.
2) The creative risks can be bolder because the storytelling is finite. How many shows suddenly find an unseen gear when approaching the finish line of either a season or a series? All of those roadblocks arbitrarily assigned throughout the show up until that point suddenly melt away. A show like “The Mob Doctor” would never have lasted over the long haul, even if the ratings hadn’t been terrible. There was no way for any writer to sustain the central premise over the course of a half-decade. The premise dictates insanely tense situations at all times, and a protagonist that needed to either constantly work to get out from under the mob’s rule or find a way to worm her way into that lifestyle. But “The Mob Doctor” treated its premise as the cherry on top of a procedural sundae, took little to no pains in working towards its inevitable endpoint, and found itself alone, spinning its tires with no one watching.
Would a planned 13-episode version of “The Mob Doctor” been better? Not with this cast and crew. But the idea itself isn’t a bad one for a TV show, so long as that TV show has a built-in expiration date. In thinking about how long that premise could sustain itself before falling under the weight of its own ridiculousness, another showrunner could have come up with a number that provided enough time for the characters to breathe while also squeezing the life out of them at every step along the journey. This leads directly into the next benefit.
3) Writers and showrunners can get a better sense of how to tell big stories through the successful execution of smaller ones. Look, everyone thinks they have a “Breaking Bad” in them. Everyone is WRONG. And look: THERE’S NO SHAME IN THAT. Just as musicians who don’t have a “Sgt. Pepper” in them still put out incredible records every year, it’s OK for writers to not swing for the fences when simply knocking out doubles on a consistent basis would improve the medium across the board. I don’t want two-dozen “Breaking Bad”-type shows in my DVR queue, anyways. I want a variety of perspectives on a variety of worlds I’ve either never experienced myself or a familiar one depicted in a new, fresh way. Breaking a story from start to finish would be a better exercise than stopping a quarter of the way through thanks to low ratings, cast reshuffling, or other behind-the-scenes events that stop a story before it’s been fully told. Forget about all that cool shit you promise will be in season four. Put it in episode four first. Then we’ll see what you can do.
3) More shows means a greater number of actors. And no, I don’t mean “more Kevin Bacon” types. The medium’s deference to film has to stop, as does the deference given by those that both write about and watch television. Sure, I guess it would be great if Tom Hardy could come in for three months in between movies and film a gritty noir show created by Tim Minear. But changing the model to incorporate more self-contained stories isn’t primarily designed just to get Anne Hathaway on the small screen. More shows means more opportunities for fresh faces or familiar ones who suddenly get a chance to stretch themselves out or act against type. Spending six seasons as a villain might not appeal to someone like Jim Parsons. But a stand-alone show that allows him to be more than Sheldon Cooper for a bit? Why not?
Mostly, though, I’m interested in finding new faces to augment the revolving-door policy that dictates so much casting. As Alan Sepinwall noted in his book “The Revolution Was Televised”, a large chunk of the success of “The Sopranos” lay in the relatively unknown commodities that were James Gandolfini and Edie Falco. Again: star power isn’t going away any more than the procedural. A show can make or break itself by finding a diamond in the rough and laying claim to him or her before anyone else. And if it doesn’t work out? You’re onto the next project before you know it.
4) Networks, like writers, can find out what works and what doesn’t in a more limber manner. We all know that no one knows anything when it comes to Hollywood. William Goldman taught us that long ago. But there’s no better way for networks to figure out what works than by trying a lot of smaller things out before taking a huge risk on a longer-term endeavor. Maybe they find a new genre that can be maximized over the long haul. Maybe the writer who previously toiled on another show reveals her brilliance when given a shot to tell a short-form story. Maybe an actor whose headshot found its way into the bottom of a thousand shredders suddenly adorns a thousand billboards. The limited amount of prime-time real estate bottlenecks the amount of shows it can put on in a given year, unless certain slots have built-in shelf-lives that afford flexibility, variety, and the chance to simply take chances. That leads me to my final point…
5) Timeslots might actually mean something again. The example of this that I’ve used in the past, and I’ll use again here, is “Mutant Enemy Mondays”. The premise is simple: take four writers once in the writer’s room with Josh Whedon. Give them each carte blanche to come up with a thirteen-episode series. Give them the same time slot. Give them a branded marketing campaign. And maybe, just maybe, you get people tuning into a certain network at a certain time every week. They are not just tuning in for specific content, but the promise of a specific type of aesthetic.
Now, the Whedon example is used because I’m a sucker for alliteration, and “Mutant Enemy Mondays” sounds awesome. But you can take that basic premise and apply it a few hundred ways. Certain stations build their entire programming schedule around this type of idea, but there’s no reason it can’t be applied beyond niche stations dedicated to DIY projects.
I love me some “Bath Crashers”, don’t get me wrong. But as cool as it is to be able to DVR shows, watch them on Hulu Plus/Netflix/Amazon Prime, and stream them to my computer/Apple TV/PS3/Kindle Fire/iPhone, the fact is that the social aspect on TV is still the killer app. It’s not just about being able to livetweet shows (which, quite frankly, is kind of the worst when it’s not a live event) but the ability to share a relatively collective viewing experience with others. A group of friends shouldn’t have to establish each individual viewing status before having a chat about TV over drinks at a bar. (“Wait, you’re only five episodes into ‘Happy Endings’? And I’m three more into ‘Downton Abbey’ than you? Let’s all just drink quietly and glower at each other.”)
Again, see above: I like me all the TV my eyeballs can absorb. But sure: I COULD binge watch all of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” if I wanted to. But Christ, that’s work. Even someone catching up on “Breaking Bad” in time for this summer’s final season has a lot of work to do. People are willing to forgo seasons as they happen because they know it will be available at some point in the indeterminate future. But by giving people only a relative handful of episodes to catch up on, the idea of watching the past three or four episodes of a new show you initially missed but have heard raves about suddenly seems less daunting. The desire to put off something you know will soon end is likewise reduced.
In other words, we’d have more event TV, and less of “The Event” on TV.
Doesn’t that sound better?