Are television seasons dead as we know them?
I ask not because I have a particular stake in the answer. But it’s something I’ve been mulling about off and on for the past few years, especially as networks and internet-based entities play around with the organization and distribution of content. But the recent trend of Netflix dumping all episodes of its original (or “semi-original,” in one case) content really puts the question into focus. The question isn’t just about the speed in which one can watch a discreet amount of TV, but what the compression of that viewing means for the way one consumes it.
After all, this isn’t just about bingewatching, which can be done on plenty of seasons that were never intended to be viewed in that fashion. If someone wants to jump into “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” they can jump in and watch every episode as fast or slow as they want to do so. But that doesn’t change the way in which TNG was produced, which is to say as a single set of 22-26 episodes written and produced over the course of a particular time frame. The same goes for most shows, regardless of the number of episodes that constitute a season. Some shows build up a storyline over the course of a season. Some shows just knock out the same template week after week. But we still have the word “season” as a metric by which to delineate the time spent both creating and consuming a set amount of episodes.
To be sure, the word “season” was suspect long before streamable content. Look back at shows like “Entourage” or “Battlestar: Galactica,” which produced and packaged seasons in parts. A lot of that had to do with behind-the-scenes contracts and production schedule, but more than a little part undoubtedly had to do with being able to sell two separate DVD sets so fans would have the complete set. More recently, “Switched At Birth” aired its pilot on June 6, 2011, and completed that first season with its thirtieth episode on October 22, 2012. At what point does a season of television become less about the story contained within and more about a legal assignation drawn up by those far away from a set or a writer’s room?
Regardless of what constitutes a season of television from a legal perspective, there’s still the audience experience that has helped to shape what a season of television entails. For better or worse, there has been one single way in which audiences consumed them: on a weekly basis, with no one having any ability to get ahead of the network’s programming schedule. If you wanted to watch the fourth season of “Justified,” you had to watch it over the course of 13 weeks. Maybe you weren’t always home on the night it aired, and maybe you had to more than occasionally catch up by watching a few episodes piled up on your DVR, but you couldn’t get ahead of where FX wanted you to go.
While I recently argued that helped the conversation around these episodes, it also helped shape the way in which these episodes were written in the first place. Having space between each episode thanks to weekly deployment meant that story could be parceled out, properly paced, and have payoffs based on the amount of time spent with the show on the part of the audience. That amount of time doesn’t simply mean “the cumulative number of minutes in each episode,” but also the time between each episode as well. “Lost” ran for 121 episodes, but fans didn’t spend 80 hours (roughly speaking) with the show. They spent six years with it. The risk of that length of time is that people will (and did, in this case) often feel as if the investment isn’t worth it if they payoff isn’t satisfactory. The payoffs, by contrast, can be monstrously wonderful: the climax of a show like “The Shield” isn’t just about closing the book on a narrative but a viewer’s relationship with that show. But in either case, factoring in the space between episodes is as vital as factoring in the time spent on an episode-, season-, or series-worth of content.
All of this brings us to “House Of Cards,” “Hemlock Grove,” and “Arrested Development,” the three recent shows (after last year’s little-watched “Lilyhammer”) that potentially signal the end of both the traditional deployment of a television season but also the nature of a “season” at all. Netflix is offering up the chance, if one wants, to skip the weekly wait between episodes and just gorge to one’s heart’s content. This offers up plenty of pros and cons, with many hailing the way that “House Of Cards” eschewed the normal arc of a season (by putting its climatic action in the antepenultimate episode) because the show had no responsibility to act like a normal television show. It’s certainly true that no show, on Netflix or on a network, need adhere to any one structure. But does the Netflix model represent a new structure or a fundamental lack of one?
The ability to have the entire content that constitutes Season 4 of “Arrested Development” not only shapes one’s ability to critically analyze it. It also fundamentally changes the way the parts (ie, episodes) are judged in relation to the whole (ie, the “season”). Back when I reviewed “Cards” on a weekly basis for The A.V. Club, I wrote up each episode before seeing the next. I did so because I wanted to have a record for anyone coming to the show at a later date that wanted to read a review of that episode sans spoilers. Was this an outdated way of analyzing it? Perhaps. Time will tell. But I certainly remember plenty of commenters frustrated with me wondering what might happen in later episodes. Let me paraphrase those responses: “The other episodes exist! You don’t have to wonder! You can literally found out now!”
They weren’t wrong. But that point of view indicates a shift in analysis from the part to the whole. Again: I’m not trying to hold on for dear life when it comes to episodic analysis. If people rebel against episodic recaps when shows more often that not call a “season” of TV something they upload to a server at midnight, that’s fine. The episode ecosystem will evolve. But what I do worry about is the de-emphasis on the part in regards to the whole. Because once that happens, the “season” completely dissolves into ether. There will be no parts, just the whole. The fact that Netflix isn’t releasing these seasons as 10-15 singular installments may reflect its desire to keep episodes as important entities. Or, it could simply be that market research showed people didn’t want to watch a 9-hour “Arrested Development” movie. If one thirty minute chunk is no more or less important than another, why split them up at all, except to give people a signal as to when they can use the bathroom or head to the fridge?
I won’t mourn the loss of episodic recaps, but I would most certainly mourn the loss of the primacy of the individual episode as the building block for a season/series of television. I’ve been rewatching “The Riches,” an FX show that aired 1.5 seasons before the writers’ strike cut the second season order short. And while that show certainly has some issues, it also knew how to tell a self-contained story within the confines of a single episode. Each episode introduces a problem for the family to solve, and puts them through the ringer as they attempt to extricate themselves from it. Moreover, this should could pull a doozy of a cliffhanger when it wanted to, leaving the audience with 167 hours with which to contemplate how on earth the family would escape from the latest threat.
Now, I’m watching it on Netflix. So the cliffhangers are resolved within five minutes. But again: this show wasn’t conceived for this type of viewing. “Arrested Development,” however, was, which allowed the show to pull off some insanely dense callbacks that might escape notice over the course of a few weeks but be easily noticeable within a few hours. That’s all well and good. But the intricate web of the fourth season means that few episodes really stand out as anything other than pieces of a larger puzzle that only snap into place once every minute has aired. There’s something extremely impressive about that construction. But it also means few, if any, episodes really work as individual elements. Those that do work tend to evoke more belly laughs rather episodes that stand on their own. Such a concept simply doesn’t exist within the world of that fourth season.
“Arrested Development” is probably a bad example for future shows Netflix, Hulu, or other entities may release as a batch. The puzzle is the point for “Arrested”, at least for season four. The first three seasons had a better mix of episode-specific pleasures and season-long pleasures. Once released from the restrictions of network-mandated episode lengths and deployment, Mitch Hurwitz through out the rule book and tried something new that felt appropriate to the freedoms of the new environment. You could argue those that migrated from network to cable in the late-1990’s/early 200’s (as detailed in Alan Sepinwall’s recent book “The Revolution Was Televised”) likewise found new ways to tell stories in new environments. But people like Shawn Ryan, David Chase, and others still told stories on an episode-to-episode basis.
HBO, FX, and other networks outside the Big Four may allow for more mature, explicit, or controversial content. And they may be more hands-off with their creative talent. But they still air episodes once a week. And that week doesn’t just give viewers a chance to think about those episodes for the following seven days. It puts a spotlight on each episode as an important piece of the overall entity. When you bingewatch a show, the episode often turns into a small piece of time in the overall story. What happens in a single installment is less important. That’s fine, and fairly unavoidable, for anyone catching up on a show that has long aired. But what will this mean for the future of television development? When a season of television turns into arbitrarily splitting up a whole into bite-sized pieces that exist for cataloging purposes only, then we’ve lost one of the central things that makes television unique as an artform.
There are plenty of good stories that can be told in this manner. They just won’t be television shows. Not anymore. A good season of TV needs a host of good episodes that function on the micro as well as macro levels. They have their own ebbs and flows and rules and atmospheres that contribute to the whole while being solid pieces of entertainment on their own. By subsuming these chunks into the monoliths that Netflix releases, we’re undoubtedly changing the way we watch television. What remains to be seen is how it changes those writing for this new age of the television season. There are plenty of exciting forms this seachange to take. But they all need to remember that it all starts and ends with the episode itself. If that stays intact, then there’s no end to the next TV revolution.