Sometime, about halfway through Mr. Robot’s “eps2.2_init_1.asec,” I made a startling realization—I’m only halfway through. I pause the show, and confirm to my dismay, I’m at the 33-minute mark; a mark that sits comfortably right smack in the middle of the run-time indicator. A tired sigh—here I am again, experiencing the same phenomenon that occurs all too frequently now, episode exhaustion.
TV is suffering from an overabundance in every facet of the word. There is simply too much. Too many channels, too many streaming services and too many shows your friends tell you are great and that you (a self-proclaimed avid TV fan) have never even heard of. The Good Place, a Kristen Bell and Ted Danson quirky high-concept comedy from the minds of The Office, Travellers, a sci-fi time-travelling epic starring “Will” from Will & Grace and Goldwater, a bio-series starring Ed Helms and Toni Collette about civil unrest and the 1964 presidential election. How many of those critically lauded programs have you heard of? I guarantee it’s only two because I made up the last one.
But among the gluttonous nature of too many shows comes another more insidious phenomenon: TV episodes are too long. That episode of Mr. Robot was over an hour and it was the third in a row for the series. Look past Mr. Robot and you will find other programs such as Netflix’s The Get Down, AMC’s Halt & Catch Fire, even comedies like the revival of Arrested Development all boast episode lengths that run over the industry standard. The ensuing result is episode exhaustion, the overbearing feeling that you have been stuck in an episode forever. Oversized episodes ignore the framework for pacing that time limits build and the result is a slow, meandering episode.
Having a show run longer seems like common sense. It gives you more content and allows the series to explore more and get into character development. How could more of a great show be a bad thing? Easy, pacing. Streaming shows and bingeing have destroyed any sense of pace or rhythm a show may have. As such, it was one of the first things that went by the wayside when streaming services started to create their own programming.
Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu are not beholden to advertisers. Similarly, HBO and Showtime started running a little longer that the standard 42-44 minutes. But unlike those premium subscriber channels, streaming services are not beholden to the basic concept of time. HBO can only make Game of Thrones so long because there is most likely a show coming on right after that they would like people to watch. Netflix does not care when you watch something, it has no physical structure. This is how you get episodes of Arrested Development that run anywhere from 24-39 minutes. It’s now all left at the discretion of the creators.
Great, you say. The more power in the hands of the creatives the better. Well, in the creation of television, this is not always the case. Giving showrunners and creators free reign to break with structure and tradition can be exciting and yields great results in many aspects. But part of TV’s appeal is the structure. Streaming services’ tendencies have leaked into regular cable programming, and this includes their disinterest in the episodic nature of television.
The individual episode is not emphasized anymore, so it doesn’t matter how long it runs. Without a runtime, creators can overindulge. Look again at Arrested Development’s fourth season. The tight pacing of the first three completely disappeared and it was a meandering mess. Mr. Robot suffered from the same issue in the first third of its second season; scenes went on too long, plots and characters extended beyond their purpose and beyond the point where they were still compelling.
There is beauty in the structure of episodes—in knowing when one will end. Episode lengths are about the economy of time, and whenever there is time there can be rhythm. If a season of television is a song, think of an episode like a measure: 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4; musicians can create genius within those measures because they don’t limit them. Rather, they allow them foundation and consistency. In this binge-era of viewing I fear the fundamentals of television are eroding and what’s left is an uneasy inconsistency that can alienate viewers. But who knows, it seems to be working for Netflix just fine.