Friday, May 16, 2014

Is Less More When It Comes to TV Season Length?

by Sara N.

This is a tale of two television shows.

One premiered following great hype and greater expectations, backed by a massive fan following and a sprawling extant universe from which to spin stories.

The other premiered following raised eyebrows over the tired premise and general malaise about a crass network attempt to capitalize on the craze for the supernatural.

As anyone with eyeballs, a TV set, and a love of genre television knows, the former show — which should have been a juggernaut — flailed as it tried to find its footing, while the latter show — which should have been a soggy misfire  — roared to delicious, pulse-pounding life.

What was the difference between the two? We can talk about lots of problems, from casting to writing to special effects, but I wonder if some of the challenges that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. faced (and Sleepy Hollow did not) came down to filling all of the hours that the network demanded of it.

S.H.I.E.L.D. was given 22 episodes for its first season, the traditional episode order for scripted comedy and drama series on network television. Sleepy Hollow was given 13 episodes for its first season, which is more in line with series orders for cable television shows.

The Mison/Beharie chemistry doesn't hurt.
As a result of its smaller order, Sleepy was able to tell more focused stories that almost all worked to further its overarching plot: How was Ichabod Crane alive 250 years after his apparent death on a battlefield? Who is the headless horseman? What kind of evil is threatening their town? And how is all of this linked to the trauma Lt. Abbie Mills experienced in the woods as a child? Granted, not every episode was completely on point or as strong as others in the season (I'm looking at you, John Doe), but the storytelling moved quickly, answered questions, introduced new questions, and left viewers in the season finale with some secrets revealed and some cliffhangers unresolved. In short, bravo, Sleepy Hollow, on your smashing success.

Now, let's turn to S.H.I.E.L.D. Not only did it carry the weight of the Whedon name (and never mind that the Whedon running it isn't the alpha Whedon), but with 22 episodes to play with, the showrunners had the luxury of introducing characters and slowly peeling back their layers, letting them grow and breathe and reveal hidden depths, like either a fine wine or an onion, depending on which metaphor I'm mixing there.

The problem is that the show introduced such dull, formulaic characters that audiences quickly lost interest in them and their generic problems, Samuel L. Jackson cameos be damned. By giving the writers so many episodes in which to flesh out Ward's relationship with both May and Skye, to demonstrate the level of trust and affection between FitzSimmons, and to get to the roots of Coulson's existential crisis, it allowed them to chart a rather meandering path. By the end of this season, the seeds planted in early episodes — Raina, the Asgardian staff, Mike Peterson's transformation, and so forth — had all bloomed into a tightly interwoven bouquet of intrigue and action. It was a good payoff for those early stories, and that, along with more nimble writing, made me actually eager for the finale. But it was a long, hard slog to get to that point, and vast swaths of the audience gave up months ago.  

Man, these people like to wear black.
It seems to me that forcing S.H.I.E.L.D. to tell that same story in 13 episodes would have been a blessing. It would've tightened up the pace and the plotting, forcing the writers to create characters that were interesting out of the gate rather than relying on slow reveals to get to the essence of the men and women on Coulson's bus. Ichabod and Abby started the series as compelling, fully formed characters who have to learn to function together. How much better would S.H.I.E.L.D. have been had the same been true?

I'm not arguing that the episode order for every TV show should be slashed in half. Certainly, shows such as Arrow, Parks and Recreation and The Good Wife produce full seasons with very few duds. But part of the reason that shows with shorter seasons are so engaging is that they have to move quickly to tell the stories they want to tell: Hannibal, Community, Orphan Black, House of Cards, Game of Thrones ... OK, basically all of your favorite cable shows.

In light of all of this, I hope you can understand the chill that ran up my spine when I read the Sleepy Hollow's episode order has been increased, and the show will produce between 15 and 18 episodes next season. Don't screw this up, OK, showrunners? Keep your storytelling tight and the banter between Abby and Ichabod strong.

Wait, did I just argue for less Winchester? I don't understand me, either.
And networks, give some thought to what I've said. Shows such as S.H.I.E.L.D., along with Once Upon a Time, Supernatural and Grimm, could benefit from the idea that less is more. Heck, I wouldn't cry if even Arrow and other shows that have had successful full seasons in the past would follow suit. Something about the season-long, otherwordly arcs seems to work better in a more concentrated form. It will mean less Coulson, but the tradeoff could mean more satisfied audiences.
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  1. YES. A million times infinity YES.

  2. I actually like the idea of the split season (which S.H.I.E.L.D. will be having next year). Like Once Upon a Time this season, the idea of breaking the 22 episodes in half allowed their writers to basically have two seasons in a single season's time frame. The Peter Pan arc followed by the Wicked Witch arc meant that the season as a whole focused on the character development (Regina's transition into a hero and opening herself to love, Emma no longer thinking of herself of an orphan and finally finding a home) while the stories began, climaxed, and were resolved without being drawn out. I'm hoping that S.H.I.E.L.D. adopts a similar practice with its own split.