Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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For the Love of God: Shorter TV Seasons for Serialized Shows

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 1, 2007

Some matters require divine intervention

When it came time for the Heroes season finale last week, it took me over a week to finally watch it after downloading it. The finale didn’t give me any reason to question that choice, either–it just felt tired to me, and after a season of build-ups and what ifs and what have you, anti-climactic doesn’t really begin to describe the 44 minutes of unsatisfying conclusions and meh revelations. I don’t know when I lost interest in Heroes, but where only a few months ago seemed so fresh and exciting, now when people ask me why I like the show, I’m not even sure what to tell them.

On the other hand, I just got finished watching three seasons of the eerily similar USA program The 4400, and I can’t wait for the fourth season to start. Conceptually, the shows are practically identical–disparate group of previously regular individuals unexpectedly developing unique superpowers, struggling to keep themselves safe from people trying to exploit or hurt them, as well as banding together to fight greater evils. But even after three seasons, The 4400 still feels fresh, tight, and extremely exciting, somehow managing to keep up a breakneck pace without running out of storylines or straying too far away from the realms of plausability (well, for a sci-fi show, anyway).

The main difference between the two shows? Season lengths. Heroes runs a now (and perhaps always?) standard for broadcast TV 23 episodes per season, while on USA, The 4400 lasts only 12 or 13 per season. More and more, I’m starting to think serialized TV shows just aren’t meant to follow a single thread for 23 whole episodes (making for a roughly 17-hour storyline)–a big cast like the one on Heroes helps the situation, certainly, but 23 episodes is really just a shitload of television, and if you’re only really focused on one main plotline (“Save the cheerleader, save the world,” for instance, a tagline which seems more inappropriate now than ever), it’s bound to get repetitive, or at least exhausting.

Take another show whose recent season finale provided even less excitement than Heroes24. In its first season, the 24-episode formatting of the show was clever and even sort of creative–fans who watched the show from the beginning will remember how surprising it was around episode 12 when Jack neutralized Ira Gaines, and it looked like the season had to be over, only to reveal the real villain behind the threat was still to come, and far more dangerous. But now such twists have not only ceased to be shocking, they’re as rote as everything else on 24. What’s more, just one twist isn’t close to enough anymore–now the season switch direction three or four times before letting up, leading to lots of sighing” Heeere we go AGAIN!!“-type fan reactions. It feels almost pointless to watch seasons from the beginning now, because you know the season’s real villain probably won’t even show his face until at least episode 12. But there’s not really anything the show can do about it–it’s locked into the 24 episode format, and 24 episodes is just too long to feasibly follow one main conflict–the show is now trappedin its own innovation.

Meanwhile, HBO shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, Adult Swim shows like The Venture Bros, and yeah, basic cable shows like The 4400 are making for some of the best TV out there right now, largely because the lack of primetime rating pressure means they don’t have to stretch plotlines over 20 or more episodes. 12 episodes is starting to look to me like the ideal season length–long enough to really get into a show’s main conflict, to let it effect all the show’s characters and to have a believable and comepelling story arc, but lean enough to avoid redundancy and exhaustion. It’s starting to look more and more analogous to the difference in album packaging between major and indie labels in the music world, and it’d be a shame to see the filler in these shows drag down the hits.

However, with so few of the ’06-’07 broadcast TV shows proving even slightly successful, it doesn’t look like this is likely to change any time soon, as the majors become more and more reliant on the shows they know to be successful and less willing to risk trial periods on shows that don’t burst out of the gate. It also threatens the idea of the serialized drama in general–why take a chance on a show that needs a whole season to really make sense when procedurals like House and the CSI franchise offer reliable, self-contained hours of airtime that could perceivably go on for decades without running out of storylines?

Anyway, The 4400 starts up again June 17th. You should check it out, maybe, I don’t even think it has a tagline.


2 Responses to “For the Love of God: Shorter TV Seasons for Serialized Shows”

  1. Mitchell Stirling said

    24 really is to blame for the jump up from around 20 to 24 shows. Look what the pressure of doing that number did do The Simpsons in season 6 and beyond. Having an increased team of writers to counter the increased workload tends to produce the kind of problems that hardcore fans complain about; Episodes don’t have the right feel, characters behave in out of character. In the UK most sitcoms are written by two or even one person so as it’s their baby everything seems more naturalistic but of course six episodes does leave you wanting more. The only real exception is My Family which is written by a team of writers, lasts for around 13 episodes a series and is the most popular sitcom in the country.

  2. billy said

    Nice call on the props for the madly underrated 4400, but because of the strength of the individual season arcs and twists, I’d like to recommend that folks who are new to it go back and catch the seasons in order before jumping in cold at Season 4.

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