There are two main factors that contribute to Peak TV. One is that more shows that ever are being greenlit on more outlets than ever. I’m intentionally saying “outlets” rather than “channels,” because by the time you read this, apps such as Netflix, Hulu, and others will possible be passé in and of themselves. Who knows how content will be delivered, and in what format (is the cornea the new curved screen TV?), so let’s not even pretend like we know.
But that’s only half the problem. Not only are more shows being created than ever, but it certainly feels like fewer shows than ever are actually being cancelled. And while we can’t (and shouldn’t) do a lot about the former, there’s an easy way to solve the latter: TV show term limits.
Before we get started, let’s make two things perfectly clear up front: This isn’t a piece that overtly advocates for the loss of jobs for people working in front of and behind the camera. Second, there’s no way this will actually happen, and that’s why it’s a thinkpiece, so just chiiiiiillllllll.
While this isn’t a true proposal to enforce an arbitrary length on serialized storytelling, I do think it’s worthwhile to note that limitations can be strengths on the medium formerly known as the small screen. Being able to do ANYTHING can be paralyzing, and just because someone has the time and money to tell a story as long as he or she wants doesn’t necessarily make that the smartest way in which to deploy the best program.
Nothing about this line of thought is original or non-intuitive, but it struck me once again while watching the most recent episode of Girls. The fact that I didn’t need to put a trigger warning about the fact that I was going to talk about Girls at the outset of this piece suggests that its cultural apex may have long come and gone. But the fact that it’s quietly having its best season, and one of the great final seasons of any show in recent memory, suggests that while TV is great for using time as an asset to accumulate narrative and emotional weight, it rarely knows how to perfectly pace its stories in a way that feels appropriate throughout the entire length of its run.
Just as every band thinks the have a Pet Sounds in them, so too does every showrunner think they have a Breaking Bad in them. And ambition is great! Ambition fuels the best art, but also fuels its worst impulses. The idea of creating something as impactful as The Sopranos or Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a noble goal. But it’s not the only goal. And that doesn’t mean that “creating crap” is the single other alternative. To use baseball terms, TV has a few homeruns and a lot of singles. For the medium to thrive, and for those making it to get better, it needs more doubles and then triples. Only then can an increased number of shows have the chance to more consistently hit it out of the park.
Part of capping a show’s planned run from minute one entails giving a specific showrunner enough rope to do something interesting without the burden of having to pretend like anyone has a five-year plan mapped out before the audience has even seen the pilot. It’s difficult enough for a first-time creator leaping from procedural to serialized storytelling.* But even those that have experience in multiple shows telling multi-year storylines fail all the time. It’s as unreasonable for showrunners to only have this option in order to attract critical and/or mass adulation, and it’s unreasonable as consumers to think that only a show that pays off a clue in season six that was teased in season one is a quality program.
* Here’s the (hopefully) obvious caveat to all of this: Procedural shows are great, or at least have as much chance for greatness as serialized shows. I’ve excluded them from the conversation not because they are a lesser form, but because due to their very nature defy the time limit we’re discussing here. These shows are designed to run forever, and the very best ones do almost exactly that for good reasons.
Girls isn’t a show I ever associated with a long-term plan, but there are clear thematic threads that it’s tying up as it heads into its final stretch. That both makes what came before it simultaneously better AND worse in retrospect. Yes, you get the thrilling disconnect that comes from Hannah Horvath suddenly being the adult in the room. But you also can see all the loose ends and dead ends that litter the first five seasons. And sure, television is about the journey, not the destination. But that doesn’t mean that a show can waste its time on stories and character that ultimately don’t matter, either. That’s not a singular condemnation of Girls: That’s a condemnation of any show that filled the air with content for the sake of fulfilling a contractual obligation over telling the story that started in episode one.
And who’s to blame for that padding, ultimately? Not the showrunners, but those paying for episodes that have everything to do with syndication/streaming deals or subscription-based models. Showtime, as a notable example, has run countless fan favorites into the ground by perpetually renewing shows long past their natural due dates. What ensues is a war of attrition, in which networks and audiences have a virtual stand-off to see who will blink first. The result? Dexter’s a fucking lumberjack.
Nothing is as cut and dry as that, obviously. No one’s forcing anyone to make these shows, and everyone in every part of the entertainment ecosystem has a part to play in this cultural détente. Getting back to the music analogy: I love Dark Side Of The Moon as a complete entity, but I also value the skill that comes from writing a supremely catchy one-hit wonder. Why? BECAUSE THAT’S ALSO SUPER DIFFICULT. If it weren’t, I would have written “Call Me Maybe,” and I wouldn’t be writing for Pajiba, because I’d be swimming Scrooge McDuck-style in the hot tub in my Maybe-Mobile.
That’s why, even though it would never practically work, it would be useful to have showrunners do shows in a manner similar the way I’m training for a half-marathon this Spring. I didn’t run the thirteen miles in my first attempt, because that would be lunacy and involve a trip to the hospital by mile six. I get my reps in at lower mileage, and build up (hopefully) both distance and speed until I actually finish the race. I need to learn how to pace myself at each goalpost, adapt, learn from failure, and move on. There’s no way to equate running with creative writing, since it’s much more difficult to apply lessons from one project to another, but the principle is the more or less the same: Don’t attempt the impossible until it’s semi-possible.
All of this isn’t meant to curb the number of serialized shows, but make them more accessible and ultimately more successful. In the asynchronous age of TV consumption (which is already almost completely here), are you more likely to catch up on two three-season shows that friends have told you were really great, or one six-season show that had flabby spots in most seasons and downright sucked in season five when it was clearly padding itself in order to tell the REAL endgame? Even if that sixth season towered over anything in the other two hypothetical shows, what it comes down to is minute-by-minute investment. There’s increasingly lesser time to devote to making or consuming these shows anymore: Isn’t it wiser to make each hour watching them count more?
Each episode of Girls this season is top-to-bottom quality. I’ve never been more engaged with the show, because it has never felt like the show was this engaged with telling its story. If it takes getting to the end to raise that urgency, isn’t it better to get to the end sooner rather than later? There’s value in spending years with fictional characters. But if that time is spent out of inertia rather than engagement, then it’s wasted time. And with so little time in any of our lives to waste, the shows that understand their limits and execute within those parameters at the highest levels at all times are the ones I’ll always value over the ones that promise me things will pay off, eventually, just wait, we have a plan, you’ll see.
None of us know tomorrow, showrunners. I want to see what you have today.