How long is too long for a television show?
I’ve delved into this topic before, and I’m not interested in completely rehashing every argument here. Originally, I was speaking in vague generalities: Non-procedurals should have a general end date in mind when starting, since programs that meander without at least a general idea of where they are headed often end up in utter shambles. No plan is perfect, and the best television embraces better ideas as they proceed rather than be shackled by the contents of the original outline. But if a show has a clearly defined endpoint, why put it off any longer than necessary?
I’m here to amend that rule, or rather, to define it. Let’s not beat around the bush anymore. Forget being vague. I’m here to throw down a number. A number of episodes a show should always produce if it wants to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. And really, the answer was always there in front of us: 33. That’s the name of the pilot episode of the re-imagined Battlestar: Galactica, and it’s a perfect number upon which to end a series. If you only go thirty-two episodes, you’ve only scratched the surface. If you barrel onto episode thirty four, you’ve clearly overstayed your welcome.
OK, so obviously that’s utter crap.
If you realized that before barreling down to the comments, bravo. Assigning an arbitrary number doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t appropriate lengths for certain shows, either. “Appropriate” sounds insidious, I understand. But certain shows, no matter their inherent quality, don’t always pass the smell test when you learn how long those in charge plan to keep telling it. To wit, feast your eyes on this quote from Vulture, in which Elisabeth Moss discusses her involvement with the excellent, harrowing Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale:
For the first time in her career, though, she had a caveat: She’d only sign a standard five-to-seven-year series contract if she could also be a hands-on producer. “I couldn’t sign on to something that was such a time commitment and not have a fucking creative say in it at this point in my career,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years. I don’t know everything, but I kind of know something about how to do this.”
Three quick points about this:
1) Hell yes, Elisabeth Moss should help produce shows.
2) I’m not in any way an expert on the types of contracts that actors sign.
2) If what I read above suggests that Moss signed a deal that implies that Hulu envisions The Handmaid’s Tale as a seven-year show at minimum, then that’s absolutely insane.
Putting aside the point that I could be misinterpreting the paragraph, let me ask this another way: Would you watch seven seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale? Does that sound like an appropriate amount of time to tell stories in that particular universe? Again, this has zero to do with the show’s quality and everything about the type of story it’s telling. I similarly lost my mind about hearing about a potential second season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a show I found compelling as a stand-alone season of television that has ABSOLUTELY NO REASON to continue past what’s already been produced. 13 More Reasons Why/13 Spotify Lists Why/13 Hours Of Court Transcripts Why feels like more content for the sake of more content, rather than a necessary addition to an unfinished story.
But more content is what the medium demands, and it’s easy in a vacuum to see why Hulu would want to be in both the Elisabeth Moss business and The Handmaid’s Tale business for the long haul. I don’t know how much story is left to tell after the first three episodes of that show, but in no way did I ever think, “Roughly 67 more hours.” Legitimately never occurred to me. I assumed this would be a one-and-done show, forgetting of course that now nothing is ever one and done, except Enlisted and Terriers because there is no God and we’re alone in the universe.
How long should The Handmaid’s Tale last? Hell if I know. But I have a sense that it should probably be closer to ten episodes than seventy, and I think most of you have a strong sense for how long the shows you watch should last as well. Hollywood selfishly wants to milk properties that are even vaguely popular, and viewers selfishly want their shows to last as long as possible, even if we all know they aren’t as good as they once were (whatever THAT means). That symbiotic relationship can turn parasitic, with shows almost daring their audiences not to like them, and fans threatening to leave, and yet the shows keep going, and the fans keep watching, and it turns into that scene in The Dark Knight where Batman plays chicken with The Joker in the middle of Gotham.
Anthologies tend to sidestep this issue by rebooting season after season (or in the case of shows like Black Mirror, episode after episode) while staying within a thematic framework. There’s risk (maybe the latest idea under a Ryan Murphy or John Ridley umbrella isn’t as strong as others, and God knows every episode of Black Mirror doesn’t live up to “San Junipero”), but these shows can be perpetual as well as perpetually fresh. I’m guessing the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale won’t be another tale of another dystopian world, but the continuation of Offred’s story. Moss probably will not be riding an exercise bike to earn Gilead Bucks in order to be a guest on the reality show Press Your Luck With The Commander’s Wife. Maybe I’m wrong! But I’m guessing there will be a through line for this series.
Tone and tenor matter when you’re aiming for the long haul. What works for The Handmaid’s Tale in the short term might be utterly exhausting if not exploitative in the end. There’s absolutely no correlation between a show’s quality and its longevity. You might WANT more episodes of a great show, and that’s a fine wish to have. But you can’t tell me Sons of Anarchy is a better show than Flight Of The Conchords simply because the former ran for longer. That’s an insane comparison, but it’s also an insane measuring stick. Anarchy’s popularity was and is impressive. But like other dark, violent shows, it kept doubling down on its characters’ misery in order to top what had come before. At a certain point, the pain in these shows is as realistic as a show that lasts for seven seasons in which everyone gets along wonderfully for the entire run. Both equally misrepresent what life generally is like.
But in concentrated forms, focusing on the type of dark themes present in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just smart but vital. I’m not arguing that pain and misery don’t have a place on the small screen. But the experience watching this show wouldn’t increase through seven seasons inside this world. It’s just too much, and I mean that as a compliment. I felt the same way about the recently-ended show Review, which would have gained nothing by putting Forrest MacNeil through another five seasons of self-inflicted delusional torture. Did I know a three-episode third season would fulfill this character’s journey? Absolutely not. But when it was over, it felt like enough.
When you pair the tenacious business needs of the television industry coupled with the messy imperfection that comes from its creative side, you inevitably have few shows that hit that perfect, metaphorical “33” sweet spot. It’s straight up too much to ask a show to do that. But when a show’s proposed length of run is fundamentally at odds with the story it’s telling, it’s worth asking if the current models of Peak TV are inherently antithetical to telling short, one-off stories that are no less thrilling than multi-season narratives. Anthologies are one way around this, but not the only way. Too much of a good thing can indeed be way too much, and inviting people in for a finite experience will often be a better way than asking them to spend indefinite time asymptotically approaching a vague endpoint down the line.