Are TV Episodes becoming 'Shapeless'?
A few months ago I wrote a piece about Russell T Davies' limited series Years & Years (which you can find here) in which I quoted from a tremendously informative and engaging podcast he did with Red - the Manchester-based production company who produced the show (you can find that podcast here in video format). And guess what? I find the hour so chock-full of little slices of goodies that I'm returning to it once again. There's a brief period within the podcast where Russell touches on his lack of experience with streaming platforms - he's 'never been on Netflix and been on Amazon Prime out of association only' - he then proceeds to touch on an underlying fault with the streaming platform rollout of television episodes by calling some of them 'shapeless'. But is it true? If streaming is the future of television, does its precedent in losing episode structure signify a worrying trend moving forward? Let's discuss...
Now RTD is far from the first person to bring this worry up of course, at the time it just embedded itself within my mind and I found myself researching into the topic. I also want to clarify that Russell doesn't explicitly state that's his opinion of all streaming series', it's mostly a case of him explaining his writing style. But it's an interesting jump-off point for the argument...
If we were to produce a standard episode structure technique based on the wealth of shows produced since the dawn of television, there wouldn't be too much in the way of leeway. One primary 'A' plot supported by the majority of screen/character time whilst a 'B' plot happens simultaneously. Both can either converge or remain separated and crescendo at alternate times, as long as the 'A' plot takes precedent and closes out the episodes with characters having learned/gone through something in order to make it all worthwhile. Add in additional side-plots/formats depending on genre and show style. What's interesting to note about this argument however, is that the shapeless-ness of streaming episodes doesn't come from leaving this technique, it's more about writing and intention.
With streaming platforms thriving and engorging their audiences with entire seasons all-at-once, there was always going to be a huge impact in regard to the quality of the episodes individually. If you upload 13 episodes in one day, does that mean the audience is supposed to engage with them the same way they do a feature-film? Is it just one long narrative? Broadcast television has (mostly) adhered to the episode-a-week format of presentation which usually dictates the stories and style of popular programming. Sitcoms and procedurals in particular benefitted from such releases because it allowed them to tell self-contained stories (with the occasional subplot/two-parter). Audiences were active for the hour/half-hour and that's all, to quote RTD again it was 'like a closed fist' writing-wise, everything was tight and compact. It's why we often describe shows as a '_____ of the week'.
We as audiences love to talk about television, and it was incredibly easy to go up to someone and say 'did you see the Doctor Who episode with the Gas Mask child?' or 'what did you think of the Primeval episode where the Dodo comes back?' (your preferences may vary, of course). That way, when they were either repeated or released on video/DVD, the self-contained stories were a major draw, aside from finales or special episodes, you never felt short-changed when it came to a standard episode of a produced television show.
Even when broadcast television upped its game with serialised storytelling in the form of dramas such as The Wire and The Sopranos, individual episodes still had to remain strong enough to fulfill their time slot. When an entire season is unleashed with the intention of it being binge-watched, there tends to be a couple of episodes that fall to a stop and exist purely to extend the runtime. Personally I've found this to be the case with the MARVEL Netflix programs. Daredevil and Jessica Jones' first seasons are intensely plotted throughout, even their quieter moments are used to develop character and introduced vital aspects of the world they inhabit, but I've struggled with every other season since.
'You get these baggy, over-bloated episodes that have no beginning but they have a great end because they know that the cliffhanger works' - Russell T Davies.
I'm not bashing the streaming service's output at all, but oftentimes even after I feel like I've sat through an amazing series of television on them I find myself only really remembering one or plot points (sometimes not even episodes). There are exceptions of course. Bojack Horseman, one of the best television shows ever made, feels shapeless at points during first watch but attain the same replay value as traditional sitcoms thanks to its traditional structure. It does all this whilst ALSO having one or two standout episodes a year that tend to go down as some of the finest television ever produced, Free Churro anyone?
It's interesting to note that the shows which have actually remained tight and well-structured are either limited series' or shows with smaller episode counts. So what I wonder is, is the 'shapeless' feel of streaming platforms due to the exaggerated American-standard of television production?
Many British television shows famously have small episode counts. We rarely go above the six-episode-per-season mark, even with our most demanded programs. As a byproduct of this, every episode of Peaky Blinders or Inside No. 9 feels memorable and savourable, as opposed to the 20-odd episode format of a traditional season across the pond. By operating under American companies, streaming platforms are more dedicated to their way of production (although never the full 20 episode count is used, that would be barbaric). In fact, Netflix/Amazon originals such as Russian Doll and Hanna work so well because they tell contained stories that happen to reach a sensible conclusion within the confines of each episode. Most others tell equally-good stories as a whole...it's just that the episode formatting feels like an afterthought, a hurdle to jump through just so many stories can have points where audiences feel like it's okay to pause briefly.
It's very easy to ride the cynicism train on a topic such as this. My personal feelings on streaming platforms veer towards the death of media as we know it (but that's for another time), but when episodes of 'television' don't feel like episodes...that's when you've got a problem. This wouldn't pass broadcasting standards (well...most of them anyway). A story's length shouldn't be extended just for the sake of extending your watch time and bragging about episode counts. Amazon's limited series adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens maintained the 6-episode archetype structure of British television and used it to tell a whole story, warts and all. Despite pressure to continue and appease fanbases/marketing teams, it's been announced that no season two will happen because the story ended where it needed to.
I love stories. I love television too. I always try to make a conscious effort never to bash or demean anything I've watched, because of how hard hundreds, if not thousands, of people have worked on it. I'd much rather spend my time gushing about the stuff I do love. And thanks to the binge-watching craze, I've come to watch dozens of shows I now love and adore and hold close to my heart. There's always going to be disappointing, lackluster or 'shapeless' content out there - sometime's it will be the popular show on the platform - but I'd argue such an argument really comes down to audience and saturation.
The term 'binge' is naturally unhealthy. It wasn't the intended viewing technique of television but for some reason film's aren't allowed to stretch the three-hour mark. The change in audience intentions/personality in the past five years alone has been astounding. Some believe to wait seven days for an episode is a travesty, and even call out platforms when the production of a show takes too long. Services, in response, now have a heaping library of content being released regularly and there's always more gold to be found. But there's so much now, that the stories themselves have to work harder to stand out. What would have simply been a 'bad' episode of The Sopranos would now have a cliffhanger slapped on the end in an attempt to fix any quality issues. Still an episode, right? Because the definition of a television episode could be slowly changing as the difference between them and features. It's of course possible to have too much of a good thing, and this golden age of television keeps getting bigger and bigger...
Streaming is to blame for introducing the method of television that I think might destroy it. But WE are responsible for it destroying it.
But these are just some of my thoughts. I'd love to know what you think about it either here or across social media or whatever. I apologise for steering off-topic a little bit towards the end there, I just always find myself do so when I talk about the future of streaming...
You guys all signed up for Disney+ and Universal's service yet?
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