It’s no secret that there is a massive amount of television at the fingertips of the everyday person. Now there are enough streaming services that some of them can fail without consumers feeling like they have lost anything. But instead of shorter runtimes to court viewers into investing in new series, the consequences of so much TV being available—old and new—has sent us to the opposite end of the spectrum. The episode counts are short, but the episodes themselves are unbearably long.
Before Netflix and its contemporaries wedged open the door to making episodes as long as a showrunner wants, there was a clear standard for how long viewers were expected to sit and watch something. While comedies have generally kept with the half hour structure, dramas have galavanted around with episodes longer than a reasonably sized movie. It’s not like long stretches of story were unheard of until now. The two-parter is a staple of network television, whether the episodes aired back to back or not, and Game of Thrones regularly had episodes that pushed past the 1 hour mark The final two seasons of the series are a good indication of when TV started to go too far. Instead of one extra-long episode per season, over half of the episodes in Seasons 6 and 7 were longer than an hour; and while there was certainly no saving the series from its terrible end, the bloated length of the final episodes certainly didn’t help.
In the last year, long episodes of TV have become more and more common in a way that is simply exhausting. Every episode of Inventing Anna is an hour or longer, and it killed the momentum that the series started out with in its first episode. It’s not like anything happens in these marathons of content either. A lot of times the things that make the episodes so long are either scenes that drag on to the point that you can leave the room and not miss anything, or that are rich enough to deserve to have an episode to themselves. The final three episodes of Inventing Anna felt like three separate series finales, not because there was so much going on in all of them, but because there was almost too much for the show to wrap up at one time. Had the show cut out the weaker portions of the story and slashed the episode count, watching it wouldn’t have felt like slogging through quicksand. On the other hand, had the show extended its episode count to 12 or 13 (running around 45 minutes each) instead of the 9 long ones we got, the weaker parts of the story would have had more time to develop, and maybe watching it wouldn’t have felt like such a burden.
It’s not like a show can’t be successful if it makes you sit for 90 minutes before it takes a break. Stranger Things 4’s shortest episode is 1 hour and 4 minutes long, and it’s the streamer’s most watched season of TV of all time. There are clear differences of course; Inventing Anna was a limited series based on a true story, and Stranger Things is a beloved franchise that is one of the keystone products of Netflix’s Original programming. People who love it were going to watch it regardless of episode length, and for the most part the show was able to stay cohesive. The question then became whether or not the show should have released in a weekly format instead of a bingeable one.
It may seem like a bit of a reach, but Stranger Things 4 is similar to Euphoria in this way. While Euphoria’s episodes aren’t extremely long, they are incredibly chaotic, and the show benefited from the weekly space between episodes as it aired. The audience was able to breathe between the mayhem of each installment, and regardless of how people felt about the discourse surrounding the show, a lot of analysis was able to take place that probably wouldn’t have happened if an entire season came out at one time. Long episodes of Stranger Things have just as much to say and would benefit from the same amount of time to be analyzed by audiences. With the 7 episodes in the first volume of Season 4 taking almost 9 hours to complete it’s exhausting just to sit and watch, much less try and remember everything that happened in said 9 hours so you can participate in the fun of wondering what might happen next.
The nail in the coffin for Stranger Things’s long episodes is that a lot of times there is an obvious point where the episode should have ended. It would have been relatively simple in the writing process to say, “Hey, maybe we should take this extra 30 pages and put it at the front of a new episode instead.” Much like with Inventing Anna, the season could have stretched past its planned 9 episodes and been 12 or more episodes long with no issue. At $30 million an episode, it’s not an unreasonable assumption. Still, the greatest test for Stranger Things will be the last two episodesof Season 4. With Episode 8 clocking in at 1 hour 25 minutes and the Episode 9 finale coming in at a Marvel-movie-sized 2 hours and 20 minutes, they’re going to be a true test of faith between the show and its viewers. By the time July 1st comes to a close, we’ll have a pretty good grasp on whether or not the almost four hour ride across two episodes of TV was worth it.
Once the Stranger Things finale is in the rear view mirror, it would be best if those in the entertainment industry never let a single episode of television be that long again. If a story needs that much space to be told, it should be allowed to have more episodes, or it should be turned into a movie (see also Under the Banner of Heaven, The Old Man, Disney’s truncated Marvel series, and any 90-minute pilot—much less hour-plus regular episodes). In the age of binge watching, a show longer than 10 episodes might seem like too much, but if a season is going to be that long anyway, streaming services might as well break it up into smaller parts (Editor’s Note: Not as small as a quibi, mind you, but still). TV is a short format of entertainment for a reason, and while some expanded events are nice from time to time, they aren’t a good foundation for any series that wants to sustain an engaged viewership.
Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.
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