Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

In praise of short shows

Sometimes, enough is enough

Artillery Row

I don’t remember when I stopped watching The Simpsons, or why I became rather tired of it. A staple of my childhood, and rightly considered one of the most seminal shows of the past century, the show went from must-see primetime animation to a tired punchline. The animation has transformed digitally but looks less fluid and empty. The days when Homer and Marge become a couple, after a prom date gone wrong, are retrofitted into millennial and Gen X archetypes. When Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer moved on from Apu and Dr Hibbert respectively, following a concerted activist backlash, the characters became stale.

These factors seem secondary to the fact that I have moved on to other shows, however. This behaviour was actually depicted in a Simpsons episode, where Bart and Lisa stopped watching their favourite toon Itchy and Scratchy. Noticing this, the creators added Poochie as a desperate attempt to revitalise it — but it failed, so they scrapped it. Many claim that The Simpsons can be accurate in their predictions, but few episodes have predicted its ordeal like that one.

Longer content doesn’t always guarantee good quality. You can always enjoy watching a TV show before you’re told when the show has peaked and will never reach those creative heights again. As we enter into the aftermath of what TV critics call The Golden Age of Television, we are slowly noticing the medium’s excesses, where episodes drag out for so long that the novelty of the characters descends to cliche. The Simpsons has currently run for more than thirty seasons and, despite an immense dip in quality, shows no signs of dying. Whilst some have convinced themselves that the show finally experienced a renaissance this year, it is still relying on the merchandising of its trademark and current trends to keep itself relevant. Even a great show like Mad Men felt like it was a season too long.

Series that have been prematurely cancelled have developed a cult following

This is why when Succession announced it will take a bow following its fourth season, it was greeted with a giant sigh of relief. Succession’s creator Jesse Armstrong told The New Yorker that it can either land on a memorable ending, or continue and expect certain episodes to stick. The show has achieved one of the greatest series finales in television history, concluding like a Greek tragedy where the gaping flaws of the remaining Roy family were consistent with when we were introduced to them in 2018. It is also striking that Succession has a lot in common with the aesthetic of the British sitcom. Armstrong was the co-creator of Peep Show, which lasted for nine seasons but with each containing just six episodes. Time is key; the quicker the viewer finishes a TV show, the better the quality.

How you consume the show’s length depends on the standard that it sets up. As it goes along, expectations have already been heightened. When you miss one or more episodes during seven seasons, there’s a possibility that you will miss out on a crucial plot detail or a hilarious set of jokes. That isn’t as likely to happen when one forgets to catch up with a shorter show. The tightness has a higher reward incentive, particularly in hindsight once the show goes off the air. Series that have been prematurely cancelled like Deadwood have developed a cult following, as well as a feature-length film in 2019.

Shorter series either have fewer seasons, fewer episodes or both. It is quite common in British television, where procedurals like Luther, a sitcom like Fleabag or any of David Attenborough’s documentaries run for five to eight episodes. In both their surface and depth, they are efficient, easing social pressure on viewers who might feel left behind during a water cooler conversation. Since I don’t have a lot of time to consume everything, the tightness of Succession means that I can move on to the next one.

That is one critical difference between the American and the British models. Whereas the former emphasises caricatured characters, the latter tends to be more realistic. Proving this point quite succinctly are the two versions of The Office. The American show finished at nine seasons as a fantasy, whereas the British original ran on two seasons, ending on a bleak note, but followed up with a two-part Christmas Special and a spin-off for its antihero David Brent. His American equivalent, Michael Scott, grew out of the unlikeable manager template to become the boss every viewer wants, whilst Jen and Pam were the ultimate dream couple. It took several seasons to reach that point. As soon as Steve Carell left the show, the company was left to its own devices for two more seasons, and The Office became a shadow of itself.

Shorter shows are a win-win for the creator and the crowd

Shows that are shorter would be the purest distillation of creative vision. The Office UK relied on the talents of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to write and direct every episode on a minuscule budget, whilst the American show relied on a committee of screenwriters, where certain episodes will emphasise an individual quirk shared by another writer.

In the streaming age, there has never been a shortage of choosing the shows and movies you watch. Netflix previously set the challenge of binge-watching by releasing all episodes of Orange is the New Black and Bojack Horseman in one go. Now, that experience is in decline, with platforms finding immense difficulties with the model that once made them popular. As these companies are currently embroiled in the writer’s strike, this brings into question how many writers in the room should work together on one episode

The American television model might be catching up with the British, though, considering the third season premiere of I Think You Should Leave. This absurdist sketch comedy from SNL alumnus Tim Robinson takes regular situations like an exit job interview or a birthday party to the most unpredictable conclusions. Each season has six episodes and runs fifteen minutes in length. Watching it, you can tell that not a single second has been wasted; it relies so much on Robinson’s workmanship to be surreal that even the least funny moments are also memorable. Even Ted Lasso, the show that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, has pondered on ending the show, either in its third season or the one after that.

Shorter shows are a win-win for the creator and the crowd. My argument isn’t that we should forgo longer shows. They still have their place, as they promise more depth and variety than film and other art forms. The shorter a show is, however, the more it promises to reward the viewers and give them the respect they deserve — rather than stretching the story out for more seasons, simply because its creators believe that their audience is locked in and will forgive any bad artistic decisions. That’s not a reason to hang on.

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