Does Anyone Really Enjoy Short Seasons of TV?

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Does Anyone Really Enjoy Short Seasons of TV?

With very little new scripted TV coming to fill the 2023-2024 season that would have started up in the coming weeks due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, a lot of us have turned to rewatching old favorites, and shows that we never had the chance to watch while they were airing. Anyone rewatching an original series from Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, or Paramount+ will find themselves out of episodes pretty quickly, but thankfully, broadcast and cable shows have many more episodes that can be spread out even when binge-watching.

Before the pandemic, a typical season for a broadcast television show could range anywhere from 20 to 27 episodes, with the majority having 22 or 23. Some cable shows had similarly long seasons as well—the shortest season of Pretty Little Liars is 20 episodes long—but even the most succinct seasons rarely fell below 10 episodes. When compared to streaming originals, there is a clear difference in length as well as time between the seasons themselves.

In normal circumstances, a broadcast show that is renewed will have a new season of 20-ish episodes every year that starts in the Fall and ends in the Spring, and cable shows generally follow that same schedule. While there are some streaming originals that are released in a linear week-to-week format like traditional television, the majority of releases have followed Netflix’s lead and released all episodes of a show at one time—it’s a lot easier to consume an entire 10-episode season in a day than a 20-episode one. Short seasons lend themselves to the binge model and its reliance on social media virality that linear TV doesn’t, at least at first glance.

However, those short seasons have a higher chance of leading to lower-quality TV. While this isn’t to say that every show with a short season is bad and every show with a long season is good, there is something to be said about having enough episodes to really dig into the story you’re trying to tell as a screenwriter. It can be argued that short seasons of TV cut the fat of much-maligned filler episodes, but that implies that filler is completely useless. The large overarching plot of the season might not be at the forefront of a filler episode, but they are commonly used to develop characters and their relationships, or establish new dynamics that will play important parts later in the season. It may feel like nothing is happening, but a good TV show won’t spend a whole episode wasting the audience’s time. Every episode serves a purpose, and short seasons of TV force the writing team to condense the same amount of development in half the time. It can be done, but it is not easy, and oftentimes leaves us yearning for more. 

The final season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was only 8 episodes long,  but it could have done even better with twice as many. There are always multiple factors that go into a series ending, but from a writing perspective, it would have made for a better conclusion to finish the series with the senior members of the cast graduating instead of wrapping up the story in the middle of the school year. All of the goodbyes and worries about the future work well, but it’s weird to see it play out when we know that there’s an entire semester of school left for these kids that we don’t get to see because the show is over. Some additional episodes would have been a great way to make sure that the final season’s storylines didn’t feel rushed and were actually allowed time to play out, as well as ensure every character got to have meaningful interactions with each other. Gina and Kourtney were practically sisters by the end of Season 3, but they barely have any moments together in the final season, and the show is worse for it. Ensemble casts are already difficult to write for because of the sheer number of people that need material, and the only way to ease that difficulty is with more episodes every season. 

Aside from the benefits of a longer runtime, the popularity of longer shows is clear. The Office, Friends, Glee, and Grey’s Anatomy are some of the most rewatched shows of the last few years, and the majority of their seasons break the 20-episode barrier. And that popularity stems from an audience getting to truly spend time in each show’s world and learn to know and love its characters.

Even Suits has longer seasons than a typical streaming original, and it has quickly become the most-watched show on streaming. Seven of its nine seasons are 16 episodes long, and while anyone’s opinion on how good it actually is varies (personally I think it’s funny more than anything else), all of the characters have significant interactions with each other even if they only happen once in a while. After the first season, there was an active effort to match up characters that hadn’t been paired as frequently, and that effort gave Pearson Hardman a tangible depth as a workplace. Without filler episodes or even filler plot-lines, things could go in two different directions: either the show would feel disjointed because all of the characters that we’re supposed to care about only speak to 2 other characters out of the 6-person main cast, or all of the characters would interact with each other and have shallow relationships due to the lack of available screen time. Either way, the show would suffer because, as ridiculous as Suits can be, the characters do have some complexity. There are enough episodes a season for us to organically grow to love the characters, and that’s the thing that really keeps people watching.

There is absolutely a place for short seasons of television, but so far? They’re more miss than hit. The Bear and Only Murders In The Building are some exceptions to this, but Disney+’s Marvel ventures are still proof that not everything can be squeezed into a six to nine-episode run. While there is a story being told, these short-lived series aren’t properly utilizing the long-form medium of television, and what’s the point making it if we don’t spend enough time with these characters to truly love them? Giving a show at least 12 episodes gives it the chance to obtain a soul of sorts, and ensures a captivated audience for years to come. Short seasons might feed our need for instant gratification, but they exchange that for the depth their writers have the range for, and we are likely missing out on a lot of very good TV because of that.

Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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