Longform Television: A New Frontier?

Hey everyone! This is going to be a longish, academic post, but I wrote an analytical essay that never got published so I wanted to publish it on my own blog instead. Let the academia begin!

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An infamous episode of the Emmy Awardwinning show Mad Men is known to its fans simply as the “lawn mower episode.” Shocking and grotesque, the scene is neither a climax of a dramatic character arc, nor an event with anything but a negligible effect on a then minor character’s career. In a television landscape once dominated by efficient thirtyminute episodes and plot lines wrapped neatly in bows, the “lawn mower episode” dared to be bizarre and purposeless. Show creator Matthew Weiner explained the scene as a way of “telling a story about expectation…[that] is completely removed.” Defying the conventions of traditional storytelling was once reserved for novels and films, but Mad Men, as well as countless other shows, are re-writing the television playbook.

The Hollywood Reporter television critic Tim Goodman describes the new era of television as the “platinum age of television,” an age that is remarkable for the amount of “must-watch” television on broadcast networks, cable networks, and internet streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other independent creators. FX Networks CEO John Landgraf calls it by another name, “Peak TV,” in which there are so many compelling scripted shows (more than 400) available for American consumption that viewers can no longer separate “the great from the merely competent.” The number keeps growing, with Landgraf predicting an uninhibited growth of scripted television until at least 2018.

Undeniably, Landgraf is correct in his claim that amongst the bloom of fantastic television like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Westworld, Atlanta ― even these examples can describe only a tiny fraction of the best of modern television ― there will be some platinum age television that isn’t up to snuff (a.k.a The Walking Dead season six). Bad television has always been a given; in the words of 30 Rock’s narcissistic network tycoon Jack Donaghy: if you want to “hit rock bottom, go on network television.” The platinum age isn’t notable for its flops, but for its unparalleled amount of successes. Long-form television, known for its “in-depth, lengthy narratives” is the sole reason for this achievement. Freed from the constraints of its sitcom predecessors, long-form television has the space to construct worlds and characters and the time to let them breathe.

Television critics enjoy claiming that in the platinum age of television, TV has become better than the silver screen. Long-form television isn’t better, but different; it is more similar to a visual novel than to a film. This is most evident in its structure, each episode akin to a chapter in a novel. Most movies have acts, climaxes, rising and falling actions, but few have as firm a stopping point as the end of a TV episode. Like book chapters, these episodes are crafted specifically to have an endpoint, whether that endpoint is a resolution, a cliffhanger, or simply the closure of a theme. The end may not be satisfying, such as in the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones, but it is an ending nonetheless. Television critic Ronan Doyle notes that television thrives “on the space between.” Even if a show is binged non-stop, there are still season breaks. It is near impossible to watch the complete work of a long-form television show from start to finish like a film; for a show like Mad Men, it would require 92 continuous hours, almost four days.

The wait between seasons and episodes is agonizing in a way that a film cannot replicate.The  cliffhanger in season two of Hannibal sent viewers flying towards Google, searching for any crumb of resolution that they could find, but there was nothing they could do. Unfortunately, they had to wait an entire year to discover the fates of their favorite characters.  Movies hold their power in their endings, which can be just as abrupt as a television episode, but with no return in sight. However, the relatively short running time can’t build a connection between the characters and the audience in the same way as a long-form television show.

Long-form television has an obsession with anti-heroes. The penchant for likeability found so often in Hollywood blockbusters is conspicuously absent in the platinum age. This characteristic, too, is reminiscent of a novel, where morally ambiguous characters like Don Draper and Walter White are at home with  American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert. As screenwriter William Boyd says, it is no longer about “who you’re rooting for,” but who is most human. In his piece in the New Statesman, Boyd cites the lauded drama True Detective as an example of television that rejected “accelerated narrative pace and routine plot hooks” in favor of “allowing central performances room to move.” There was never anyone to truly root for in the first season of True Detective, as both protagonists were immensely flawed human beings, but they were compelling characters, the antiheroes that made audiences want to return week after week to watch them clash, explore, and stumble through life together.

Like an organism, long-form television is pruned and watered by its audience. The shows are constantly growing, and whether the endgame is always apparent for the shows’ creators, it is rarely obvious to the fans. Fan support is the life vein for television shows, the reason why ratings failures like Hannibal and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend manage to stay on air. Fluid by nature, long-form television can grow too unwieldy to contain. Ideas grow stale and viewers lose interest. Even Mad Men,  critically adored  in its first five seasons, lost a bit of its shine as it progressed to the finish line.

 

Ending a show at the sweet spot, often between three and five seasons, presents a challenge, but the purpose of a television show has advanced beyond the need for syndication to a desire to tell the best story, no matter the length. Season duration is completely flexible: Stranger Things has eight episodes, Game of Thrones has ten,  and Jane the Virgin has at least 20 episodes per season. Today’s season of television contains on average half the number of episodes of a pre-platinum age season. This means that writers have the freedom to explore stories at their own pace, and most importantly, end them with resolutions in mind, rather than at the whims of studios.  

 

What is most revolutionary about long-form television is its diversity of content and characters. With films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Moana, it is clear that Hollywood is attempting to create films from the perspectives of people of color, but it is trailing far behind television’s crusade. ABC alone has four tentpole shows centered around black, east asian, and south asian protagonists, while Netflix and Amazon have dozens more. The platinum age of television is built on stories with diverse perspectives, from Issa Rae’s Insecure, about the daily life of a young black woman, to Sense 8, a show that has been rained with GLAAD awards for its nuanced portrayal of LGBT characters.

By prioritizing the representation of diverse perspectives, long-form television fosters a sense of inclusion and community in its audience. No longer are viewers forced to watch characters with whom they can’t identify; now they can find themselves in Jane Villanueva, in Jaime Lannister, in Josh Chan or in Kimmy Schmidt. Hollywood ignores this lesson at their peril, preferring to center their movies on white, male protagonists who the industry believes is a more reliable investment. However,  according to the Bunche Center’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 51 percent of frequent moviegoers were members of minority groups, yet minorities only comprised 16.7 percent of leading roles in films. Additionally, films that featured 20 to 31 percent minority cast members earned an average of $143.3 million dollars at the box office, while films with 10 percent or fewer minority cast members earned an average of 52 million dollars. Movies that featured a cast of between 30 and 40 percent minorities, a more accurate representation of the American public, also outearned less diverse films with an average box office of $130 million. The report found that a similar outcome occurred in television: shows with more diverse casts garnered higher ratings than their less diverse counterparts.

With longer running times and flexible season lengths, and fluid narratives, the arcs of long-form television shows are unconfined by traditional limits. However, it’s not only the stories that keep audiences returning for weekly installments or hours long binge sessions, but the characters, who with their unique, relatable, and truly human struggles forge heart-deep connections with the audience. Long-form television is an imitation of life; a window through which we view the world, a mirror through which we view ourselves. And every so often, as with the “lawnmower scene,” we get a peek into the bizarre. We ask ourselves: “what did I just watch?” And the next day, we come back for more.

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