One of the benefits, it’s said, of having a television show on a platform like Netflix is that it’s not beholden to the restraints of a traditional network. The idea is that it has the freedom to move beyond certain limitations; to cover subject matter that’s unconventional and outside the mainstream, to include ‘mature’ content that would otherwise be censored and allowing a more flexible runtime.
Having a more flexible runtime makes sense – generally speaking, the traditional forty-five-ish minute slot for a drama or the twenty-five-ish minute slot for comedy are fairly arbitrary ideas imposed by the demands of advertisers rather than anything else. There’s nothing inherent to the stories that dictate they hold this structure, so the opportunity to be a little bit more malleable and adaptable can be worth pursuing.
Yet it’s debatable whether this approach is really effective, and whether the freedom that’s been allowed has ultimately been a good thing. There’s an argument to be made that, over the past few years, it’s led to a slew of poorly paced television series; slow and plodding, not using their runtime effectively. It’s not so much that a serial has to be filled with incident, but that there’s a sense that not every minute has to be earned in the way that perhaps it used to be – in turn leading to more meandering, more superfluous storytelling.
It’s also, perhaps, a symptom of binge-watching, and television that’s attempting to fit to around new ways of watching. Often there was talk of how a Netflix series would instead be a ‘thirteen-hour movie’, designed to be watched in one session; it’s perhaps not a surprise, then, that the individuals episodes of a piece don’t work as such. It’s not that a piece of television can’t be serialised, or that it’s wrong for an episode of television to function as part of a wider whole; rather, one of the impacts of this approach is that the single episode starts to suffer, serving the whole at expense of working as a piece of entertainment in its own right.
Recent Netflix drama Seven Seconds is indicative of some of the ways this can be a problem. About a white police officer killing a black teenager in a hit-and-run and the cover-up that followed, the first episode is an engaging piece of television – but it’s also too long. At 54 minutes, it’s very slow paced, struggling to fill its runtime, continuing beyond several points that would make for an appropriate ending. The series ends with an eighty-minute episode; it’s difficult to imagine that’s wholly necessary.
Equally, there’s the various Marvel Netflix shows, each of which has been accused of not quite knowing how to fill out its runtime. It’s evident even in The Defender’s, which had a reduced runtime anyway; at that point, it starts to speak to a systemic problem in the approach, as opposed to an issue borne of having thirteen episodes to a season rather than eight. At this stage, early reviews of Jessica Jones Season 2 have highlighted the same issue, noting its slow pace. Again, it’s not to say that this can’t work – indeed, Jessica Jones season one is perhaps the only instalment where you can argue the slower approach genuinely worked very well – but it points to a larger trend that’s been less than promising.
It’s possible, of course, for things to go the other way. Star Trek: Discovery is interesting in this regard; in advance of its release, showrunners x specifically pointed to the flexible runtimes as a benefit of the programmes online home. And yet it ended up with episodes ranging from forty-nine minutes to as few as thirty-seven – the episode in question felt like there were bits missing, definitely lacking as a result of its reduced runtime.
It’s not that the flexible runtime doesn’t offer certain opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise, and it’s not that television that acts as a slow-burn piece telling a story over a season can’t be effective. But as this style and approach dominates, it’s difficult not to get the sense that something’s being lost; often, the limits imposed on an episode can help it to thrive, and removing those constraints mean that the final, sprawling piece won’t always work as a single episode on its own terms.
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