Are TV episodes too long these days?

From Game of Thrones to Jessica Jones, do episodes really know when to stop?

What is the perfect length for a TV episode? Forty-five minutes? An hour? At the risk of negating my entire article, the answer is likely to be as long as the episode needs to tell the story. But that’s better said than done. How many times have you watched an episode and thought it was rushed – if it had had just five minutes more the ending would have been stronger? Or you’re fifty minutes in, ready to move and realise there’s another ten of fifteen minutes to go? As much as we live in an age of television wonders, there’s one glaring issue; the pacing is rarely spot on.

The length of a TV episode is not what it used to be. Twenty years ago, your favourite US drama would last about forty-five minutes; with adverts, that took you up to the full hour. And there were just two sets of adverts – at least when we were watching them here in the UK. These days, the increased burden of advertising has eroded that viewing time. Some shows these days barely hit the forty minute mark. Five minutes might not seem much but that time can make all the difference, giving that extra time to pace out the finale and deliver a satisfactory resolution without rushing to the credits. Half hour comedies are trimmed even further. While an old episode of Frasier might hit the twenty-three minute mark, a modern US sitcom is more like nineteen minutes in length.

Does it feel like we’re loosing out? Is some respect we absolutely are. At the same time, perhaps brevity can be a blessing, because TV episode lengths have also taken a trend towards the longer episodic storytelling. US cable providers like HBO and Showtime have often been unafraid to give a show the episode lengths they deserve. Game of Thrones would regularly hit the 50-55 minute mark and generally audiences would be happy. Without being constrained to the current one hour with advert criteria, the time could be taken to flesh out the stories and give us more time with our favourite characters.

And then we have streaming sites like Netflix that are more than happy to give episodes room to breathe with lengths easily hitting the one hour mark. Sounds perfect right? The trouble with TV is that, unlike films, it’s often something to be consumed in sizeable chunks. forty to forty-five minutes is often the perfect amount of time to unwind, catch up with your favourite characters and then move on. If an episode is great, fifty to fifty-five minutes can be a wonderful viewing experience. But there’s also the danger of losing the audience before the credits roll. If forty-two minutes for an episode can feel rushed, watching a show full of hour long episodes can often feel like a chore. Without the imposed limit, there’s a worrying trend that pacing can go right out of the window.

From Jessica Jones to The Good Fight, even the best streaming shows have difficulty knowing where to end. The limitation of length can be a challenge and an opportunity to wrap up without feeling rushed. In both of these examples, there are clear moments where an episode seems to draw to a natural conclusion and then continues on, more scenes unfolding before the credits roll. While it’s great to see more of these characters, unless those scenes are absolutely essential – and engaging – they’re just added fluff with little to offer the audience.

Even the great and mighty Game of Thrones has fallen foul of this at times. Putting aside the argument that the final season could have easily been ten episodes in length and still told the same story, did every episode need to be well over an hour? Could they have been split into more sizable chunks?

Pacing really is the biggest enemy of modern television – on both sides of the Atlantic. The restraints of advertising tends to be an issue more for US-based hour-long episodes; the UK seems more willing to play with the length, particularly when it comes to BBC shows where adverts simply don’t apply. Despite a number of narrative issues with the recent eleventh run, one of the things Doctor Who changed under Chibnall’s run was to extend its episode lengths to fifty minutes, giving the show time to wrap up its stories in a satisfactory matter (I won’t debate how successful that was here as there a hundred views on that). But it did put in place a method of avoiding the pitfalls of earlier series, namely the last minute, sudden wrap-up that could undo all the good work before it.

Sticking to a prescribed episode length also brings up another problem – the ability to predict the story beats. If you’re watching a US crime drama and the killer is caught’ twenty minutes in, you can nearly always assume the detective has caught the wrong person and the real killer will be revealed – generally around the thirty-five minute mark. You need at least a couple of scenes to wrap up so it can’t happen much later, or earlier if you’re sticking the prescribed genre format. The same can be said for any UK series; the killer is not going to be caught until the run time is almost up. Whether that’s the fault of episode lengths however, or just the limitations of the crime genre format in general, is perhaps a discussion for another day.

Ultimately, the success of an episode is its ability to tell a full and complete story within the context of that one viewing. Not every plot point needs to be wrapped up – particularly in the case of multiple of season arc storytelling – but it does need to know where and when  to end. If you have forty minutes to tell a story, the episode has to be paced right, to build up to a satisfactory end that isn’t rushed and still feels natural. Forty five or forty minutes, it doesn’t really matter on the length as long as the story is told right. The biggest issue with episode lengths really stems from those larger episodes; streaming sites are becoming more notorious for giving audiences longer and longer episodes that really don’t know where to put the pin in the story and end.

Of the two examples above, The Good Fight is at least restrained by the ‘case of the week’ format. There has to be a final closing argument, the decision and the fallout. But the key differences between this show and its predecessor The Good Wife – aside from it’s ability be a bit more edgy, foul mouthed and more overtly left wing – is that it doesn’t have adverts restricting the episode length. This does create a sense of lethargy to the show that, at times, can be its undoing. Just when you think the credits are going to roll, we get two or three more scenes. The narrative might be strong, the characters engaging, but its all a little too indulgent. Sometimes, less is more.

That’s doubly so for Jessica Jones, which recently debuted its final season. It suffers – like all its preceding Netflix Marvel shows, with a long running narrative that takes ten to thirteen episodes to tell. A one season storyline can be wonderful, but there needs to be a sense of brevity between each episode. With episodes hitting almost an hour long, it detracts both from the episodic approach and the binge watch ability that Netflix strives for. There’s no sense of a beginning, a middle or an and end and often it feels like a chore to get to the credits, even if you’ve enjoyed most of the episode. Worst still, the final pre-credits scene often feels like a random mid-story point, offering very little conclusion to the hour that preceded it.

Not every show needs to conform to classic form storytelling, but by throwing out the narrative, Jessica Jones often felt like one loose story strand after another. Can you truly distinguish one episode from another? Probably not – and I say that as I continue to enjoy her final run. Pacing, certainly, is the enemy here.

The length of an episode doesn’t really matter as long as it has a purpose. Take a bit longer flesh out a story or keep it brisk to cut away the fat. Both have value. But there’s a strong argument that a single episode rarely needs to hit or exceed the hour-long mark, unless it’s an even episode like Game of Thrones with its season finales and epic showdowns like The Long Night. With streaming, that’s doubly important, particularly where an episode is told over multiple episodes. Keep the audience on their toes. Unlike Jessica Jones‘ previous seasons, I’ve not been as eager to jump into the next episode. Not necessary because I don’t enjoy what I’m watching, but because an hour, I need a rest. And if its good television, you want to be eager for that next instalment. Sadly, many TV shows seem to go with more is more, whether we really want it or not.


Updated: Jul 21, 2019

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