I want to preface this article by making it clear I’m coming at this from the standpoint of a TV viewer, not a writer. I have zero experience writing scripts. I wrote one without having any idea what I was doing and it’s (mostly) a joke. I have written some serials here for my website, but I have never written for television in any capacity. So don’t go through this looking for advice or any insider knowledge. I’m simply a thirty or forty year old woman complaining about shit. Thank you, and get off my land.
Oh, also, spoilers for Strangers Things and The Rings of Power that are so mild they need mayonnaise.
Back In My Day
I don’t want to go back to what television used to be, let’s just get that out there loud and clear. I already wrote this article about how television seemed to function in the nineties and most of it sucked. I do not miss how practically all television was strictly episodic because studios didn’t think the average viewer could follow an overarching story, and the saddest part is that they were mostly right because there was no internet or DVR and if you missed an episode the answer was ‘tough shit, cry about it.’
By the way, kids and young adults out there who are too young to have ever seriously interacted with a VCR: Someday, maybe soon, some older relative – your grandfather, or that uncle no one really likes – is going to find their old VCR in the attic and get all nostalgic and try to set it up. They’re going to make a lot of noises about they don’t make them like they used to (thank fuck) and this is when technology was built right or some shit. And then they’re going to try to make you program it, probably to prove their bullshit point that these kids don’t know anything these days.
Do. Not. Fall. For. It.
Don’t even try. Play the fool and ask them to do it for you and watch them melt down into a puddle of piss and racist sentiment. Playing a VHS tape? Easiest shit in the world. Recording a VHS tape? I’d rather take the SATs again. I bet actual rocket scientists went home from NASA to sit down and watch TV with their VCR still blinking 12:00 at them the whole time.
Television is so much better now, but I’m starting to notice a few developments in streaming that are starting to make me, sort of, kind of, just a little but not really, wish for the old days. Stuff like:
Super Long Episodes
I’m fucking looking directly at you, season four of Stranger Things. The shortest episode is sixty-four minutes, and even if you exclude that fucking movie-length finale the average length is seventy-nine minutes long. Seventy-nine! On a network these would all be Very Special Double Episodes stretched out to two full hours with commercials.
I’m also occasionally giving the side-eye to Rings of Power, whose episodes all sat around the hour and ten minute range.
My problem here isn’t precisely with the episode length, I guess. I’ve got two adjacent problems.
Pacing and Self-Indulgence
The problem isn’t that an episode of Stranger Things lasted for an hour and a half. The problem is an episode of Stranger Things lasted for an hour and half and they fucking dragged. I felt the runtime in probably every episode. And I think the root of the problem with Stranger Things is that they spread themselves out too much, tried to follow too many different stories, and are so afraid of killing any of their main characters that we’re now up to, like, thirty of them who the Duffer Brothers all think deserve equal amounts of our attention.
In that article linked above about TV in the nineties I mentioned that shows are better now because generally creators seem to have far fewer restrictions from streaming services than they did from networks. But restrictions are sort of like fear: a little bit is healthy. A time or length restriction on a script or novel can really force the writer to cut the fat and streamline the story. Think about how much time was devoted to the ‘Angela Bullies Eleven’ story line in the first few episodes of the show, and then how that completely fell off once Eleven was drawn back into the main plot. Did we really need that much screen time to show that Eleven is lying to Mike about being happy in California when she’s really miserable and Angela is the main source of that misery? Or did the Duffer Brothers really want to have an Ode to Eighties Bullies Who Take it Way Too Far, Like, Seriously, How is This Teenager Not in Juvie or at Least One of Those Special High Schools?
Authors of certain genres of novels have a lot more leeway to sort of linger on little plots like this, but it’s a generally accepted fact that if you’re writing a script it has to be continually moving forward. And while I think a lot of writers for streaming shows understand that this is true for all scripts, it sure seems like sometimes creators simply see streaming television as a way to make their full-fat movie without some shitty exec name Devon trying to get it down to a tight ninety, except in this case Devon was fully fucking correct.
The problem with Rings of Power is the complete opposite: it didn’t have enough story to justify even being a television show, let alone a television show with overly-long episodes. Seriously, what the fuck was actually relevant of the first six episodes of that show? The whole thing could have been cut into a movie. The episodes were a little long and a lot boring and some of the pacing choices they made were baffling. In one early episode Galadriel finds out she has to go to the other side of the island she’s trapped on and then we get an extended sequence of her riding a horse on a beach. For what? Galadriel likes horses? Okay, fine, who cares though? What is this adding to the story? I know they spent a billion dollars on this shit and they wanted to show off their locations and sets and costume design, but maybe next season some of that money can go to, like, writers? Writers who know how to write for television? Just a thought.
Another show on Prime, The Boys, also has slightly-longer than average episodes coming in at around an hour each, but I never felt the length of those episodes. The pacing is basically perfect. And do you know why? Because Eric Kripke knows how to write for television. He even says as much in this Vulture interview:
“The downside of streaming is that a lot of filmmakers who work in streaming didn’t necessarily come out of that network grind. They’re more comfortable with the idea that they could give you ten hours where nothing happens until the eighth hour. That drives me fucking nuts, personally. As a network guy who had to get you people interested for 22 fucking hours a year, I didn’t get the benefit of, “Oh, just hang in there and don’t worry. The critics will tell you that by episode eight, shit really hits the fan.” Or anyone who says, “Well, what I’m really making is a ten-hour movie.” Fuck you! No you’re not! Make a TV show. You’re in the entertainment business.”
Before The Boys, Eric Kripke was the creator and showrunner of Supernatural. Say what you want about the quality of the show – I certainly do, all the fucking time – but the fact is Supernatural was a functional television show. Viewers were engaged not only for the forty-ish minute run time, but also from episode to episode. Oh, let’s do a fun side-heading on that.
Overarching Plots and Serialized Television Are Not Mutually Exclusive
I have no experience writing scripts but I do have experience writing a novel, and I’ve read a lot of books about it, too. One of the biggest pieces of advice present in a lot of these how-to books is to treat each chapter like it is it’s own complete thing. Have the same sort of opening-rising climax-denouement pattern as you would for an entire book. Each chapter needs to engage the read all on its own while contributing to the wider novel. You can, of course, play around with this concept, but you have to know the rules to know how to break them.
The same thing applies to serialized television. It’s what Kripke is saying up top. You can’t fart around for six episodes hoping your audience will hang on. I mean, I guess you can. And plenty do. And we watch it. Shit. I watched that whole season of Rings of Power even though I didn’t like it that much. That’s weird, right? I need to re-examine my priorities.
I Had Things I Wanted To Do Today
This one has a lot less to do with media criticism and is more a straight up complaint – episodes that are too long are hard to fit into a busy schedule. Especially now, when the amount of media to consume seems endless. In the nineties, you had whatever shows were broadcasting and that was it besides reruns. Now you can watch anything, any time. Movies, too, and video games. Every single piece of media created in this century and the entirety of the last is at your fingertips, and now the Duffer Brothers want your attention for an hour and a half, eight fucking times? Get out of here with that shit.