“You only like the beginnings of things.”
Some thoughts on streaming services, and the endangered magic of the long-form series.
Last week, Netflix announced that the upcoming seventh season of Grace and Frankie would be its last, but that it would eventually conclude as the streaming platform’s longest-running series, set to produce 94 episodes over the course of its run. (Orange Is the New Black also ran for seven seasons, but only produced 91 episodes; the final season of Grace and Frankie will be 16 episodes long, giving it that three-episode bump.)
The thing about this news isn’t that Grace and Frankie is breaking records, but rather that it stands poised to hold onto that record potentially forever, at least when it comes to Netflix shows. As many have observed lately, Netflix has developed a habit of canceling its shows after two or three seasons, disappointing fans of The OA, Sense8, One Day at a Time, and the Marvel Defenders series. But this isn’t just sad for those particular fans — as fewer and fewer shows survive past Season 3, there’s a general erosion coming to our fundamental understanding of what serialized storytelling, one of TV’s greatest triumphs, actually means, and from where it draws its power.
Journalists don’t need a reminder of this, but apparently other people in the industry do: One of the great cliches spoken by well-meaning producers during press conferences and interviews over the last few years is “it’s not a TV show, it’s a [blank]-hour movie.” It’s a phrase meant to distance the project away from the stigma of the medium (even though that stigma is hella outdated at this point), implying that this isn’t a casual sitcom or procedural, but an epic, united tale that just so happens to be broken up into 60-minute chunks.
And with that “[blank]-hour movie” approach comes first seasons of streaming shows which essentially… play like pilots.
A lot of plot gets packed into the pilot for the upcoming NBC comedy Perfect Harmony, which takes grumpy widower Arthur (Bradley Whitford) from drunkenly berating a struggling church choir to becoming inspired by their passion in just 21 minutes. At the 2019 Television Critics Association press tour, creator Lesley Wake Webster said that was by design: “It was really important to me that we get Arthur to a place where he is open to receiving something from the choir, and I thought that was a very important journey for him to complete.”
She then added this haunting note: “If we were on a streaming [service], maybe it would be our whole first season.”
Webster’s point can be found across many examples across many different platforms, over the last few years. Some shows have been more egregious offenders of this than others — if you didn’t see it, know that it takes the entire first season of Netflix’s Lost In Space for the Robinsons to actually get lost in space. For most of the season, they are on a planet.
This sort of first-season-as-pilot-episode structure doesn’t mean that the show is fundamentally awful. Another example is GLOW, which spends the entire inaugural season as basically an uncut training montage leading up to the premiere of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling TV show, ending just at the moment the cast sits down to watch the first episode. So much of the lead-up to that moment is charming, and the characters all get a real chance to shine, but a more condensed version of that approach to the story might have meant faster forward movement for the show as a whole, which means a lot right now considering the way Season 3 concluded, which (no spoilers) ends with a development that could fuel a very compelling Season 4. Given that we’re currently awaiting word on whether GLOW will get renewed for that fourth season (see above), it’s a little frustrating to think about that first season’s lackadaisical pace, the time that could have been used to advance the journeys of these characters.
[Update 10/2/2019: Since publishing this piece, GLOW and a similarly critically acclaimed Netflix comedy, Dear White People, were both renewed for their fourth and final seasons, which is to say, this shit is real.]
The clear advantage to shows getting to take their time in terms of pacing is, of course, more time for character development and world-building. But more screen time doesn’t automatically translate to those things. For decades, we’ve seen great TV pilots manage to establish both plot and character relatively efficiently, building a foundation for hundreds of future episodes. Cheers is often celebrated for having a perfect pilot — and yeah, it’s great! But also, the pilot for Friends is a little choppy at points but is pretty damn sharp; all six characters get established well, the first season’s status quo gets set up: Ross loves Rachel, Rachel and Monica become roommates, Rachel gets a job working at Central Perk, Joey has the most ’90s hair of all time. All of that, plus the cast’s chemistry is blazingly clear.
After filming the pilot, director James Burrows took the whole gang to Vegas because he knew that the show would be a hit, and so the trip would be “their last shot at anonymity.” Did he know that there would be enough gas in that engine for 10 future seasons? Well, it’s James Burrows, who is kind of iconic in his brilliance, so maybe. The point is, he was perhaps the first to know that there was something special with this show.
But for decades, even less-beloved sitcoms than Friends would run for years, because running long was the ultimate goal: hit 100 episodes, and everyone starts raking in that sweet, sweet syndication cash. Now that syndication is no longer the cash cow it used to be, that goal is no longer as important — and the value of shows going on for years and years has thus plummeted in the eyes of the networks, while they become some of the most popular library content offered by the streaming services.
Reading about the plans for Disney+ original series should be worrying for anyone interested in long-form storytelling, because as exciting as all these new shows sound, they don’t sound like they’re built to last. Take for example WandaVision, which sounds like a truly weird blend of classic sitcom tropes and far more trippy elements starring Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany as the titular MCU characters — everything about the concept sounds intriguing. And it was one example that Marvel’s Kevin Feige presented as an example of how the new slate of Disney+ shows will interact with the ongoing MCU films being released theatrically: the events of WandaVision will directly affect Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the second Doctor Strange movie, which will also feature Olson as the Scarlet Witch.
My meta-textual transmedia-loving brain totally digs that idea… until I realize that this doesn’t sound like a show designed to return for multiple seasons, and while it’s using characters we’ve gotten to know through snippets of past MCU films, that’s not necessarily going to lead to an ongoing relationship (beyond at least one character once again returning to the ensemble of a MCU film). An ongoing affection for the Falcon and Winter Soldier over the course of a few Captain America movies is not on the same level of engagement as watching Buffy Summers slay vampires for seven seasons.
[UPDATE: I realized after publication that it’s a little odd to focus all my upcoming potentially-one-season examples on Disney+ shows that are based on established brands, but for the record: There’s only one Apple+ show I know of that sounds like it’s aiming for multiple seasons. Most of those shows also do not feel like they’re aiming to be unique franchises. Like, is “The Morning Show” really gonna go for years?]
In fact, few of the Disney+ shows that have been announced feel like they’re meant to last long-term; like, I know Disney has cash, but is it willing to spend “five seasons of a Star Wars show starring Ewan McGregor” levels of cash? Given that McGregor is consistently the best part of the prequels, an Obi-Wan Kenobi show should be the best thing ever. But it’ll be a fleeting pleasure most likely, one season and done, and Disney will be fine with that, because one season will be enough to make it look like their library of content is full.
And will that one season be a full story, a real and proper “[blank]-hour movie”? Hopefully. But it could also be another “first-season-as-pilot-episode,” offering up a whole new level of frustration. Sure, it’ll contribute to the larger universe, but it won’t be the same experience as we once had spending years falling in love with characters and their stories, inviting them into our homes every week, making them a part of our lives.
When I first posted about this on Twitter, Twitter user yaddo replied with this classic moment from Mad Men:
What’s so important about it in the context of this discussion is the fact that it comes in the Season 4 finale, the 52nd episode of the show. We have lived with Don Draper for so long now that when Dr. Faye spits those words at him as he breaks up with her for a younger woman, the audience feels their truth deeply; we’ve seen this quality in him for so long that it’s almost shocking, that no one’s said it before. The power of that moment is drawn from not just a few episodes but literally years of getting to know the complexities of this character. Even if you’re catching up with the series today as a binge viewer, it’s arguable that you arrive at this moment even more immersed in the world of the show; it still has an impact.
This is because everyone involved has invested time and care in this world; it is also an example, of course, of TV from the pre-streaming times, which have proven more seismic than I think we ever anticipated, when we were just on the verge of Netflix launching its first original series.
What TV looks like (hell, what we even call TV) in the future is something for which none of us have a real answer, but I hope these new formats find someway to maintain the magic that came during the time of the rise of truly great long-running TV shows. Summer flings are fun, but most viewers are looking for a love that lasts.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by Vulture, Variety, The AV Club, The Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter and email her here.
NOTE: This story was revised after publication.