Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Netflix Originals and the loss of constraints

with 2 comments

Arrested Development

The history of television has always been one of confronting, exploiting, and finally eliminating constraints. In half a century, we’ve gone from live monochrome broadcasts to widescreen color in high definition, often with production values approaching those of theatrical releases. Cable television has eased restrictions on adult content, language, and violence, and although this hasn’t always been a good thing, many shows have used these freedoms to astonishing effect. And the widespread availability of recording devices, both legal and otherwise, have allowed shows to reach unprecedented levels of narrative density: it’s no accident that the golden years of The Simpsons coincided with the presence of a VCR in every home. Until recently, however, two big constraints remained in place. Most shows are still parceled out gradually, usually on a weekly basis, and they’re required to fit into convenient whole- or half-hour increments. With commercials, that translates to just over twenty minutes for most network sitcoms and forty minutes for dramas, and that number has steadily shrunk over the last few decades. Even on cable, shows are rarely allowed to spill beyond the edges of their assigned timeslots.

Netflix Originals has changed this, of course, and to watch the entire runs of House of Cards and the fourth season of Arrested Development is to be reminded that for every constraint we overcome, there’s usually a loss as well as a gain, at least until storytellers figure out how to use the tools they’ve been given. To their credit, the creators of both series have thought deeply about the possibilities of this new delivery system, which gives viewers access to the entire season at once and allows episodes, at least in theory, to be any length at all. In both cases, episodes are conceived as chapters that aren’t meant to stand on their own, leading to some curious narrative choices. House of Cards has a way of introducing characters and subplots with slow, talky scenes that don’t have any particular relevance to the episodes in which they appear, while Arrested Development sets up clues and puzzle pieces for gags that won’t pay off until near the end of the season, if they ever do. Unfortunately, the execution hasn’t always been up to the level of the conception: House of Cards is often a poorly written show, at least compared to its gorgeous technical merits, and Arrested Development is clearly struggling with limits of cast availability and budget, leading to an incohesive, often frustrating whole.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Still, there’s something genuinely exciting about the idea of television seasons that are written, shot, and edited as a single unit, and I’m interested in seeing what else Mitch Hurwitz can do with the form: Arrested Development‘s fourth season is undeniably flawed, but this seems to have been partially the result of the circumstances under which it was made. (I’m less optimistic about House of Cards, which had far greater resources at its disposal and still managed to be mostly underwhelming.) But the issue of episode length is more troubling. Most of the new installments of Arrested Development are over half an hour long, or ten minutes longer than the episodes of the original run, which leads to a lot of unnecessary moments and jokes that keep going long after the point has been made. Keeping each episode of the first three seasons down to twenty minutes or so forced Hurtwitz to cut stories to the bone, and much of the breakneck pacing of the show’s classic years was a result of the demands of the format. Occasionally, the new season benefits from the additional breathing room—as when G.O.B. and Tony Wonder spend thirty seconds drinking a glass of water—but it more often results in scenes that slowly run out of air.

And I’m hopeful that Hurwitz will recognize this if he gets a chance at a fifth season, which seems likely. (He already seems aware that certain constraints are worth preserving: bleeped dialogue is funnier than swearing, and act breaks are a useful way of structuring an episode even when you don’t cut to a commercial.) And the actual number of minutes per episode is less important than the fact of the constraint itself. Shorter isn’t always a good thing; I can’t argue that The Simpsons becomes a better show after two minutes are cut for syndication. But every writer knows from experience that the habit of respecting a set length, even an arbitrary one, has benefits that go far beyond those of concision: you’re forced to take a hard look at every line, asking if it’s really necessary or could be expressed more effectively in a smaller amount of space. The broadcast networks certainly didn’t have the creative benefits in mind when they required all their shows to fall within a narrow range, but the result is usually a better, tighter show, and especially when it’s driven by an imagination that strains against those limitations. Neither of the shows I’ve seen from Netflix has been an unqualified success, but eventually, it will happen—and in more senses than one, it’s only a matter of time.

Written by nevalalee

June 4, 2013 at 9:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. I have not given these two shows a try since I heard that Netflix had taken then on as originals, but I will some day. You make a good point that with every evolution of the limits of content creation the storytellers adapt and eventually fill the space with well-written, fine tuned content. I’ve thought about these ideas myself as books are read more and more on digital media such as full color interactive kindle Fires. How will novel writers adapt to this new arena? Is there now a better way to tell the story?

  2. That’s an interesting question! I’ve thought about this a bit elsewhere:


    June 4, 2013 at 9:29 am

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