The fifty-minute hour
Watching the premiere of Mad Men last night, I was struck by how nice it is to follow a series where there isn’t any danger of anyone being disemboweled. Don’t get me wrong: I love Hannibal and Game of Thrones, and violence, properly used, is just another tool in the storyteller’s arsenal. In retrospect, though, I’ve realized that much of my television diet over the last year has consisted of shows that gain much of their narrative power from bloodshed or sex. The Vampire Diaries, which probably has the highest body count of them all, likes to treat a broken neck or a beheading as a punchline, and even shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, where violence is doled out more sparingly, lean heavily on other kinds of graphic imagery. These are all good shows—well, maybe not House of Cards—and I’ve enjoyed watching them all. But it makes me all the more grateful for a show like Mad Men, which exists within the limitations of basic cable and often dials down the intensity even further, to the point where its drama consists of a lingering glance, a chance encounter, or a charged silence. As it happens, this Sunday’s premiere was its lowest-rated in five seasons, which may be a reflection of how much the television landscape has changed: set against its peers, Man Men can start to seem sedate, almost somnolescent.
Still, this kind of slow-drip pacing can be intoxicating in itself, but only if it’s given enough room to breathe, which is part of the reason why I found this season premiere less satisfying than usual. As many of you probably know, AMC has divided the final season into two segments, with the first seven episodes airing this year and the back half held until 2015. The decision makes good economic sense—with Breaking Bad gone, the network doesn’t want to lose both of its flagship shows in succession—but it’s frustrating to viewers, as well as problematic for the show’s narrative. For the past few seasons, Mad Men has premiered with a double episode, which gives it ninety full minutes to immerse us again in its world, mood, and enormous cast. Given the shortened run, the decision was evidently made to keep the latest premiere to the standard length, allowing the season to be parceled out over seven weeks. Unfortunately, it leaves us with an episode that feels like half a loaf. I have a feeling it will hold up better in retrospect than it does on first viewing; Mad Men has long been about cumulative energy, with countless small moments that need time and reflection to pay off. All the same, it was always nice to get an extra helping at the beginning of a season, which allowed scenes and arcs to cohere a little more on their way to the deep dive. And I miss it.
Which raises the issue of how length subconsciously influences our perceptions of television shows, both in its orderly format and in its deviations from the norm. A few months ago, Scott Meslow of The Week argued that Netflix wasn’t fully exploiting the possibilities of the streaming format, which in theory allows shows to be arbitrarily any length at all:
Someone could create a show where one episode is 75 minutes long, and the next episode is 15 minutes long. Someone could decide to release one episode every week, or every month, or every holiday—or at random, turning every new installment into a welcome surprise. Someone could release every episode of a series but the finale, then hold that finale back for six months—turning its premiere into a buzzy event that will be simultaneously shared by all its viewers.
Up to a point, that’s an intriguing suggestion, and I’d be excited to see a series that found a logical, organic reason for telling a story in such unconventional ways. For most shows, though, the episodic format provides a useful set of constraints that go far beyond the logistics of packaging and international markets. It’s a force for selection, compression, and external structure, all of which a series discards at its own peril. As it stands, I’d argue that Netflix is a little too flexible in this regard: nearly every episode of the fourth season of Arrested Development ran long, and I’m not alone in feeling that the result would have been better if Mitch Hurwitz had cut it to fit within twenty-five minutes.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for departures, but that the exceptions have more impact when they build on a baseline. Episodes in a television series, like chapters in a novel, are structural conventions that originated to fill a practical need, then evolved over time in the hands of artists to provide a means of delivering narrative information. As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no real reason why novels need to be divided into chapters, but the shape provided by section breaks, areas of white space, and the rhythm of titles and epigraphs is a tool that clever writers know how to exploit. The same applies to episode lengths. We know approximately how long a given installment of a particular television show will last, which affects how we watch it, especially near the end of an episode. When a show pushes against those expectations, it can be great, but a narrow range of variation is all we need: Game of Thrones, for instance, does just fine with a window between fifty minutes and an hour. And the best unit of narrative is still the episode, which can be used as a building block to create surprising shapes, like the uniform tatami mats in Japanese houses. I wish Mad Men had followed its own precedent and given us two such pieces side by side for the premiere, but I’m still glad to know that each episode that follows will look more or less the same on the outside, with endless variations within.