Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The fifty-minute hour

with 37 comments

Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men

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.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

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.

37 Responses

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  1. With a Mad Men episode that overlapped the story lines of four of its primary characters: Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, and Don Draper who really wanted to watch this? I vote for Game of Thrones. Time to move on!


    April 18, 2014 at 1:15 pm

  2. If books were made into TV shows more often, there would be more detail, more flexibility to include everything instead of having to cram it all into 90 minutes.

    The Philosophunculist

    April 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm

  3. I’m not a Mad Men fan, but I agree that the way AMC is doing things doesn’t make sense for fans. If I were to ever write or produce a TV show (and because one of my majors can lead to a career in film or TV, it’s a possibility), I’d argue against doing such a weird staggering.

    By the way, have you ever watched the MTV show Teen Wolf? The 3rd season was cut into a summer and a winter section of 12 episodes each, unusual for a summer show that usually only spans 12 episodes. Surprisingly, it worked, even if each half felt like a different season. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for season 4.

    rami ungar the writer

    April 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm

  4. @segmation: As someone who loves both Mad Men and Game of Thrones, I do sometimes wish I could get into a show that didn’t have several hundred characters…

    @The Philosophunculist: Agreed! I think it’s the perfect format for adaptations of many novels.

    @rami: I haven’t seen Teen Wolf, but that’s an interesting strategy. A long midwinter break is becoming common for a lot of shows, probably because modern viewers don’t have a lot of patience for reruns.


    April 18, 2014 at 5:09 pm

  5. I’m starting to think the real structural problem with television (apart from sitcoms) is the expectation that a show last beyond three or four seasons in the first place. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but in general I think shows suffer for not being written with a goal of _something along the lines_ of two to five seasons in mind.

    The Sopranos is probably my favorite example: Season 3’s finale was a _flawless_ wrap-up of the show’s arc and could have been the ending by which all others were judged for a generation. It was comprehensive, satisfying and comfortably open-ended. It took three seasons of tightly-paced violence and chaos and gave them an elegant send-off that somehow made even the darkest moments feel poetic and worthwhile. And then the show limped on for three more shockingly underwritten years, alternating between stretches of aimless boredom and one shock-value misfire after another.

    Meanwhile, Breaking Bad flew through five seasons (counting seasons 5A and 5B as one) without missing a beat, and ended with momentum to spare. However you might choose to criticize the show, you can’t fault its focus and urgency.

    That, to me, is how Mad Men transformed from a staggering achievement into a nearly unwatchable mess propped up by little more than good will and quickly fading novelty. Don has lost the expertly-tuned antihero balance that made him so compelling; his likability and even relevance to the story has nearly evaporated, leaving us with a character so unrelentingly cold that there’s little more than Jon Hamm’s well-publicized affability propping him up at this point. And Peggy has been reduced from the show’s scrappy moral center to a perpetually sneering tax on the viewer’s patience, careening from one exhausting bout of manufactured conflict to another. Even its supposedly rich historical setting is starting to feel smug, overly-calculated and undeserved.

    I think back to what remains my single favorite moment on the show; a rag-tag band of suits, betting everything on a new venture, huddled into a single hotel room with Peggy answering the phone and saying “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce” for the first time. I got chills when I saw that. For god’s sake, the show took the inception of an ad agency and made it thrilling. THAT’s the Mad Men I haven’t seen in years. I feel like its best ideas are in the past, and what we’re seeing now is the consequence of telling a story beyond its natural ending.

    Like you, I’m only interested in so much violence and misery. But violent or not, Mad Men just doesn’t feel like it wants to tell a story anymore.

    Alex Varanese

    April 18, 2014 at 7:58 pm

  6. Good GOD. I almost never post to blogs so the length of my reply doesn’t occur to me until I see a wall of text clogging everything up. I’ll try to get to the point sooner next time. :)

    Alex Varanese

    April 18, 2014 at 8:00 pm

  7. @Alex: No worries! And you raise some good points, although I still love Mad Men. It’s turned ever more into a show in dialogue with itself, or as a sandbox for Matthew Weiner, and although last season was problematic, I found the narrative tensions there—between Don Draper and Hamm’s performance, between the show’s insularity and its enormous cast, and between its focus on small moments and the crushing weight of its own history—totally fascinating. And I remain hopeful that it will stick the landing, although we’ll have to wait until 2015 to see. (That said, the episode you mention, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” is still my favorite of them all.)


    April 18, 2014 at 8:34 pm

  8. That we’re all watching a program with the quality that Mad Men exhibits is good news in and of itself. I’ve always been a fan and have been enthused enough watched the show to keep it reinstated. Nice post and good choice of material!

    Mike Andberg

    April 18, 2014 at 8:54 pm

  9. Yeah, I love Mad Men, but this season’s opener was a little flat. I didn’t even think about it only being an hour until you mentioned it. I felt as if something was missing. That must have been what it was.


    April 18, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  10. i have watching this programe very good but very slowly beginning.nice post sharing thank you



    April 19, 2014 at 12:48 am

  11. It is great to enjoy some peaceful TV however my issue with Madmen is it has almost nothing to do with Advertising. Masters of Sex and Breaking Bad were the last TV shows I really enjoyed.


    April 19, 2014 at 1:47 am

  12. For me, “Madmen” is literature in pictures..


    April 19, 2014 at 4:37 am

  13. I watch Perry Mason and it is all scripted to fit into a pattern. The red herrings are planned out the words measured and at the end the killer almost always confesses. You can time it to almost the minute. All the shows are like that. CSI, NCIS and the rest.


    April 19, 2014 at 7:55 am

  14. russellboyle has it figured out in seven words. “The fifty minute hour” was a good title for your blog post. That’s exactly how I felt after reading this long winded, overstated post.
    Congrats on winning the FP lottery.

    J Roycroft

    April 19, 2014 at 1:36 pm

  15. You still have to love Mad Men though! It explores the darker sides of reality in a way more palpable than over the top violence.


    April 19, 2014 at 6:42 pm

  16. Yeah it’s a solid show that involves more thinking that your typical horror TV show. And of course it’s more realistic.


    April 20, 2014 at 1:57 am

  17. @Mike: Thanks!

    @hullygullytime: I might try rewatching it again after the second episode airs tonight—I have a feeling it will hold up a little better in context.

    @neillbarry: It’s true that advertising itself is taking up less of the show’s time, but it’s still a series about telling stories, both in the television medium and in the characters’ own lives.

    @russellboyle: Nicely put.

    @awax1217: It’s interesting how obvious these formulas become after you’ve watched a lot of television, and how fascinating it can be when shows push against those conventions—while still working within them—in unexpected ways.

    @callumdownes: Very true—Mad Men has some of the darkest moments I’ve ever seen on television.


    April 20, 2014 at 12:08 pm

  18. I agree – i think the season opener felt a little flat – but i think for me it has less to do with the length of the episode and more with the length of time I’ve waited for that episode. I have such high expectations for this show – and those expectations built up for months. I have full faith Weiner & co will be able to deliver. I may be slightly disappointed by individual episodes but I’ve always felt each season as a whole is always brilliant.


    April 20, 2014 at 6:17 pm

  19. wonderful article. i binge-watched Madmen the first time around several months after the final episode had aired and so i feel i can’t speak to several aspects of the emotions tied to it. However, i think it certainly is interesting how much control we give to media for our apparent levels of satisfaction…in a time where we have largely structured our lives around constant’s no wonder just about everything comes up short


    April 20, 2014 at 10:44 pm

  20. Something they used to do in the ’70s was have 90 minute episodes that aired every 2nd or 3rd week, cycling with one or two other shows. Columbo did that.


    April 20, 2014 at 11:53 pm

  21. I am a huge Man Men fan and disappointed to hear that we are entering the final two seasons. I don’t have access to television (personal choice) so I wait until the episodes show up on the library’s list. Having grown up in that era, it is interesting to look back and see all the positive changes that have come about; i.e. no smoking and drinking in the workplace; sexual harassment laws in the workplace, etc. I’ve seen it all!


    April 21, 2014 at 11:30 am

  22. I have to agree with Alex on this one. The stretching of shows to more than 5 seasons becomes absolutely unreasonable when the writing is no longer fresh or inspired.

    As for formatting and length of shows- I absolutely agree that it’s something that could be tinkered and toyed with. Online programming providers are in a unique advantage as to how they handle their shows, creating a new standard for the medium. So far, Netflix is being a trailblazer (in releasing all episodes of a season.) But what’s the next move?

    Vintage on Tap

    April 21, 2014 at 7:20 pm

  23. @seandavidjohnson: It’s very true that half of Mad Men‘s challenge is living up to its own high expectations. Over time, though, I’ve found that they’ve always delivered.

    @MissFit: I’m envious that you’ve had a chance to discover it for the first time!

    @totallyrandomgoodadvice: I think that’s a great idea, and with shows like True Detective going for more of an anthology feel, I don’t doubt that we’ll see something similar again soon.

    @ghostbusterbev: Agreed, that’s definitely one of the show’s most fascinating aspects, even if it’s occasionally a little too on the nose.

    @Vintage on Tap: I think Mad Men still has a few surprises up its sleeve. But I agree that five seasons is a nice round number, and very few shows have ever done interesting work beyond that point.


    April 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm

  24. I love how so many characters were getting persecuted out of humiliation, then won or broke even in the end. The Don/sally dynamic just gets better and better.

    Fate Jacket X

    April 21, 2014 at 10:00 pm

  25. Also, i don’t think arrested development fans largely cared about the time. I was just ecstatic to see the show again.

    Fate Jacket X

    April 21, 2014 at 10:02 pm

  26. Just finished watching season 4 of the walking dead. Was so violent that every episode I had to shield my eyes a number of times because I couldn’t handle the gore. I find reality great for toning it down from the violence heavy shows. At least with reality shows they can’t murder characters!


    April 22, 2014 at 7:33 am

  27. Very interesting post. It will be a shame to lose Mad Men – I agree with you that its lingering style and willingness to take time over its character arcs is refreshing. I hope the splitting of this final series doesn’t damage the storytelling. I think allowing writers and directors more flexible running lengths encourages creativity – Boardwalk Empire has harnessed this approach to great success. I hope we see more series open to this in the future. In an ideal world episodes should be governed by the story and not schedule slots.

    Writer Loves Movies

    April 22, 2014 at 4:03 pm

  28. very nice post…


    April 23, 2014 at 5:42 am

  29. Thanks for an interesting post. I like Mad Men; I like popping into that world to see what everyone is up to. I like marvelling at how far we have come as a society. I also want to echo Alex sentiments regarding shows running beyond 5 seasons becoming repetitive. I watch different shows for different reasons. I find Mad Men compelling because I consider it less about plot and more about character development. Not Don Draper’s character development, but those around him, as he seems frozen in time. Joan in particular is a favourite character.

    Some shows are about plot with some character development thrown in, Game of Thrones comes to mind, but I have grown tired of watching that punishing show. Mostly because the struggle for power is a theme of little interest to me and if most of the characters (ok maybe not Tyrion and Arya) were killed off, I wouldn’t miss them. I’m starting to feel the same way about The Walking Dead too.

    Some shows strike a perfect balance of character development and plot for my tastes and Breaking Bad and Spartacus are the best examples of that. I miss them both so much, but appreciate that they were completed in just the right amount of episodes.


    April 23, 2014 at 10:17 pm

  30. I watch Korean dramas and they release two episodes a week and have set series lengths that range from 16 for trendy dramas to 50+ for daily ones. It’s been fascinating to see how having a soft ending for the first episode and having a hard ending allows room in the show for more realism and more creativity both. Loved your point about Mad Men – I think though sometimes we hold to convention too long in America. Cheers.


    April 24, 2014 at 2:09 pm

  31. Interesting post. I lost touch with Mad Men, when they moved it to Sky, in the UK. I fully intend to watch it, but it will be on demand via Lovefilm or similar. That way, I get to watch it without adverts and mid-season breaks.
    Changing the format for the final season makes financial sense, but not artistic. I also agree that the long, slow burn of MM is refreshing. I found the first ep of Fargo had that, albeit with a larger body count.


    April 25, 2014 at 6:29 am

  32. @Fate Jacket X: I definitely liked the season’s second episode a lot more—I really wish they’d gone with the double-header!

    @amychesser: I haven’t seen The Walking Dead, but I have a feeling the combination of violence and nonstop arguing would get on my nerves after a while.

    @Writer Loves Movies: Agreed! I also think that the move toward generally shorter seasons is a positive development.

    @dvdiva: I really need to catch up on Spartacus. I’ll add that one to the list…

    @yaykisspurr: Interesting point. A show that builds over 50+ episodes to a fixed endpoint would be really fascinating to watch.

    @Chella: I was determined not to add any more series to my queue of shows to watch, but the reaction to Fargo makes me think I might need to make an exception.


    April 25, 2014 at 3:23 pm

  33. Loved this. Beautiful and poignant writing.


    April 26, 2014 at 6:19 am

  34. Whats important is that House of Cards is a GREAT show.


    April 27, 2014 at 12:00 am

  35. Nice one. And thanks for the reference to Scott Meslow’s suggestion. It”ll be interesting to see who runs with that first, and how.

    Ripley Trout

    April 29, 2014 at 11:40 am

  36. Very interesting and engaging article! Plus, I love Don Draper-love the picture!!


    April 29, 2014 at 9:18 pm

  37. @timckm91: It definitely has its merits, but I’ve come to feel that the writing isn’t quite up to the same level as the direction, cinematography, cast, and production design. Although I could watch Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright all day.

    @Ripley Trout: I’m curious about that, too—as long as it’s done for a good reason.

    Thanks, everyone!


    April 30, 2014 at 4:49 pm

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