The length of episodes is something agonized over by critics and usually ignored by fans — until it dramatically shifts from precedent. Of late, there have been plenty of series dabbling with episode lengths that send DVRs into panic mode and have audiences checking their watches.
But there’s no time to glance at the clock if you’re in the grips of great television. Though critics are right to side with a tight edit 99 times out of a 100, one of the exciting things about modern television is its ingenuity. Not all long TV episodes are created equally, and on this weeks’ Very Good TV Podcast, IndieWire TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller and TV Critic Ben Travers discussed a few of the better examples out there.
If a half-hour comedy busts out a super-sized 40-minute episode and it works, so be it; same goes for a feature-length episode that usually clocks in at an hour. Some of the best TV episodes are long, and they don’t deserve to be lumped in with the many shows abusing lax time restrictions on premium cable, basic cable, and streaming services.
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For a brief list of great, long TV episodes, see below. For more, please listen to the episode above.
“The Get Down” – 93 minutes
- Season 1, Episode 1, “Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope for a Treasure”
Baz Luhrmann helmed viewers’ introduction to the South Bronx in the ’70s, where disco and R&B collide to form the early beats of hip-hop, and boy oh boy did he put the “wild” into every moment. This feature-length pilot is alive with unceasing energy, as Luhrmann’s camera captures the passion of young love and musical inspiration by swirling through the streets to the groove of its own addictive beat. Every second is entertaining, and every scene builds to a series cut down too soon.
“Westworld” – 90 minutes
- Season 1, Episode 10, “The Bicameral Mind”
Listen, the decisions made in cutting the Season 1 finale are about capturing the emotional gravity as much as they’re about answering questions. These things take time. Luckily, the style brought by director Jonathan Nolan helps keep viewers gripped even if they’ve already anticipated the many twists. Could a word or 50 be cut? Sure. But there’s something to be said for appreciating how a puzzle comes together instead of just snapping the pieces into place.
“Ozark” – 80 minutes
- Season 1, Episode 10, “The Toll”
This isn’t the best episode of the season (that would be Episode 8, “Kaleidoscope”), but “The Toll” still implements all the traits that make “Ozark” propulsive television: Changes happen fast, whether those are impossible choices made by Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) or unavoidable consequences from what they’ve already done. Say what you will about the darker-than-dark tone (and visuals), but “Ozark” doesn’t stand for fluff.
“The Leftovers” – 73 minutes
- Season 2, Episode 10, “I Live Here Now”
Mimi Leder directed the nearly feature-length Season 2 finale in 13 days — 13 days! In addition, they only cut one scene from production for the final cut, and it’s clear why: “I Live Here Now” ties together a revolutionary season of television with raw vigor, while finding delicate moments for characters to grow, connect, and find meaning in this big crazy life of ours. It’s a perfect episode of TV, and one its audience will never forget.
“The Sopranos” – 72 minutes
- Season 4, Episode 13, “Whitecaps”
One of, if not the first, unlimited TV episodes is also one of its best. The Season 4 finale doesn’t drag in comparison to other episodes, nor does it feel overly weighted down with its (by then) well-earned prestige. But it is purposefully slow. Viewers are asked to sit with the repeating arguments of Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) as so much history is brought to life through verbal onslaughts that spell doom for a marriage long taken for granted. Then it reverses. Then there’s a scene of them when they were truly happy. Then it repeats, as if the cycle is inescapable. You need time to tell that kind of story, and “Whitecaps” uses it well.
“Legion” – 70 minutes
- Season 1, Episode 1, “Chapter 1”
The first episode of Noah Hawley’s FX drama expeditiously moves through 30 years of its main subject’s history, moving through a complicated childhood through David’s (Dan Stevens) disastrous adult life. Then it introduces a slew of crucial side characters and builds a moving romance in a psych ward, of all places. Throw in a surreal atmosphere and untrustworthy narrator, and “Legion” has a lot to accomplish in an hour and 10 minutes. Hawley pulls it off with a flourish, leaving an immediate mark on a crowded TV landscape.
“The Americans” – 69 minutes
- Season 6, Episode 10, “START”
Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ drama rarely went over its budgeted time, but its series finale more than earned the episode lengths left over by trim predecessors. A pulse-pounding hour-plus, “START” captures emotional devastation in complex fashion; the writers invite the audience to answer questions for themselves while still providing critical closure for the ongoing narratives. It’s patient, a series’ staple, yet never slow. Those 69 minutes fly by, and you only want more when the credits roll.
“Master of None” – 57 minutes
- Season 2, Episode 9, “Amarsi Un Po”
In a lot of ways, the penultimate episode of Season 2 is a traditional hourlong episode. Its arcs are constructed specifically for this length, as Aziz Ansari originally turned in a 40-page script before co-creator Alan Yang pushed him to expand it to an hour. The final product, which Ansari also directs, is like his own mini-movie; sure, the opening credits sequence could’ve been cut and spared precious minutes, but that’s part of what gives “Amarsi Un Po” its unique style. It feels special because it’s a particularly special moment to Dev, Ansari’s character. Why cut that?
“GLOW” – 37 minutes
- Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
The “GLOW” pilot is extraordinary. From the opening scene where Ruth (Alison Brie) auditions for a man’s part (it’s the better role!) to the twist ending where we find out she’s sleeping with her best friend’s husband, so much of what the show will tackle — which is a lot — is not only set up but dug into within these fast-flying 37 minutes. Some stories just need the extra time… which, yes, is the line you’ll hear from anyone who makes bloated episodes of television, but Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch really did. And they make the most of it. (P.S. Season 2 has a bunch of episodes over 30 minutes, and they’re all damn good, too.)
“Dear White People” – 35 minutes
- Season 2, Episode 10, “Chapter X”
Justin Simien’s Netflix comedy is never short on things to say or engaging new ways to say them, so it’s a bit surprising more episodes don’t push the 30-minute mark. Yet only the Season 2 finale clocks in more than a minute or two past traditional episode lengths (tip of the cap to the series’ writers and editors, who know comedy works best when it’s wound tight), and the ending packs in two surprise cameos, three romantic hookups, and the culmination of a season-long mystery that leaves one whopper of a cliffhanger. In other words, it accomplishes a lot, and still leaves you wanting more — still lean, even with the extra time.