When Julia Roberts heard “Homecoming” director Sam Esmail wanted episodes of the Amazon drama to be a half-hour long, she was against it. “I’m just a product of mediocrity, and so to me, drama is an hour,” she said to IndieWire. “Only teenagers can get drama done in 30 minutes. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? We’re tall. We need an hour.'”
The results, however, turned around Roberts on the issue. “It’s just brilliant,” she said. “I love it so much because, I mean, as an audience member, it just leaves you like, ‘Wait, it’s over?’ That’s how I feel every time.”
Once upon a time, there was no question of how long a TV episode of television “should be;” it was, “must be.” Network television had a schedule to keep and commercials to air, which meant that “Cheers” delivered 24-minute episodes; “E.R.” was 45 minutes. Over the years that shifted to 22 and 42, to allow for larger ad loads, but the laser focus on a consistent length remained.
However, streaming services don’t have these demands. With no ad buyers breathing down a network’s neck, the length of an episode just costs bandwidth and a viewer’s time. In the current realm of prestige dramas, runtime numbers are suggestions at best; the length is there to serve the story.
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With that new freedom, Kurt Sutter or Ryan Murphy play fast and loose with runtimes on ad-supported cable TV, while “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner is rolling out weekly episodes of Amazon’s “The Romanoffs” that are the length of feature films. The absence of restraints has also led to what some call “Netflix bloat” — shows that run long because no one took the time to make them shorter. However, a new wave of shows choose to go the opposite way, and see if they can do more with less.
Esmail liked that, with just 30 minutes, there’s an abruptness that pulls the rug out from underneath the audience every time — and gives the viewer reason to keep watching. “When you’re doing something where there’s a lot of suspense and tension, I think that’s the tool,” he said. “We wanted to end before the audience is expecting it to.”
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While the runtime boundaries may have broken down, audiences still have the same 24 hours a day — and a lot of TV to watch. Audiences are tired. Audiences, whether they be critics or connoisseurs or casual consumers, want their time to be respected. Full credit to Variety critic Caroline Framke for her hard line on this issue, because as more and more shows have proven this fall, the concept of creators who tell a story in half an hour — and not one filmed in front of a live studio audience — has become genuinely enticing.
Production company Big Beach produced two half-hour series this year with Tanya Saracho’s “Vida” on Starz and Kit Steinkellner’s “Sorry For Your Loss” on Facebook Watch. Big Beach TV head Robin Schwartz said that evolved out of both shows being character-driven. “Telling these smaller stories without as large an obvious story engine has led to us naturally getting into this space,” she said.
Schwartz said character-driven programming also thrives within the 30-minute window. “I think new voices really are supported in a way in the half-hour space more than they are in the hour space. I think it’s easier for people to understand that it’s a character piece… if you look at Issa Rae, if you look at Donald Glover, if you look at what Tanya’s done, what Kit’s done … Somehow there’s something digestible about in a half hour, and you’re not reliant upon them generating tons and tons and tons of story.”
Episodes for Desiree Akhavan’s “The Bisexual,” which premiers on Hulu November 16, are a half-hour long. “This is a show that’s driven by its character and its humor,” Akhavan said. “So, it didn’t feel like it needed that extra time. I know it deals with pretty dramatic subject matter, but it always felt appropriate in that world. I didn’t think it needed to stretch out longer. I always felt like it should be as quick-paced and funny as possible.”
That said, she said it’s a comedy because the show’s funny — not because of its length. “It’s a comedy because there are jokes,” she said. “It could be longer and still be a comedy to me. I think it all depends on the context. … I wouldn’t want ‘House of Cards’ to be half-hour. But what’s nice about making television right now is you get to invent the rules. If you tell an entertaining, good story, it doesn’t matter what tools you use and what time you have. I like that about the current climate. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure.”
For Esmail, the half-hour runtime for “Homecoming” began as instinctual and became essential. The show is based on Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s Gimlet Media podcast, which also had half-hour episodes.
“There’s this knee-jerk reaction,” Esmail said, “you gotta make this an hour-long drama, because that’s the convention. And you gotta expand it and make it more cinematic, and build in set pieces and car-chases and explosions. And I just thought, ‘What a shame. What a disservice to the beautiful story that they crafted, where I think the unique thing about this story is that it was a thriller about intimate relationships.’ I wanted it to feel small. I wanted it to feel like it was just about these people and their interactions and their secrets, and the lies that they were telling each other and the lies that they were telling themselves.”
“The plot moves in these very specific, small ways,” said Horowitz. “If we’d had to open it up, I think a lot of the mystique would’ve ran out of it.”
Jennifer Clasen / Amazon
“Homecoming” cinematographer Tod Campbell will soon begin production on the fourth and final season of Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” and if he has his way, “I don’t ever want to shoot an hour-long anything again. It’s perfect,” he said. “I don’t care if ‘Robot’s’ 20 episodes, can we just make them 30 minutes a piece, man? I just think it’s a way better formula, in my opinion.”
“Maniac” co-creator Patrick Somerville said he intended his 10 Netflix episodes to be a half hour each; in practice, they varied from 47 minutes to 26 minutes, with a total runtime of about six hours. “A show that is about five or six hours, I think it trims a lot of fat off of the show, and I think it’s cool,” he said, adding that he and collaborator Cary Joji Fukunaga “always loved the idea of a show you could sit down and watch in a night. If you really wanted to.”
Of course, it also means a show requiring the efforts of more than 100 people over many months might be binge-watched in an instant. David Holstein, creator of Showtime’s half-hour dramedy “Kidding” said he thinks about this “all the time.”
“It’s insane,” he said. “Have you ever had like a really nice meal? And you know somebody worked their whole life to learn how to make that meal — and that meal might take you the same length to eat at a Burger King, right? But the people around that meal — and I don’t just mean me, I mean Jim [Carrey] and everyone — they’re all at the top of their game, and they’re all working all year for you, it’s the greatest fucking meal you’ve every had, because people put time into the detail of it, they really worked on it and they cared about it.”