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During Peak TV, Are Shorter Episode Runtimes Better? – IndieWire Critics Survey

Shows are no longer beholden to the strict 22- or 42-minute network runtime, for better or for worse.

Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington, "Game of Thrones"

Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington

HBO

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Are shorter runtimes better in the era of Peak TV?

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I think everyone, whether they cover television as their job or not, can agree that shorter runtimes are better (the same can be said for shorter seasons). It is partly about the sheer amount of television vying for our attention at all times – it’s easier to watch more television if you’re not stuck watching episodes that top out at an hour or more all the time – but it’s also because a lot of television is unnecessary filler. “13 Reasons Why” not only had too many episodes, but it had too many episodes that went on and on and on without adding anything meaningful to the narrative. If there was ever a show that needed someone to step in and stop the madness, it was “13 Reasons Why.” Sometimes hourlong episodes are packed to the brim and not a second is wasted. Sometimes, on rare occasions, I will even accept an episode that lasts longer than hour is necessary to the story. But it’s also possible to tell lovely, balanced, emotionally resonant stories in shorter amounts of time. The upcoming series “State of the Union,” which follows a couple who meet for drinks ahead of their weekly marriage counseling appointments, is made up of 10 10-minute episodes, and I experienced a full range of emotions by the time the series was over. It was amazing, and one of my favorite shows of the year so far.

The idea that dramas are an hour and comedies are a half-hour is limiting too. Streaming has shifted how a lot of TV is viewed and written, and while that can sometimes be a problem – your show is not a 10-hour movie, OK? No one wants a 10-hour movie! They just don’t! – it’s also nice to see episodes and shows that don’t follow the same formula and structure, that aren’t beholden to specific runtimes and act breaks. Television is better than ever, and seeing how the medium evolves and how different writers elevate their stories by manipulating very simple things has been very fun to watch.

Also, editors are great. Everyone needs an editor. Look at me, I’m just rambling right now. I’m basically the final two seasons of “Sons of Anarchy” over here. So I’m gonna wrap this up and say this: TV shows should have shorter runtimes. Very few movies should ever be longer than two hours. And everyone needs an editor who’s willing to tell them to shut up and just cut whatever is unnecessary.

 

Charlie Hunnam, "Sons of Anarchy"

Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”

FX

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

God, yes. Look, anyone participating in this poll is likely to be biased in favor of shorter runtimes because it means less time spent watching any one show when we’ve fallen behind on two bazillion other shows. We have skin in the game. But even in the pre-Peak TV days, episode bloat was still something that was hard to ignore. Nearly every super-sized episode of “Friends” or “The Office” (“Money” excepted for the latter) would have been better off at the normal length, and those extra-long “Sons of Anarchy” installments became exhausting in a much less crowded landscape. When “Community” moved to Yahoo Screen (RIP) for its final season, its episodes started running several minutes longer than they had on NBC, and more tended to feel like less.

Now, there’s always a risk of episodes feeling too short or rushed. But I think of the efficiency of shows like “Justified” (whose last episode was only slightly longer than normal, even if everyone is okay with movie-length finales) or even “The Sopranos” (which almost never went past 60 minutes, and only for one of its best episodes, “Whitecaps”) and am impressed when creative teams can keep things tight.

And I am very much in favor of this new trendlet of shows with episodes that run 15 minutes or shorter. Things like Netflix’s “Special” or Sundance’s upcoming “State of the Union” are basically web series with bigger budgets and/or stars, but they illustrate how much less can be more. They’re efficient in telling their stories and building characters, and they never feel overextended in the way that so many current shows with overlong episodes (or seasons) do. I wouldn’t want every show, or even most, to do these kinds of mini-episodes, but they can be awfully effective with a small enough story, and they stand out in the current overcrowded, overstuffed TV environment.

Diane Gordon (@thesurfreport), Freelance

I’m firmly of the mind that shorter runtimes are better in the era of Peak TV because they encourage storytellers to be more economical in their storytelling. Remember the over-long, boring, middle of the season episodes of the late Netflix Marvel shows? Those were a consistent complaint from critics and consumers. With viewers on content overload from the start, shorter runtimes make a show more welcoming and seemingly easier to jump into.

It’s also important to remember the show business adage, “Always leave them wanting more,” which leads to some examples of shows with shorter runtimes that embrace this idea: “Barry,” “Veep,” “PEN15,” “Ramy,” and “Shrill.” While these shows technically fall in the comedy category, most are actually dramedies and their shorter episode length means every moment is crafted with purpose. I’ve been gravitating to the calculated storytelling of half-hour shows because each episode usually has action and forward story movement, which makes me want to watch the next episode and so on. A good series is all about drawing the viewer in and then making them want to stay with the characters. Shorter episodes acknowledge our shorter attention spans while still giving us quality storytelling. Please know that I will be contradicting myself next week after HBO’s “Gentleman Jack” premieres because Sally Wainwright’s finely written hour-long episodes kept me riveted at all times.

Ramy Youssef, "Ramy"

Ramy Youssef, “Ramy”

Hulu

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

For a long time after “House of Cards” officially kicked off the streaming TV era, I asked TV producers why they didn’t take advantage of the lack of commercials and programming schedules to create television that was as long as it needed to be. It’s taken many years, but we finally have lots of examples of show creators pulling this off. Amazon’s “Homecoming” is the series most will likely cite; a drama with episodes ranging from 24 to 37 minutes long that feels bingeable and complete. Though it’s classified as a comedy, I’d also put HBO’s “Barry” in this league; a heavily dramatic comedy that also makes the best use of its running time, which ranged from 29 to 36 minutes in its first season. The show that takes this up a notch is Sundance TV’s upcoming “State of the Union” with Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd. Debuting next month, it tells the story of a couple seeking help for a marriage that’s in trouble, stretching that tale over 10 episodes – each 10 minutes long – centered on their brief meetings in a pub across the street from their therapist’s office. The result is a poignant, funny, and distinctive story that capitalizes on the limited field of narrative vision imposed by the short running times. The advantages of these short running times are obvious: you lose the bloat that makes so many platinum TV-era series such a slog, and viewers can get through an entire series in a shorter period of time. But I don’t think the lesson here is that shorter is often better. The lesson is that TV producers now have more ability than ever to make series episodes – and even entire seasons – just as long as they need to tell a compelling story. I’m convinced that an increasing part of competing in a crowded media world will involve respecting viewers’ time enough to make every minute count in every episode. And when the story is done, just stop telling it – whether that means your episodes last just 10 minutes or two hours.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Shorter run times aren’t better, no matter the era, but they have become a signifier of better television. It’s a key distinction to make. After all, some of the best television episodes in recent memory run beyond conventional timeframes: In “The Leftovers” alone, “International Assassin” runs 63 minutes, the Season 2 finale, “I Live Here Now,” hits 73 minutes (nearly feature length), and the last two episodes of Season 3 also run over the hourlong standard — none of these entries should be any shorter, nor would it be easy for shorter episodes of other shows to be better.

And yet, loosening the reins on episode lengths overall has led to overindulgence. Plenty of slow-moving, poorly structured, or otherwise bloated episodes are worse because a proper editor wasn’t allowed to do their job or a writer/director was given too much power. So whenever a series that hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt turns in an episode 10, 15, or even 30 minutes over the expected length, it can signify trouble on the horizon. Everyone thinks they want their favorite shows to go on forever, but in reality, they’re usually our favorites because they’re knowledgeable, judicious, and savvy about what makes the final cut. After all, tighter guidelines can lead intuitive thinkers to critical breakthroughs.

The Leftovers Season 3 Episode 8 Finale Carrie Coon

Carrie Coon, “The Leftovers”

Ben King/HBO

 

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Ultimately the answer to that question depends on how much you love the show. A compelling 90-minute episode of TV can feel inadequate if the story is ripping good, and a 21-minute network episode written for a 30-minute slot can feel like an eternity if it’s badly done. The runtime rules of measurement, especially for quality watches, seem fluid depending on how well the story is executed. Generally I prefer tighter and consistent episodes with the exception being “Game of Thrones” where the vast preponderance of source material could allow the writers to flesh out more characters that get short shrift.

The streamers operate in a different realm. Their creators/showrunners aren’t writing around commercials or fitting into strict slots as the premium cablers are trying to do. The story is what determines runtimes more and more these days. “The OA” on Netflix has a different runtime every time it airs. Yet BBC America’s “Killing Eve” is paced perfectly and tells the story with surgical precision. Also, the premiere season of “The Terror” on AMC is an incredible storytelling journey and ends exactly when it needs to. The coming miniseries “Chernobyl” on HBO is told in five powerful episodes – no more is needed. “Barry” on HBO is such a melancholic and absurd comedy that presenting a full hour of it might ruin the quirky comedic alchemy it has. I remember when FX pushed the runtimes for “Sons of Anarchy” episodes as it went on in seasons, which felt excessive for that story.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

As any overworked TV critic and editor can tell you, there’s too much damn TV. Every week, Netflix alone puts out an entire season of one or more original shows that get lost in the algorithm shuffle, and that’s one streaming service. As Peak TV gains more credibility, and streaming services realize they can fudge with runtimes as much as they want (after all, there are no commercial breaks to contend with), we get things like “Game of Thrones” finishing its run with several movie-length episodes, or “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” making every one of its episodes at least an hour long. That sounds great in theory – more room to tell stories! – but more often than not, it just leads to bloated subplots and a languid pace, padding to make each episode feel more substantial. You know those hour-long “Sabrina” episodes? Yeah, they could stand to be at least 15 minutes shorter apiece.

That being said, the age of streaming is also leading to some shows with shorter runtimes, which end up feeling brighter, brisker, and more meaningful as a result. Netflix has two great examples of this in the queer-centric dramedies “Special” and the upcoming “Bonding.” In the former, star-creator Ryan O’Connell explores life as a gay man with cerebral palsy; in the latter, showrunner Rightor Doyle dramatizes his time acting as an assistant to a dominatrix. Both are short seasons with episodes hovering around 17 minutes long. And by God, they’re so much better for it! Each episode keeps a laser focus on its tight cast of characters, leaving no room for mediocre jokes or languid subplots. Short and sweet is hard to come by in the binge-watching era, so we should treasure these shows that know how to get in, tell their story, and get out. More often then not, they end up lingering more in our memories than the most overstuffed prestige drama.

Homecoming Trailer Amazon

Julia Roberts, “Homecoming”

Amazon

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Oh my god, yes. I don’t mean like, 10-minute shows like “State of the Union,” but shorter dramas like “Homecoming” and “Maniac” or the 21-minute “Master of None” episodes helped plow through a binge (and hit deadlines) way easier. Also, you don’t feel as exhausted after three hours of screening when you realize, “Oh, well I am already through four episodes!” That said, I also love the freedom streaming services give shows to go over the usual runtime. “Kimmy Schmidt” often went beyond the typical 22-minutes of a comedy and you know we’re all waiting for “Game of Thrones” to blow it out with the 80- or 90-minutes mini-epics. Both totally worth the time.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Of course not. Slightly Longer Answer: No, better is better.

I assume at least three of us are going to call upon the Roger Ebert quote that paraphrases as no good movie is ever too long and no bad movie is ever short enough. Guess what? It’s true for TV, too! Guess double-what? It’s actually even more so true for TV, because a movie is just as long as it is, be it 90 minutes or three hours. With a TV, length relates to the running-times of individual episodes, the episode counts of individual seasons and the number of seasons a show and a show’s premise has in it. And there’s no single answer! It’s up to every showrunner and up to every network to correctly answer those questions. Is my show truly a half-hour show or should it be an hour? If it’s an hour, is the pacing better at 22-to-25 minutes, or do I have enough story and/or laughs for 30 minutes? If it’s a drama, is enough happening to justify a full hour or sometimes even more or do I really only need 40-to-45 minutes to tell my story? I’ve never once felt, for example, that “The Crown” didn’t have enough story and enough fresh articulations of story for episodes to fill a full hour. I’ve never once felt that an episode of “Ozark” wouldn’t have been better with between 10 and 15 minutes easily trimmed out of it. So I praise “Special” because its episodes are between 11 and 17 minutes and I hope that’s because Ryan O’Connell knew that was how much story he could fill and I wouldn’t necessarily want him to extend and expand unless he needed to. I praise “State of the Union” for choosing a structure that forced economy and brevity. I praise “The OA” for sometimes going 35 minutes and sometimes going 68 minutes and basing it on the dictates of each episode’s story. I wish more shows had the comfort to be one-season shows, whether they be six or eight or 13 episodes. “The End of the Fucking World” was a great example of a show with a perfect sense of episode length and episode count that didn’t need a second season. None of the Netflix/Marvel shows needed to be 13 episodes, only one or two needed a second season. Very rarely did any of their episodes need to be 55+ minutes. Streaming should be a creative paradise because there needn’t be mandates on such things. I wish it worked out more frequently that way.

Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther, "End of the Fucking World"

Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther, “End of the Fucking World”

Courtesy of Netflix

 

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

So I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about this — I’ve seen some very short-length shows lately that didn’t really wow me, and a couple with extended runtimes that left me cold. However (and I’m guessing I’m not going to be the only one to mention this show), “Special” on Netflix features 15-minute episodes (because it was originally developed for digital-only platforms before making the Netflix leap) and that does make for a pretty breathless viewing experience. However it’s also an honest relief, mostly because it’s not just the short episodes, but the incredibly concise storytelling, that makes the show so watchable.

Netflix Bloat is a real scourge, but it’s not a universal quality. (“BoJack Horseman” is also a very tight series, to its credit, even though it could easily take advantage of the platform and go longer.) And sometimes, there are shows where I’m thrilled to watch them at any length. I love “The Handmaid’s Tale” so much that last year, when I saw that the season finale was over an hour long, I applauded in my own living room out of joy to know we were going to get that much runtime to say goodbye to the year.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

One of the best trends to come out of the Peak TV era have been half-hour series that are often more experimental than hourlongs, more difficult to categorize certainly, and that really get to the heart of their subject matter. These shows all cut to the chase and use their time practically and wonderfully, resulting in distilled goodness. “Fleabag,” “Atlanta,” “Shrill,” “Better Things,” “Barry” — These are series that don’t waste time, and find ways to give us outstanding stories with either tightly connected narratives (“Fleabag”) or a more vignette-style exploration (“Atlanta”). They are the closest thing we have, essentially, to indie TV in that they are interested in pushing boundaries and creatively investigating life’s minutia in hilarious, heartfelt, artistic ways. They feel small in scope, but what they deliver is hugely satisfying.

This isn’t to say that we should do away with hourlong series; they arguably have their place, although in general restrictions (self-imposed or otherwise) do help cut away the bloat and focus in on the heart of the material. (Bloat that sometimes comes from creative indulgence, like those those 80-minute “Sons of Anarchy” episodes with full music-track montages late in the series’ run, or a contractual miscalculation like Netflix’s Marvel series and their sluggish middle episodes). There is certainly an element of TL;DR culture where less is certainly more appealing, in terms of bingeing or even catching up, but the shows I mentioned at the start certainly aren’t fluff. They are small but mighty, making you think and feel deeply about what they present from episode to episode in ways that so many current hourlongs could learn from.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, "Fleabag"

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Fleabag”

Amazon

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

Three weeks ago, something possessed me and I watched eight shows in five days – one season of each, all of which were 10 episodes or fewer. One of them was Sundance’s “State of the Union,” and now having consumed 10 10-minute episodes, I don’t understand why all episodes aren’t 10 minutes long. The episodes were great, the story moved along, there was no fat, and it was all over in under two hours. I do not have the time to watch all this content that is dropping every 50 seconds, so when I see that a show is short in episode count or runtime, it automatically goes to the front of my mental queue. Plus, more is not necessarily better (this also applies to shows that do need multiple seasons). If you need 97 minutes to tell a story every week, you’re not doing it right.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I don’t know if I’d say shorter runtimes are better so much as I’d say varied runtimes are better. I remember before “House of Cards” first debuted, I was at a roundtable with Beau Willimon, and he said something about how he thought it would be cool to do a season that had a 10-minute episode, if that episode stood on its own in a way that made sense. It’s an idea that’s always stuck with me, even though precious few shows have tried anything like it. One exception is Netflix’s “The O.A.,” which has rambled all over the map, with runtimes that barely crack a half-hour to those that creep over an hour. One of the things that made me keep pushing through that daffy show is just how little I knew what to expect when the episode rolled over into a new one – including how long the episode would be. I don’t want to tell people everything needs to be shorter, but I do want people to know they can run short if they have to. That might make all the difference in the world.

Natasha Lyonne and Oatmeal, "Russian Doll"

Natasha Lyonne and Oatmeal, “Russian Doll”

Courtesy of Netflix

Caroline Framke (@carolineframke), Variety

Hmm, let me think about this one, I — YES. And not just “yes,” but hell yes.

Back in 2017, I tweeted out of frustration with an extraordinarily long screener (who even knows which one, now) that “all TV shows should be 20-30 minutes.” In the moment, it was a joke. Almost immediately thereafter, though, I believed it wholeheartedly. The advent of streaming has opened up so many incredible possibilities, but it’s also allowed creators (especially famous ones) to let episodes run as long as they like. But as I’ve learned from my own experience, absolutely no one is too good for an editor. One of the reasons I respect Mike Schur as a producer so much is that while he admits the idea of unlimited time is appealing, he nonetheless recognizes that having to make hard choices in the streamlining process almost always makes the final result better. For further proof, please see the best new shows of this calendar year, including “Russian Doll,” “Pen15,” “The Other Two,” and “Ramy.” Just about all of them are half-hours, even on streaming networks that undoubtedly would have granted them longer runtimes if asked. But they all make the most of their brevity, making hard cuts in order to focus in on the very best each has to offer.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Veep” (four votes)

Other contenders: “Better Things” and “Ramy” (two votes apiece), “Barry,” “Brockmire,” “Game of Thrones,” “Killing Eve,” “Les Miserables” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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