British “Series” vs. American “Seasons”

BBC’s Sherlock may be my favorite show on television, but, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like it’s actually on television. This is because its series come in sets of three. Yes, the episodes are basically feature-length, coming in at an hour-and-a-half apiece, but it’s still not enough! And don’t even get me started on the fact that I am going to have to wait more than a year for the next installment.

I blame my frustrations on my American upbringing, where network seasons are 22 or 24 or 26 episodes, and the longest hiatus I have to worry about is summer-length. In the land of quantity over quality, this format rules. The rules are changing, of course. Premium cable shows more often than not adopt a 13-episode run and cable networks like USA have shorter stints based around network off-seasons. But, by in large, the British television series is shorter (often, but not always, due to a smaller budget). Luther had a six-episode first series and four-episode second series. Downton Abbey produced a seven-episode first series and an eight-episode second series with Christmas Special (a glorious tradition that requires its own blog post).

Today, I ask the question, is more always better? What do we lose when we insist on a 24-episode season order? And, conversely, what do we gain – both in a majority of British television and the similarly-lengthed American cable shows – with fewer episodes?

Arguments for a longer season

1. More of a good thing is a good thing: The amount of content that some television shows produce every year is astounding, even more so when it is quality. When it is done well, there is nothing better. More of a good thing, when quality can be maintained, is a good thing. I love television because it has the potential to explore characters in a way that film cannot simply because it has the time. This is even truer the longer the season-length. Creators have the opportunity to throw their characters into all sorts of interesting situations.

2. Finales come twice a year: Season finale season is my favorite time of year because you get the pay-off (hopefully) of the storylines that have been building all season. With a nice, long season, this often comes at the half-way point, as well, with a mid-season finale. It usually isn’t as big or game-changing, but it is still awesome and gives the audience some well-deserved answers without having to wait forever.

3. Less waiting: A longer season also means a shorter hiatus. This is not only good for the viewer, but can be good for the show, as well. Many a show has gone off of the air because viewers lost interest after an incredibly long hiatus. It seems American audiences have been trained to expect television at certain times. We get angry if this unspoken contract between network and viewer is broken.

Arguments for a shorter series

1. Concentration of awesomeness: More episodes mean resources – both financial and creative – are spread thinner. This doesn’t always result in a poorer show, but it definitely can. One pro of the shorter series is the tightness of narrative. Longer seasons tend to have filler episodes. For many, this is great. It allows for more fun “monster-of-the-week” episodes, but for a viewer who is all about advancing the arc storylines and seeing something new, it can lead to lots of episodes I just don’t care about. It is easier to lose track of a season’s focus with the finish line still 15 many episodes away. Take Battlestar Galactica, for instance, a show that started as a mini-series, had a 13-episode first season, and 20-episode orders for seasons 2-4. That first season is incredibly tight and arguably its best. The second season’s top ten maintains the tension and narrative before suffering from a disjointed second half that manages to redeem itself in a game-changing season-ender.

2: Diversity from our favorite artists: It allows those involved to do many things. Take Steven Moffat, the showrunner of Sherlock, for an example. He is also the showrunner for Doctor Who. In America, I doubt he would have had the chance to produce Sherlock in the same way he does in the UK because the format – what is basically a mini-series – largely doesn’t exist right now in mainstream television. And forget about actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who play Sherlock and Watson, respectively. Both are in The Hobbit and Cumberbatch will play the villain in the next Star Trek film. They would not have time for both, not with the inflexibility of the American television schedule. And I’m not sure if I want to watch a Sherlock without Cumberbatch and Freeman.

3. Creative control: Another interesting difference between American and British television that the shorter-length series supports is the amount of control the showrunner/head writer has over his or her own show. Television is known as a writer’s medium (while films are a director’s medium). In both countries, writers have the most creative control. While this is still very much true in America, the shorter-length series in the UK allow for showrunners to write a larger percentage of their scripts (this is also true for many shorter-length American premium cable shows). Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, writes all of the scripts, for example, which means (in theory) the tone should be consistent and the continuity more easily maintained.

Conclusions

As the way television is produced and watched continues to evolve, both countries’ television industries are becoming more flexible and diverse in the way they present their seasons/series. I am excited to see how the formatting of television season length continues to change. Ultimately, I cannot come down decisively on either side of this issue. I would never want to give up my longer seasons. There are some amazing shows that exist in the 22-episode format. Having said that, even the best of these shows tend to hit a rut somewhere in their run and there are some amazing six-episode programs that never lose sight of their narrative, tension taut and palpable throughout. Luckily, I don’t have to choose.

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