This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, Lodge 49.
Television has changed so drastically in the last decade that it’s hard to comprehend in hindsight. The history of television is full of drastic change, from the move to colour to the rise of cable and satellite channels, but the emergence of streaming has exploded the very concept of what television is. Something literally no longer has to appear on TV to be a TV show. We watch TV shows on computers and telephones, instantly available and on our own schedule. So much of what we call TV now would not be recognised as TV by time travellers from twenty years ago. Cable television was small fry by comparison: it was still recognisably television, there was just a lot more of it. A dozen new places to watch Murder She Wrote reruns.
Streaming is different. It’s not just the rise of major new companies in the TV landscape, it’s the transformation of both how we watch TV and how TV gets made. In 2013, Netflix started pivoting in earnest to original programming with Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards, and in the years since, basically every tech or media company has decided to launch its own subscription streaming service, each offering original, exclusive programming. Most of it is released a full season at a time, although Disney+ and Apple TV have tried (with varying degrees of success) to release episodes weekly. The season lengths are generally short: if the typical seasons of American television were twenty-two episodes or so on a network and around thirteen on cable, recent streaming shows tap out at about ten. While short seasons are typical of how TV is produced in a lot of countries – six episodes has been the consistent norm in the UK for decades – those old-fashioned long seasons are now at death’s door in the US, too.
This is important because it’s transformed what TV is actually like. In the early days, the rise of streaming services was often discursively bundled in with the Golden Age of TV that was set off by The Sopranos: complex, serialised storytelling, the story goes, was now possible on television, usually in the form of dark antihero dramas. If the rhetoric about the Golden Age of TV was sometimes overblown – a strange form of backhanded snobbery that put television as a medium down in order to praise its programmes – it was describing something real and tangible and exciting. Watching Breaking Bad for the first time was one of the greatest thrills I’ve had with any piece of art. Although to this day Wikipedia frames this golden age as ongoing, there was a clear shift at a certain point. Bundling modern streaming television in with The Sopranos totally misses what streaming shows are actually like to watch.
Television as a medium has traditionally been both short and long: you watch it for half an hour or so, but over months and years. Streaming television has effectively reversed this: episodes bloat and bleed into one another, which combined with the shorter seasons, gives the feeling of a stretched-out movie. And then it gets cancelled prematurely. So much of great old television is tight, short episodes churned out for the better part of a decade – an epic mosaic made from tiny, carefully crafted individual artworks – and so much of modern television is two bloated and sluggish seasons and then cancellation. The second season of Jessica Jones was such a bloated mess that didn’t even really feel like it had episodes, it just rolled credits at around the hour mark. Most people around me seem to have adjusted to the new television landscape fairly well, even if I am convinced they have forgotten exactly what they’re missing. When people talk about binging shows, too often it sounds to my ear less like they are enjoying the show so much they want to stay with it that bit longer and more like they’re racing to get it over with.
If you love television – and I do, dearly, since I was a tiny tot sat in front of the box to watch cartoons – it’s easy to despair and retreat into old detective shows and classic sitcoms. Emily VanDerWerff captured my feelings perfectly:
The things I love about older TV are precisely the things that are missing from TV right now. In the olden times, TV sprawled and took its time and unfolded over many episodes over many years. Even a show like Breaking Bad took several years to unspool its story, and when you look at something like Cheers, it’s impossible to imagine something with that level of depth and complexity getting that long to tell its story today. We are built not for the long haul, but for an endless assault of the new… That makes me sad, or maybe it just makes me old. But it does seem like whatever this medium I love is becoming, it’s not quite the thing that made me fall in love with it.
But it is possible for great shows to still get made. Great shows get made all the time, in fact. I Think You Should Leave is quite possibly the greatest sketch show of all time, and it probably wouldn’t have gotten made in any previous era of American television. But too many great shows feel like they were born too late, trapped in a time that can’t appreciate them the way they deserve. Shows like Mindhunter.
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