September 17, 2019

Too Much Television

“Chernobyl, which wrapped up its five-episode run on HBO last week, is one of the more unlikely hits of 2019—a bleak, panicky, emetic drama about a nuclear disaster whose defining stylistic qualities were British accents, a fanatical commitment to historical detail, and a score that sounded like two pieces of metal being scraped together. And yet: I loved it. Lots of other people did, too, so much so that it’s currently the highest-rated drama on IMDb of all time. Chernobyl was urgent. It was the kind of show whose stakes were so high that a two-degree helicopter detour could mean death. It was allegorical. And, best of all, the whole thing concluded in less than six hours.

It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that television episodes are getting longer. The paradox of living in this specific cultural moment is that people have less free time than ever and infinitely more things to watch—and yet the powers that be have been compelled to stretch many of those shows into packages that rival, in their running time, the audiobook of Moby Dick. Single installments in dramatic series run 70, 80, even 90 minutes long. Mid-season streaming episodes in which not a single dynamic thing happens reliably last an entire hour. Even existing shows returning for contemporary continuations or reboots are getting drawn out into formats that simply don’t do them favors. PBS’s 1993 miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City clocked in at six episodes; the new Netflix update runs to 10. The Twilight Zone, that paragon of cogent speculative storytelling, has been stretched out into a flabby, hour-long format by CBS All Access.”

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