Television Season: 13 vs. 22 Episode Seasons

For decades, television has been more about form than function. Producers would take a concept that was unique, but easily reproducible, and iterate on that, weekly, for a season. Over time audiences began to evolve, wanting more from their viewing time. As such, shorter seasons have come into fashion, with story now being the primary driving force. Are viewers losing out or is less more?

the_x_files

Case-of-the-week is a phrase that describes cop dramas, where a crime was committed that was always neatly solved by the end of the show. This term can describe many shows outside of cop dramas. For years, every show followed this model, with some new situation introduced that was wrapped up before the credits with the characters showing no memory of said event the following week. Granted, some changes were made as the well started to dry, such as the Ricardo’s buying a farmhouse at the end of I Love Lucy, or Zack & co. heading to college after growing to old for high school in Saved by the Bell. Still, shows were stagnant, with the ability to watch them in any order.

The X-Files was one of the first, and certainly the biggest, to change that. Here, the typical case-of-the-week formal was mixed with serialization. An on-going story was constantly present in the background as Mulder searched for his abducted sister. In retrospect, the show was more of an 80/20 split, with the bulk of the time spent on the safe bet, case-of-the-week, but still, the effort was there.

Gradually, shows started to change, becoming more serialized while still mixing the two. Eventually, cable channels (AMC, FX, HBO) started to grow with original content. Unable to fund production of a season long show, they split the difference, creating 13 week programs. This demanded tighter scripting and story telling. The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and Dexter are just a few.

Heroes

Heroes

Network (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC)  shows, ever slow to evolve, have started to fall behind, and are now trying to ape cable channels. First, they created shows that still ran for the entire 22 weeks, but were heavily serialized. Supernatural, Arrow, and Heroes are just a few, but they too had some padded elements, wasting episodes with filler content. Lost has the most famous example. One episode in season three, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” showed how Jack took a vacation in Thailand and acquired a tattoo. A flashback about a tattoo. Creators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof told their network overlords this is the quality of show to expect if their not allowed to set an end date, putting aside the need for filler episodes. This was a powerful lesson for many network executives. Now, it’s common place for 13 episode serialized shows to exist. Networks have followed suit, with more slots open for new content. Sleepy Hollow, The 100, and Hannibal being a notable few.

Hannibal, Season 1

Hannibal, Season 1

The 13 episode model has proven how shows can succeed with they have less time to fill, and less time to get it right. Cable has gone a step farther with shows like Penny Dreadful, True Detective, and Game of Thrones only running 8, 8, and 10 episodes, respectively. With the massive popularity of those shows, and other like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, it would seem the 13 episode model is better.

In my opinion, I’d rather watch a short show. Even newer shows such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Arrow, which I do enjoy, I find difficult to watch due to time commitment, and the filler episodes they still run. Others, like the 9th season of Supernatural, were painful to watch, and would have benefited from a shorter run. Proving this from the other side was the 6th season of Sons of Anarchy, with each episode running over time (60 instead of 42 minutes), effectively adding another 2 – 3 episodes to the season, letting the plot meander in some points.

Supernatural, Season 9

Supernatural, Season 9

Slowly, but surely, the old model is dying. With streaming services coming into vogue and creators given more control of their stories, when and how content is delivered will certainly become a variable.

What do you think is better? Would you rather watch a shorter, or longer season? Comment below!

I have no idea?

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8 responses to “Television Season: 13 vs. 22 Episode Seasons

  1. It’s a similar case with anime. Back when I started buying DVDs most shows were around 26 episodes long. These days there are a lot of animes that only run for 13 episode seasons.

    I think a season should be however long it needs to be in order to tell its tale. Creators shouldn’t be pressured into padding things out with filler. British shows don’t even reach 13 episodes in most cases.

    • That was a major detriment to my anime consumption. I was more inclined to watch shows that had an odd numbering aside from 13, 26, or over 100. I noticed those were less like to have filler episodes (like FMA: Brotherhood).

      I wrote an editorial back when I didn’t know how to write (which insinuates I do now, ha) about the BBC. I completely agree. Shows shouldn’t be molded to fit a template, something is almost always lost or compromised. Occasionally, it spawns imaginative creativity, like with older NES games.

  2. We’ve had short seasons for a long time in the UK. From as early as I can remember most TV shows ran for 6 episode series. Recently though we have seen the expansion to 13 eps seasons, and it has been for the better. What is telling though is when a 13 show run is bought by US TV such as Being Human or Life on Mars and they expand the show to 22 – 24 episodes. It has that Filler creep you speak of that somehow fails to expand on the original premise and just takes a huge steaming dump on the format.

    I’m just thankful that the US version of Red Dwarf never worked out.

    • It’s difficult to come up with a enough content to fill out a 22 (or more) episode season without burning out too quickly. I think 13 episodes is the sweet spot. It gives creators enough space to tell their stories while also limiting the season, making it feel special when it airs. With the rising success of cable shows, all of which have 13 episodes or less, I can’t help but think the two are related. Look at HBO, their season lengths vary from 6 – 12 regularly, and they often produce quality shows.

      I’ve been meaning to watch Red Dwarf (the original, UK version). That good?

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