I lot of my work is about the freedom of artistic constraint, so it’s fun to think about constraint in mediums I’m not as familiar with.
In his new book, Avidly Reads Screen Time, Philip Maciak writes about television as a medium of constraint, particularly in regards to time:
Its various genres are often defined by their temporal boundaries: the half-hour sitcom, the hour-long drama, the limited miniseries, the live broadcast. They’re defined by the hour they’re designed to air: daytime, prime time, late night. More dramatically than even the theater or the Victorian serial, and just as much as radio drama, the most instantly recognizable modes of TV, even today, were shaped in their infancy by the simple question of how much time is available to show them, when, and over how long a period…. And that’s only thinking about questions of length and duration. These forms also evolved historically in relation to time slots, commercial breaks, or even seasons of the year.
“The history of television,” he writes, “is a history of how those constraints became generative, rather than limiting.”
Maciak points out that Twin Peaks, for example, was a genuinely weird show that “improvised, unnervingly, self-consciously, with the genre conventions of the daytime soap and the cop show.” But it was also conventionally structured to air on network, “a prime time soap. Its shape was recognizable despite the uncanniness of its contents. And while that shape itself got stranger over the course of the series, its innovations were smuggled in initially through a form that was ultimately familiar to viewers.”
We’re now in the era of streaming, in which any time constraints on television are like “vestigial tails,” remnants of their ancestral forms.
Sitcoms on streamers often run around a half hour, and they often look like sitcoms from decades earlier. Same with prime time serials. But they don’t have to. Freed from time slots and commercial breaks, they don’t need to adhere to specific runtimes. They don’t air at specific times. Any adherence they have to the old forms is merely a matter of tradition…. These are the new constraints. There are no constraints.
Watching TV right now, you can start to see the varied results of “there are no constraints.”
I have been mildly dissatisfied with the final seasons of many shows recently, and I realized that all of them are screwing around with time in different ways. (Tiny spoilers ahead.)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is using flash-forwards to show us what happens to the characters several decades after the show’s main action.
Barry took a big leap in the middle of season 4 — episode 5 starts off 8 years after the end of episode 4.
Succession in season 4 is paced (as far as I can tell) one day per episode.
I wondered how the last season of Ted Lasso — by far the most disappointing show in the batch — fits into the picture here, if it does at all.
In “‘Ted Lasso’ Has Lost Its Way,” critic David Sims says the show is “is a pure example of the excesses that can flourish on streaming television. The show has no time slot to worry about, and none of the formal or thematic constraints of network television.”
The question any workplace sitcom faces is how much to stray from the status quo; audiences need some sense that things can change, but not so much that the show’s formula is threatened…. Ted Lasso might have debuted as a sitcom, but it now obeys the freewheeling standards of premium dramas, pushing its episode lengths to make grand social statements about depression, workplace dynamics, and the changing standards of 21st-century masculinity.
(I personally thought the hour-long “Sunflowers” episode was the most decent thing they’ve done this season, so I’m not so sure the problem is ballooning runtimes.)
Sims’ take on Ted Lasso made me think about this bit from an interview with Abbott Elementary creator and showrunner Quinta Brunson:
Are you already thinking about ways to avoid your show getting stuck in ruts? I am, but the difference is, with the 22-minute sitcom, the basics are “situation” and “comedy.” It’s in the name. We don’t have to do much. I was tuning into “The Fresh Prince” to see Will do something that Uncle Phil yells at him for and to see Jazz get thrown out of the house. Whereas with most of the streaming comedies, you’re expecting a certain amount of development from these characters. If you don’t get it, you feel a little let down, because you’re expecting this high art. I simply want to make people laugh. That’s all I’m here for. Which is the beauty of the 22-minute sitcom: It can only do so much.
There’s a clarity there that I really admire. Brunson knows she’s working within a form, and the game is to do as much as you can within it. In her words, the “beauty” of the form is that “it can only do so much.”
Which brings me to my favorite show: HBO’s Somebody Somewhere. A half-hour comedy that is weird, and tender, and bawdy, and shows you things you’re not used to seeing on the screen. It gets away with a lot, and part of that has to do with the fact that it doesn’t take up a lot of time.
As Mark Duplass recently tweeted, “Every now and then the companies say ‘fuck it’ to their mandates and let us make one like this.”
Enjoy it while it lasts…