One of the biggest trends to emerge during the Upfronts a couple weeks ago is that many of the broadcast networks are investing in shorter seasons and "event"-style programming. After years of watching cable programming thrive on 10-13 episodes per season and watching their own shows struggle to sustain ratings and viewer interest for the duration of the grueling September-May calendar, the broadcast nets have, seemingly all at once, finally decided that the benefits of producing and promoting shorter runs outweigh the risks. Although we all want to spend as much time as possible with our favorite TV characters, I would wager that most of us would agree to shorter seasons if it meant more consistent quality and less wheel-spinning. Because let's face it: Realistically speaking, it's just really, really hard to make 22-24 episodes of television under the current industry conditions; the shooting schedule's just too compressed. Plus, shorter seasons would appeal to bigger-named stars who might be a little fearful of the television production grind (that's exactly how Fox scored Kevin Bacon for The Following). Yes, it'd require the networks to put up to twice as many shows into development each year, but the possible outcomes make the practice seem like a good idea for everyone involved: Writers are under less pressure to produce quantity over quality, actors have time for other projects, networks can promote the shorter runs as must-see events, and in the end, viewers (hopefully) get better shows.
However, beyond the still-new The Following (which didn't quite work even at 15 episodes, mostly due to other problems, but could take a cue from most quality cable shows with regard to pacing in Season 2), the network's plans for shorter seasons appear to be focused on yet-to-debut shows; few current series will hit the air with brief runs in mind. But that doesn't mean there aren't shows out there that couldn't stand to lighten their load by a couple episodes (or 13). Here are seven that immediately came to mind for me, and I would love to hear which series YOU think might benefit from this sort of approach in the future.
Ideal number of episodes: 10-12
This is my number-one candidate, with a bullet. When Revenge debuted, there were questions about the sustainability of its story, but Mike Kelley and his team did a fine job of making the plot work throughout the first season. The just-ended second season, though? A completely different story. Revenge went off the rails almost immediately in Season 2, and only partially found its way back to the track by the end of the season. Now, Kelley has stepped down, reportedly at least partially because he couldn't handle ABC's desire to keep the episode order high. Kelley's departure doesn't bode well for an already-struggling show, but I would immediately be more interested in watching a Revenge that only had 10-12 hours to tell another chapter of Emily's story. Season 2's expansion of the so-called mythology involving the Initiative and the introduction of more characters pushed the show too far away from Emily's crusade against the Graysons. In traditional problematic television fashion, it expanded the stakes without really raising them, and the show quickly lost the emotional thread that made the first season so compelling. With fewer episodes, Revenge wouldn't have the time to waste on stories about the Initiative unless they directly influenced Emily, nor would the show need to worry so much about superfluous characters like Charlotte and Ashley.
Ideal number of episodes: 13-15
Glee has never, ever been consistent, but its most enjoyable runs (the first chunk of Season 1, filmed before the show premiered and Ryan Murphy started believing his own hype; the opening half of Season 4) usually don't last more than half a season. So why not limit the writing staff's ability to write filler episodes about "topical" issues? Glee is no longer even that beholden by its original school year- and competition-based structure, and its sense of time (and space) is only sometimes coherent at this point, so it's not like it wouldn't be able to tell a year's worth of stories in a shorter period. A shorter season would alleviate production problems with the songs and performances, and best of all, it would force Murphy and company to craft better arcs that don't have the time for irrelevant detours into pop-culture minutia. Using the show's current formula, I would love to see a 13-episode season of Glee built like this: four episodes only at McKinley High, four only with Rachel and Kurt, and five that balance the two "worlds." That seems like a fair, worthwhile way to keep all 89 characters around while still telling tighter stories over a shorter number of episodes.
Ideal number of episodes: 13-18
This one might be dependent on what you want from Supernatural. Some folks still enjoy the more visibly procedural episodes just as much as, if not more than, the installments dedicated to ongoing narrative matters, and that's totally fine. I like the show's procedural stories as well, but in recent seasons, Supernatural has struggled with weaving the standalone and ongoing plots together, creating a weird dissonance where one week it feels like the world is ending and the next Sam and Dean are in the middle of a comedic parody. That tension has always been present in Supernatural's DNA, but the whiplash between the two has gotten more pronounced since Eric Kripke left after Season 5. Thus, a shorter season would give Jeremy Carver and the current writing staff two good choices: 1.) They could avoid procedural storytelling all together and dive head-first into what looks to be a compelling story about angels falling to earth. Or 2.) They could keep the procedural stuff around knowing that they have fewer cases-of-the-week to write, which would hopefully help them to sharpen the standalone stories and connect them more to the ongoing stories. Although the show's strike-impacted third season was never intended to be as short as it was and consequently had some uneven moments, it worked well because it had one very clear directive that played out over 16 episodes: Keep Dean out of hell. Why not try that again?
Ideal number of episodes: 15
How great would it be to know that the final season of HIMYM was only going to be 15 episodes? It's unlikely that the show will recoup its old glory in its homestretch, but I would be more confident in Carter Bays and Craig Thomas pulling off that minor miracle if they were able to plot out 7-10 fewer half-hours than they typically do. This is especially true in light of the news that the final season of HIMYM will take place entirely during Barney and Robin's wedding weekend, with flashbacks and flashforwards likely. That sounds like a daunting approach to 22-24 episodes of comedy with expectations of finality in mind. Cutting down the number of episodes would give the show a chance to dial back on the super-broad and wacky "comedy" that has plagued it in recent years and focus more on the emotional beats that it used to do so well. Plus, I would have to guess that the narrative gymnastics bound to happen in this final season would be easier to execute without having to stretch so far.
Ideal number of episodes: 13-18
The Good Wife is probably the closest thing there is to a "cable show" on the broadcast networks, which makes it a prime candidate for a tighter run. On one hand, I'm a little resistant to immediately suggest its needs fewer episodes because more often than not, the procedural stories on The Good Wife are still smart and well-constructed. Four years in, Robert and Michelle King aren't going through the motions with their episodic stories; they're still trying to innovate in little ways. But on the other hand, The Good Wife is a show that tends to project big stories early in the season that fall apart before the finale rolls around, and it's also a show that continues to invest time in stories that simply don't work as well as the creators might've anticipated (sorry, Kalinda). As a result, fewer episodes is probably the way to go. Not only would a shorter season solve some of the show's quality control issues, but it would also allow the Kings to string together a couple of the shorter arcs they like without getting totally disrupted by various procedural masters. If walks like a cable show and talks like a cable show, it might as well embrace the episode count of a cable show, no matter where it airs.
Ideal number of episodes: 16
Parks and Recreation remains one of television's best comedies, but its brand of good-natured comedy and moderate political interest is difficult to sustain over 22-24 episodes. Compare and contrast the third season with the fourth and the fifth. While the latter two seasons were quite good and featured a number of tremendous episodes, their respective stories (Leslie's campaign in Season 4 and her first year in office in Season 5) were pretty regularly disrupted by (admittedly mostly enjoyable) hijinks and side stories. Meanwhile, the third season's intense early focus on the Harvest Festival and later exploration of Leslie and Ben's initial flirtations had a level of energy, refinement, and consistency that Parks hasn't exactly achieved since. The fourth and fifth seasons had 22 episodes, while the third had only 16. I'm obviously suggesting 16 for that reason, but moving into a sixth season, it might be best if Mike Schur and company had a little less time to fill so they wouldn't have to repeat themselves (how many "Character X gets sick" stories can the show do?) or stall on character beats. Look, this show is still awesome; I just want to make its transition into the twilight years as good as possible.
Ideal number of episodes: 10-13
Heavily-serialized high-concept shows should never, ever run a full 22-episode season. Lost couldn't do it after the first season. Heroes barely pulled it off even in its first year. And basically every show since hasn't been able to make it that long. Before Revolution premiered, I thought it might have a chance because Eric Kripke managed to harness big ideas into large episode orders while on Supernatural, but if there's one thing the first season of Revolution has proved, it's that Revolution is not Supernatural. Like some of the other shows I've mentioned here, a smaller episode order would allow Kripke and his team to cut the side-quest fat and perhaps feel less beholden to so many empty, uninteresting characters. Then, and only then, Revolution could possibly become what Kripke had with Supernatural in the earlier years: a show about a smaller cast of characters traveling around in pursuit of very clear goals. The show has already done an okay job of answering questions and pushing the larger narrative forward; maybe fewer episodes would help fill in character relationships on the fly, without so much pure plot hanging over the proceedings.
What shows do YOU think would benefit from a reduced episode count?