NOTE: The following post might contain spoilers from The Americans, Chuck, Nikita, Parks and Recreation, Revenge, and Scandal.
After the season finale of The Americans aired, celebrated critic Alan Sepinwall posted his review where his praises were high but his response to the episode’s casual nature was lukewarm at best. He’s not the only one who may have been letdown from the show’s quiet take at a season finale; several people in that comments section felt the same, and others reviewing and recapping it around the Internet may have as well.
It’s May: several tens of series are going to be and have been bowing out for the season during this month, and all of them are going to be trying their hardest to hit their viewers in the gut with cliffhangers, twists, and plot turns. But you already knew that. As viewers, we expect these momentous occasions during finales and May Sweeps — so much so that TVLine does a scorecard every spring. And whenever a finale even so much as stops short of being absolutely explosive, we tend to vocalize how we were let down. And when series decide to write in filler episodes so that their bigger stories can be put off until the finale, we tend to vocalize how we were let down. It’s just a lose/lose situation. The artificial format that tradition has settled on for a season has forced writers to craft stories into 22-episode installments and the cost is viewers’ expectations being misaligned with series writers’ storytelling.
The 22 vs. 13 episodes conundrum
Take, for example, Revenge creator Mike Kelley, who recently left the series and cited a “mutual decision.” The word was that Kelley wanted ABC to order shorter, 13-episode seasons as opposed to the 22-episode seasons that most series receive (Deadline). Whether shorter seasons are better for the overall narrative is a subject for a different article. But in short: networks are always going to want a higher number of episodes per season because it means more ad revenue without having to launch an entirely new show during the same season. Kelley felt that Revenge, which is highly serialized, was better suited for a shorter episode order. More episodes meant that he’d have to write more “filler” with extraneous storylines and characters. The general consensus seems to be, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to season two of Revenge.
Who knows why the industry has settled into the 22-episode model, beyond business reasons. Deconstructing that and questioning its validity would be like deconstructing the amount of minutes in an individual episode. It is what it is, and that’s how series are made. But we can’t deny that its constraints have impeded on writers’ abilities to fill up the amount of episodes that are ordered. What viewers are oftentimes left with are seasons that drive full force in the beginning, peter out during the middle, and then pick up momentum during the last few episodes.
Of course, you could argue that this is the structure of classic storytelling. But the problem with the television medium is that it’s not classic. Television isn’t even a century old, and has only been widely adopted for an even shorter period of time. Stories are traditionally told in one sitting; even, relatively new medium, film asks for only two hours of your time. Every time an episode of any series ends, it’s hoping that you will come back the following week to watch more. And when we’re offered episodes that are obviously produced just to make quota (repeatedly), audiences become disillusioned.
The filler episode solution
Don’t make them. Ha-ha-ha, I know, that sounds hilarious in its simplicity, but clearly the easiest way to not have filler episodes is to not make them. We could sit around complaining about how longer seasons makes stories seem drawn out and wasteful at times. Or… stories could just be told in the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B. Not every, single novel is the same amount of pages long. Oracle stories don’t all tend to fall in the same amount of minutes. That’s because storytelling doesn’t have a timestamp guideline.
ABC’s other sophomore drama Scandal realized it this season, and quite successfully I might add. Creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes noted that she believed Scandal was better suited for shorter episode orders as well, but stated that if the series got a back nine order (which it did) it would tell two story arcs as opposed to one (Indiewire). What followed was not only critical success, but ratings success as well. The series spiked in Nielsen numbers after going full force in its second season: from a gunshot to the president’s head, surprising murders, and then completely changing tunes and flash-forwarding by 10 months and introducing a completely new story arc (“Who is the U.S. government’s mole?”).
If we stop thinking of seasons as these arbitrary spaces where only one story can be told, we can begin using them towards storytelling advantage. There’s no hard rule that says characters have to go from Point A to Point B from premiere to finale, respectively. So let’s stop thinking of it that way. Obviously, audiences aren’t opposed to going along with two different stories, as has been proven by Scandal, or even previous seasons of Nikita, and so on. So what’s stopping television writers and producers from implementing as such?
The less we think of the timeline between premiere and finale as a linear model of development and story arc, the less it’ll seem like story needs to be “stretched” out.
Parks and Recreation decided as such this year, having their main couple get married halfway into the season. There was uncertainty that they would get a backorder this season. The same happened during Chuck seasons three and four; when they received an order for more episodes, instead of prolonging the season’s arc, they just decided to tell more story.
Of course, it’s understandable that showrunners would want to play their hands carefully. No one wants to be the person who, for lack of better terms, just runs out of ideas. But alternatively, who wants to create the show where everything remains stagnant for way too long? Everyone knows that with today’s audiences, no one is patient for as long as storytellers would like them to be.
As a viewer, we’d rather have fewer seasons that were made well then way too many that got lost along the way.
Explosive finales, only because they’re finales
Which gets back to the The Americans‘ quieter finale. Audiences have been conditioned to expect gripping cliffhangers. Should they expect all that you can throw at them during every, single season finale?
It’s unfortunate, but true. Structure has caused audiences to expect jaw-dropping twists and turns during the final episode of every season, for sure. And we’ve established that perhaps seasons don’t have to be seen as a unit for a linear story, but that doesn’t do away with the obvious: finales are the final episodes audiences see for four months. Just because more than one story can be told per season, that doesn’t mean seasons should end on an episode that would be better suited for three-quarters in.
Every episode of every show is set up to ensure that audiences will return the next week. But finales have more responsibility; they have the task of making audiences come back after four months. So perhaps not every finale needs to be Big and Twisty or whatnot. I certainly loved The Americans season one finale. But they do carry the burden of leaving whatever taste in the audiences’ mouths.
Then again, perhaps seasons as a whole could be that tease. And if we can re-wire how we think of The Season as a unit, then we can create more compelling story, without the need of feeling like everything has to be “saved” for the finale, otherwise diminishing the value of prior episodes.