- The best TV shows of the last two years were all comprised of 30-minute or shorter episodes.
- At a time when TV audiences are overwhelmed with options, the best chance a new show has of breaking through the noise is with short, easy-to-get-into episodes.
- While 22-minute episodes were always the norm with comedies, it's becoming a popular length for dramas, too.
- "I Am Not Okay With This," "Normal People," "Feel Good," "Insecure," "Never Have I Ever," "The Baby-Sitters Club," and "I May Destroy You," are some of the must-watch shows of 2020.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Right now, the best TV shows have one thing in common: short episodes.
Gone are the days when millions of people around the world would sit down for a weekly 55-minute episode of a grim drama like "Game of Thrones." Instead, thanks to the rise of streaming and a need for easy-to-get-into entertainment, the best chance a series has of finding an excited audience is with shorter episodes.
In this TV economy, where literally hundreds of brand new scripted series are premiering every year, almost nobody has the mental bandwidth — or time — to watch a 10-hour drama — especially if part of the selling point is "it gets better" in season two.
The rise of critically loved 'dramedy' storytelling that came in 30-minute installments
This short-episode trend isn't new, but 2020 has cemented it as a rule.
Sitcoms have historically occupied the "30 minutes or shorter" runtime on TV, leading to shows like "The Office," "Friends," and "Seinfeld" still dominating as beloved binge-watches for multiple generations. But now, thanks to new streaming services breaking genre shows out of typically restricted cable runtimes, dramas can run short, too.
For me, this revelation first hit home with the 2018 premiere of "The End of the Fxxxing World" on Netflix. The series had already debuted to a UK audience on Channel 4 in 2017, but as a Netflix co-production, it was saved for American audiences until the start of the new year.
Eight episodes. All 22 minutes or shorter. When I watched them back-to-back one weekend, it was a new and exhilarating feeling. Here I was, fresh off a bingewatch of a new series, and barely a full Sunday afternoon had passed.
Now, over two years later, it's clear that "The End of the Fxxxing World" was actually the beginning of a new trend.
"The End of the Fxxxing World" was not the only short-episode dramedy to become a critical darling in the last few years. The first seasons of "Atlanta" (FX) and "Fleabag" (BBC Three/Amazon) were lauded after premiering in 2016. Both of those shows also received a notable uptick in attention for their second seasons, which aired in 2018 and 2019.
By 2019, there was a steady stream of new, short drama series. "Russian Doll" was a fantastic take on the classic time loop tale. Netflix pushed into even shorter territory with "Special," a dramedy series that had 15-minute runtimes for each episode.
This year so far, Netflix has either released or announced the pending arrival of 113 brand new TV shows. We reached out to Netflix for data relating to their average episode runtime, but did not hear back by the time of publication of this article. It's worth noting that a majority (six out of the top ten) of Netflix's highest-rated shows in 2020 so far have episodes that are 30 minutes or shorter.
The best drama (or drama/comedy hybrid) shows that have aired this year were all made up of 30-minute or shorter episodes: "I Am Not Okay With This" (Netflix), "Normal People" (Hulu), "Feel Good," (Netflix), "Insecure" (HBO), "Never Have I Ever" (Netflix), "The Baby-Sitters Club" (Netflix), and "I May Destroy You" (HBO). Clearly, something is drawing us to shorter episodes.
"With streaming, there's so much opportunity to play with form and structure," Netflix's "I Am Not Okay With This" writer Christy Hall told Insider in an interview earlier this year. "Before, half-hour [shows] had to very specifically be comedies. But now you have other shows that are darker in nature, or just totally not a comedy at all, that are playing in the 30-minute space."
We love shorter TV because it helps give us a sense of control, especially during a time of 'cognitive depletion'
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center, spoke with Insider about the way shorter episodes of TV shows can help mitigate "cognitive depletion," which happens when you're feeling fatigued or stressed and generally have a low stock of mental resources.
"Cognitive depletion lowers the ability to exercise self-control and willpower," Rutledge said. "Watching a short show gives more sense of control because it has a natural stopping point in what seems a reasonable amount of time."
Of course, the subject matter matters, too. A simpler sitcom plot with engaging characters, like "Schitt's Creek" or "The Good Place," will enable people to relax more. The more drama-leaning shows like "Normal People" could still be mentally exhausting to engage with, depending on the viewer.
"Entertainment experience is often a function of the quality of the narrative and the level of emotional engagement, presence and character identification you experience in the storyworld created by the program," Rutledge said. "The perfect length will be a combination of the program quality, your emotional state and fatigue level and the salience of the program content and production."
Many people are dealing with cognitive depletion in 2020 due the stress of living through the global COVID-19 pandemic (which, in many cases, overlaps with anxiety about the state of American democracy in the run-up to our presidential election and daily engagement with anti-racism activism).
People don't have the emotional bandwidth for intense television-watching right now. Short TV episodes can provide escapism and comfort without overwhelming us.
Having shorter episodes is an easy way for shows to reach a bigger audience
In 2019, IndieWire's critics survey showed that many people believed shorter runtimes were better for the "Peak TV" audience. At a time when there are hundreds of brand new scripted shows released each year, shorter seasons made it easier for a new venture to reach a wide audience.
Part of these shows' success is due to a word-of-mouth fanbase.
It's impossible for marketing and homepage algorithms to possibly alert you to the existence of every single new TV show coming out. So the best chance many shows have of hitting the mainstream news cycle is word of mouth from fans.
This can come from social media (the memeification of a show or movie is another key aspect of its success in the 2020 market — part of why Quibi, which was pitched as a short-episode show format, was such a flop) or from standard word-of-mouth conversations between friends and family.
And that's the point: There's no better way to start a TV recommendation in 2020 than by saying "and all the episodes are pretty short!" You're much more likely to successfully get someone else started on a show right now if the task at hand feels manageable.
"From a practical perspective, shorter programming allows for greater breadth of consumption," Rutledge said. "The media quantity has grown, but the number of hours in a day has not."
So I will continue to warily look at the episode runtime of new shows seeking my attention right now, and revel at the sight of "22 minutes."
- Read more:
- 44 Netflix shows you probably missed but should definitely watch
- Netflix has 113 brand new shows coming out this year (so far). See them all here.
- The 41 best Netflix original TV shows of 2020 so far, ranked
Read the original article on Insider