Spring in New England is a glorious time. The ice and snow of winter are finally melting, flowers are poking their heads up, and the population of the city of Boston seems to double as people come out of the woodwork to ride bikes, take walks, cheer on marathon runners, and enjoy the outdoors without having to wear six separate layers of clothing to stay warm.
I fully appreciate the rebirth and energy that comes with the change of seasons, and trust me – I'm going to get out there to experience it soon. I must admit, however, that I also love spring for a reason that’s a lot less about fresh air and a lot more about couch time: the considerable joys of spring television viewing. As a self-diagnosed TV junkie, I can officially say that – when it comes to high quality TV – spring is the new fall.
While many of the network shows are drawing to a close, with finales just around the corner, there are a number of other programs that are just now making their debuts. In particular, I have two cable networks to thank for occupying so much of my time these days: AMC's fascinating character study/Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul is just back for its third season, and FX's thoughtful-yet-brutal spy drama The Americans has returned for its fifth season. Both of these shows feature top-notch acting and writing, which has led critics like this one and this one to christen them among the best dramas on TV. (Spoiler alert for these links if you're not caught up to the current season.) But in addition to overall high quality, both of these shows have internalized an important TV lesson that helps them stay fresh: When it comes to prestige dramas, less can actually be more. Saul has only 10 episodes per season and The Americans only 13 per season, which keeps the shows humming along. Before you know it, the run is over and you are left mentally calculating how long it will be until the next anticipated season debuts.
(Image from: http://theamericans.wikia.com/wiki/Season_One)
This "less in more" approach is certainly not unique to these two shows – in fact, when it comes to cable, premium cable, and streaming services, shorter seasons are the new normal. FX's perfectly pitched Fargo (which also begins this month) is another short and sweet series of just 10 episodes per season, while Netflix's breakout show Stranger Things, an ode to 1980's spine-tinglers, is only eight episodes long. And juggernaut Games of Thrones (normally another show with an April debut, though its penultimate season has been pushed back to a summer start) usually runs just 10 episodes long. (The upcoming seventh season will be further truncated, with just seven episodes.)
The power of the short and sweet season is a lesson that all not showrunners have internalized – perhaps to their own detriment. AMC’s The Walking Dead, for example, just wrapped up its seventh season with a total of 16 episodes. In the grand scheme, 16 episodes is not overly lengthy (the latest seasons of network shows NCIS and The Big Bang Theory had 24 episodes each), but even a few extra episodes can drag a show down and ruin its pacing. As my husband and I made our way through 6.5 seasons of The Walking Dead – only to abandon it, finally, at the midpoint of season 7 – we found ourselves remarking time and again that certain "filler" episodes felt sluggish, unnecessary, and just downright boring. Apparently, we were not the only ones who jumped ship, nor were we the only ones to describe a show about the zombie apocalypse – which should have you on the edge of your seat – using the "b" word (big-time spoilers here). We can't help but wonder if the later seasons would have done a better job of holding our attention if the showrunners were more brutal in the editing room.
Of course, just because a show's season is shorter, that doesn't guarantee that it will be good: Though Season 2 of HBO's True Detective ran for only eight episodes, it was considerably less interesting (and less well-acted) than the atmospheric and arresting Season 1 (also eight episodes). Generally, however, when it comes to quality dramas, short and sweet seems to be a step in the right direction. I, for one, am glad to see some of my favorite shows return – and I’m just as glad that they won’t be overstaying their welcome.
Have you found yourself experiencing the joys of spring TV over the last few weeks? Have your students? What are the qualities in a TV show that keep audiences coming back for more, and what types of decisions can writers and producers make that ultimately cause ratings to slide and attention spans to wane? Feel free to share your own thoughts about television viewing in the comments section below, including recommendations for any must-see shows and spring debuts. Happy watching!