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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 TV show The Americans

(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.

 

Meme of The Walking Dead that says "We're Goin' to War, But We're Gonna Talk about It for 3 More Episodes First" 

(Image from: http://www.norvillerogers.com/five-reasons-im-done-watching-the-walking-dead/)


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!

 


Bettina Fabos, an award-winning video maker and former print reporter, is an associate professor of visual communication and interactive media studies at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the author of Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age, 2016 Update, and Media Essentials: A Brief Introduction, 3/e. 

 

Q: What courses are you teaching this semester?

BF: Digital Culture and Communication (http://uni.edu/fabos/dcc/dcc.html) is a class about the major issues facing us today with regards to the Internet. Interactive Digital Communication is a foundation interactive digital studies class that combines web development with design and some digital citizenship.  

 

Q: What has been your favorite course to teach and why?

BF: I loved to teach Mass Communication and Society, especially assigning students our oral history project towards the beginning of the semester, where they interview a person in their 70s or older about the way they grew up with media, so we can integrate their histories in class throughout the course of the semester. I don’t have a chance to teach it right now because I am very active in our Interactive Digital Studies (IDS) program, and my favorite course there is probably Digital Culture, which has some connections with Mass Comm and Society. I also like to teach Interactive Digital Visualization, and I love to teach the foundation IDC class, too. This is when I see students discover they are really good at code or design, and that’s pretty thrilling.

 

Q: What advice do you have for other instructors who teach this course?

BF: I would say help students make connections with their own personal and family histories as much as possible; I would say show a LOT of videos and play a lot music; bring in current events with each class; try to make the radio chapter—which can be tough (why should students care about radio networks?) but so important—interesting by helping them visualize what it was like to live in the 20s, 30s and 40s, and make comparisons between radio and the Internet, since there are so many comparisons.

 

Q: What are some of your research interests?

BF: I study digital archiving, interactive timelines, public memory, critical literacy and I pull all this together through creative digital projects, like the Hungary timeline I’m working on right now. It tells the story, over 16 online chapters (filled with photos and animation) of how my Hungarian family emerged from serfs to become successful farmers, and how they survived the calamitous 20th century.

 

Q: What do you think is one of the biggest challenges students face now when they enter college?

BF: I think one big challenge is getting to know the students in their own classes, because students come today with their phones, and are immersed in their little personal bubble before class, and don’t reach out to each other, so I have to work extra hard to build community in my classrooms.

 

I think another big challenge is that Universities are underfunded. Students often have to work longer hours to pay for college, and are strapped financially. Universities are also putting too many students in classes, and hire so many adjuncts who are underpaid and don’t have time to schedule office hours. Ultimately this kind of “that’s the way it is” and “we all have to tighten our belts” environment affects learning and students. I don’t believe this has to be the future. Our society needs to invest in education.

 

Q: What motivates you to continue teaching?

BF: My students are so amazing. I love being the first one outside their family to tell them that – just a simple comment like that can ripple through them their entire lifetime, and I’m completely aware of the impact I have on my students.   I’m taking my four student collaborators to Hungary next June to present our Hungary project to the U.S. Embassy, the Fulbright Commission, and the Central European University, and two of them have never been to Europe before. So this is incredible, being able to introduce them to things they would have never done before.

 

On a personal note...

Q: How do you spend your time when you're not teaching?

BF: I love reading just about anything well written. I like to cook and have dinner parties. I play the violin and I have lots of musician friends and we play chamber music together. I LOVE to hike in Switzerland (I have Swiss citizenship), and getting inspiration from traveling. I grow lots of flowers, and I make cakes for friends. I do yoga but I’m sadly inflexible: I still haven’t even perfected “Downward Facing Dog”!

 

Q: If you hadn't pursued a career in higher education, what career path do you think you would have chosen?

BF: I could have made documentaries (that was my path before I met my husband Chris – my goal at one point was to travel around the world making interesting travel documentaries); written children’s books or teen novels; owned a café…I could have fixed up houses and flipped them. Sometimes I worry that I spend way too much time in front of a computer screen!

 

What’s your favorite TV show or movie of the year so far?

BF: I like Swedish police dramas like The Bridge. I’m into Stranger Things. This year I have not had time to see one movie—I go for TV series over movies these days! I have watched Spotlight three times though!  

 

Q: What was the last book you read?

BF: In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi.

 

Q: What book has influenced you most?

BF: I would say a series of interviews by Bill Moyers called A World of Ideas. I was a failed journalist, living in Switzerland, working as a secretary for a nonprofit foundation, and I picked this book up (it was a fortune in Geneva’s one English bookstore), and it changed my life.

 

Q: Where is one place you want to travel to, but have never been?

BF: I would love to go to Buenos Aires.

 

Q: When you sit down to listen to music, which artists or genres do you go to most?

BF: Indie music like Kishi Bashi; early, early baroque like Monteverdi; anything my daughter Olivia tells me to listen to…she is such good influence on me!

 

Q: What is something you want to learn in the next year (Communication-related or otherwise)?

BF: I’d like to learn more JavaScript, and become a better gardener. We live on a prominent corner in Cedar Falls so the pressure is on.

 

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you (i.e. What's your "fun fact"?)?

BF: I’m pretty shy, and I don’t like to speak in public!  Teaching, actually, is difficult for me for that reason. I don’t like to be considered “an expert” like some people, because I always consider myself a work in progress. My husband, Chris, is such an amazing public speaker and gives radio and TV interviews all the time. I am much better as a behind-the-scenes person.