Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently suggested that his competition is not Amazon, or Hulu, or the inevitable heat death of the universe. It’s sleep.
That quip was a part of Netflix’s first-quarter earnings call, which focused on explaining the company’s slower-than-expected subscriber growth, but which also included the noteworthy detail that people tend to binge-watch at night. If the goal is to get more TV in front of subscribers’ eyeballs, I suppose Netflix could continue its voracious rate of acquisition and production. But if they really want people to watch more than one or two episodes before bedtime, or to finish more than one or two seasons a month, allow me to suggest an alternative: Make shorter shows.
It’s perhaps the most familiar aspect of a Netflix binge-watch: Without an external force pushing these series to keep only the very best, most interesting, most vital pieces of a story, what could be great inevitably falls into the well of “pretty good.” With that in mind, here are seven Netflix shows in serious need of a haircut.
The first season of Jessica Jones is one of the more notable examples of Netflix’s bloat problem. It had so much promise — and so many interesting perspectives on issues like consent, likability, mental health, and gender dynamics. It could’ve been great. Instead, what should’ve been a tense, gripping ramp up toward a final battle with a truly terrifying antagonist took on a meandering, often dilatory pace. It muddled the otherwise stellar performance by Krysten Ritter, and it robbed the season’s thoughtful, provocatively dark emotional dynamics of the full force of their impact.
While I picked Jessica Jones, in truth, Netflix has yet to produce a Marvel series that wouldn’t be improved by some serious trimming. You can read David Sims on the dawdling pace in Luke Cage, Sophie Gilbert on the way Daredevil’s length problems are particularly frustrating given its thematic preoccupation, or just browse Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of Iron Fist, which begins with the headline “Netflix’s Iron Fist Is a Tedious, Unremarkable Bummer.” If it’s a Marvel show on Netflix, it’s simply too long for its own good.
13 Reasons Why
It’s not hard to see exactly how 13 Reasons Why got itself into the problem of totally unnecessary episodes. It’s called 13 Reasons, after all, and the “one reason / one cassette tape per episode” logic makes plenty of sense. At least until you hit hour five or six, and realize that some of those reasons are much more worthy of entire episodes than others. This show is also an excellent example of a problem I’ll address in more detail in the next entry — it’s not just an issue of too many episodes. It’s that the episodes themselves are bulky and overly long. This may be easiest to see in 13 Reasons Why during the bafflingly long rock-climbing sequence, but my favorite example is actually from earlier in the season, as we see not one but several cheerleaders skipping out to their own entrance music at a pep rally before finally getting to the point that one of the players is missing. I did not need to see those cheerleaders! Why, indeed.
There are fascinating, often extremely effective choices made in Narcos. Especially in its first season, the series felt tighter than many Netflix offerings, and its pilot in particular has some incredibly refreshing, snappy pacing. By the time season two begins, though, Narcos feels like it’s been struck with a very familiar tempo problem. The end seems like it should be rushing headlong toward its many anti-heroes, drawing them inexorably closer until a final explosive moment. Instead, the narrative spends several episodes just circling itself.
House of Cards
The rare case where Netflix bloat has less to do with individual episode issues — although there are plenty of those — and more to do with a much older, more well-worn television problem: It’s just been on too long. Issues with plot pacing and languid editing are certainly there, but the House of Cards issue has more to do with conflict between the subject matter and an endlessly running TV show than anything else. Its central premise, built into its title and fundamental to its identity, is the tension between a political career on the rise and the consequences that have to catch up with everyone eventually. Rather than collapse as they’re supposed to, though, the series has ended up being the most weirdly resilient, inexplicably unshakable house of cards anyone’s ever seen.
In the case of The Crown, excess length betrays something different than simply an unwillingness to kill a show’s darlings. I love The Crown, and have a stunningly high tolerance for historical reenactment, long montages of processions and ceremonial rituals, and characters sitting and watching historical newsreel footage. But in this show, both episode length and episode count seem indicative of a deeper identity crisis, one that looks like it may continue through its second season. The series doesn’t seem entirely sure whether (or even how) it wants to be about its titular character. As a personality behind the celebrity, Elizabeth is notoriously difficult to pin down, thanks in no small part to her own mixed feelings about being a national figurehead. She’s a tricky, slippery anchor for the series, which is half invested in peeling back the layers of who Elizabeth is, and half focused on her more accessible, visibly dramatic surrounding cast — her sister, her husband, her uncle, her prime minister. The Crown’s length, in other words, may have less to do with simple bloat than with a more hidden tension about who, exactly, the show is about.
Making a Murderer
Lest you think this issue is limited to fictional TV, Netflix’s Making a Murderer is a prime example of the way longwindedness can cause narrative distention in nonfiction too. It’s also a case where it’s hard to know exactly where the impulse toward length is coming from — the series was reportedly conceived as an eight-episode block; then Netflix expanded the order to ten. That kind of dilation is particularly troublesome when you’re not actually adding much new material, and it’s very apparent in some middle episodes of Making a Murderer, which circle back to identical material more than once and introduce new information at a glacial pace.
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Only four episodes! What’s the problem!? The problem, of course, is that they’re not episodes — they’re short movies. But they’re short movies existing in a completely prebuilt narrative world, and they’re all linked together. Because of this, they have none of a movie’s internal pressure to be concise, and no need to fit exposition, world-building, character development and plot arcs into any single installment. The result is a revival series drowning in excess, so the standout, satisfying, Gilmores-y goodness is muffled by lengthy sequences of “Stars Hollow: The Musical,” The Life and Death Brigade’s Tango lessons, and strangely drawn-out poolside gags that fall flat.
As with nearly every other example on this list, the problem isn’t necessarily that A Year in the Life is bad — it’s that its length adversely affects all of the things it does well. There’s no sharpness or urgency to this year in the Gilmore epoch. As a result, when it tells stories about all three Gilmore women wandering through periods of feeling lost, it’s hard to feel particularly bothered by their problems. There’s little forward momentum to judge their stasis against, so instead we all just sit next to the pool and hope a neighbor boy will come freshen our drinks.