Overly Long Episodes Are the Manspreading of TV

Robot-spreading. Photo: HBO

The first episode of this season of Westworld clocks in at 69 minutes. And sure, as a one-off extra-long installment, that’s pretty unremarkable. (You could even call it nice.) But season two’s fourth episode is a whopping hour and 11 minutes, and I’d be astonished if it’s the last episode this season to run over an hour. The season-one finale episode, after all, was a full 90 minutes.

It’s hard not to watch much of Westworld, especially those over-an-hour installments, and not feel at least a little frustrated with a show that has so little compunction about its own obtrusive length. In the (rare) instances where an episode fully uses and needs over 60 minutes, I’m perfectly happy to cede the time. But again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space — after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.

The time has come to call out this swaggering, unselfconscious expanse. Interminable TV episodes are the manspreading of television storytelling. In precisely the same way that a man sits down on a public row of seats and happily relaxes into a pose that takes up as much real estate as physically possible, the trend of protracted TV episodes is a battle for viewer eyeballs that equates significance with bulk.

Baggy, unnecessary length is certainly a Westworld-specific issue. The show’s strengths are in its undeniably beautiful aesthetics and its real flair for sudden, sweeping twisty horror moments. Where it falters, Westworld seems to flounder in endless journeys that end in violence for little reason and which have almost no storytelling usefulness. The lengthy shootout scenes with no emotional grounding and a rickety plot scaffolding may work occasionally — they’re certainly spectacle, if nothing else. But they dilute the impact of the parts of the show that really work. Worse, they put the brakes on much of the show’s momentum. Why am I watching Ed Harris’s Man in Black pursuing some new game written into the park, when Westworld just spent an entire season telling me the real narrative was everything going on behind the scenes?! This is part of the frustration with the immense episode length; it’s hard not to get the sense the show could be better without the excess.

But this is not just a Westworld problem. It started on cable, where a prestige drama on HBO meant a full hour-long runtime rather than the measly 43 minutes granted to an episode on commercial television. The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence — and the prestige and “quality” implications — of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

The problem is now endemic to a whole cohort of muscular, more-important-than-regular-TV TV series. FX’s Legion, ostensibly an hour-long commercial cable show, hits 61 minutes in its season two premiere, and many of its first season episodes topped 50. The same is true for FX’s other Noah Hawley drama, Fargo, and FX’s The Americans is another frequent offender, although I’d argue it’s also one of the few shows to really earn its extra time. On USA, Mr. Robot’s season three finale hit 57 minutes. It’s the same situation for TNT’s The Alienist and its crime-family drama Animal Kingdom. And the original premium cable timeslot busters have relaxed even further into the slide toward immensity. There’s Westworld and Game of Thrones, but even underwhelming entries like Here and Now tip over the 60 minute mark. The Vinyl pilot was a full two hours.

That underlying sense that long things are worthier has drifted into streaming television, where it’s taken root as a kind of fundamental operating assumption. Most Netflix original shows are too long; it’s less a question than it is a matter of degrees. (There are some exceptions! American Vandal is perfect.) And the storytelling problem in streaming is especially troubling because it connects to a deeper economics of streaming television that values taking up viewers’ time over any other measure of quality or success. Not only do Netflix originals like Jessica Jones or The Crown coast on the creeping implication that longer episodes hold a prestige status, there’s also no upper-level corporate pressure to make a 50-minute episode if it could be 65. It’s actually the reverse. Netflix’s CEO famously suggested that the biggest Netflix competitor wasn’t any other streaming service — it was sleep. Netflix’s business model is a grab for every spare moment of your time. It’s no wonder all its episodes are supersized.

The problem isn’t even limited to drama, although it’s most obvious and most tiresome there. Shows like Master of None and Atlanta and Girls occasionally slide beyond a traditional half-hour with commercials, landing somewhere closer to a total of 30- or 35-minute runtime. In comedy, though, it feels more like the kind of artistic flexibility you’d want a show to have. Atlanta, in particular, seems like an example of best practices, usually hitting something like 22 minutes or fewer and then pulling out the stops for an episode like “Teddy Perkins.” And sure, there are a handful of streaming comedies that might be better with a more parsimonious eye toward editing (there is absolutely no reason for episodes of The Ranch or Fuller House to ever top 22 minutes). But at least comedy doesn’t seem to have fallen victim to the same kind of prestige-mongering that now feels widespread in drama.

It does not have to be this way. We’re now so accustomed to the HBO model of a 58-minute drama that we’ve almost forgotten that good TV can happen in, say, a sparse CW 42 minutes (looking at you, Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). One of the best things I’ve watched in 2018 is the German series Babylon Berlin, which is every bit as complex and sweeping and tightly wound and aesthetically inventive as anything currently running on American premium cable, and wouldn’t you know it, every episode runs under 50 minutes. This is not just a plea for my own precious minutes. It’s a plea that shows like Westworld recognize how much more effective they could be, how much better the storytelling might be, if only they’d cut out all the totally unnecessary bulk.

It’s time to see TV manspreading for what it is — self-indulgent, gratuitous, and often actively detrimental to telling a good story. TV has gotten too comfortable with its own excess, and I am here to reclaim my time.

Overly Long Episodes Are the Manspreading of TV