year in culture 2018

TV Doesn’t Know How to Stop Anymore

Bill Hader in Barry.
Bill Hader in Barry. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by HBO

As we all know too well by now, there is too much television. Too many shows, too many streaming services, too many tech companies launching their bids for original programming. But this year, it feels like another major problem has entered the fray: TV just can’t let a good thing end.

Between shows that unrolled disappointing follow-up seasons in 2018 (American Vandal, The Handmaid’s Tale), shows that premiered this year and have more to come next (Barry, Homecoming), and limited series that suddenly leapt into second seasons that haven’t even aired yet (Big Little Lies, The Young Pope), there is a common thread: Each had a perfectly complete debut season, the sort that could exist as its own satisfying story, and then they all kept going.

From the standpoint of sheer bulk, unnecessary second seasons are obviously contributors to the current TV glut. They don’t need to be here, but here they are, and so we’re getting that many more hours of TV to watch. But these unnecessary second seasons are not just a problem of greed, or of a more-must-be-better ideology. They’re the result of a swinging pendulum, and a contradiction buried deep in the foundation of TV storytelling: TV shows can’t end anymore because TV shows have gotten really, really good at endings.

This is largely a problem for TV dramas. (American Vandal and Barry seem like comedic outliers, except that their structural roots aren’t in comedy genres: American Vandal is built like a mystery, and Barry is structured like a Golden Age TV drama about a sad, difficult man.) And like so much of culture, this is a cyclical phenomenon. For primetime network dramas of the ’90s, the burden of an ending had rested on individual episodes, or the story was assumed to spin out into a glorious and unfathomable infinity. There were exceptions — think Twin Peaks, or the transitional group of shows like Buffy that built season arcs into their episodic series — but for the most part, a TV drama with a small, set number of episodes that came to a solid conclusion was called a miniseries, and it was its own distinct genre.

Now cast your mind back to the television landscape of 2006, where some of the biggest TV questions of the day were how to square Lost’s immense popularity with the show’s need to end, the problem of Battlestar Galactica’s destination-oriented narrative, and at what point The O.C. had jumped the shark. At that moment, endings were a problem posed by the rise of serialization. With individual episodes no longer bearing the responsibility to enact shipshape endings, audiences and writers were staring down the barrel of hundred-episode epics, uncertain how they could ever coalesce into a coherent story. That’s why so many new TV shows came prepackaged with a winking promise that they had multi-year plans; Community’s “six seasons and a movie” meme was a joke about this exact problem, and then it became a sincere statement of intent for many other shows. The “we promise we have five seasons of story” claim became something like a talismanic mantra against cancellation. (Like many talismans, it did not often work.)

Meanwhile, as network TV experienced an identity crisis about how to balance serialization with the business model for 22-episode seasons, two other things were already shifting our expectations of how TV should work. The first was the shorter cable season, something that hit the runway about 20 years ago with The Sopranos, and then became a defining characteristic of TV’s Golden Age. The second was the streaming season, which Netflix first popularized with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. For both the short cable season and the streaming season, as TV became “prestige,” it also needed to grow more formally distant from pop and pulp. It could neither have sharp episodic limits, like the network procedurals (God forbid!), nor could it go on and on like the ever-maligned soap operas. So, for a confluence of reasons having to do with prestige, streaming platforms, economics, and genre, the short cable season and the all-at-once streaming season landed on the same workable middle ground: The best unit for endings, for narrative satisfaction, was going to be the TV season.

It’s worth noting: There’s been lots of writing and thinking about this. As long ago as 2012, there were essays like “HBO and the decline of the episode.” There’s Jason Mittell’s Complex TV, pieces like Poniewozik’s “Streaming TV Isn’t Just A New Way to Watch. It’s a New Genre,” and critics like Alan Sepinwall (and myself) trying to defend the episode as a worthy self-contained unit of television. There’s even academic writing on the contours of the cable season from Sean O’Sullivan, a professor of narrative and visual storytelling at Ohio State University. And now, in 2018, we’re seeing the result of the pendulum having swung so firmly toward the season as a definitive unit of narrative meaning: When a season ends, a show feels done.

Television dramas, once fueled by the balancing act between close-ended stories and wide-open narrative futures, have learned too well from the mistakes of past shows that stayed on too long. Rather than leave viewers in suspense for a year or more, the impulse is to treat each season as a completed story, to wrap up all the little odds and ends, tuck in all the loose threads, and ship it off as a finished unit. The result is a slate of TV shows that span a range from popular to niche, from serious to goofy, that exist on both premium cable and streaming, and that share a common problem: What should have been an effective, standalone season of TV instead made enough of an cultural mark (or enough money) that it got renewed and seems doomed to join the ranks of disappointing second seasons.

I suspect that there is an additional cost to the TV season that ends itself too well. In her essay on the “fine” TV year of 2018, Slate’s Willa Paskin bemoans TV bloat in a critique that covers unnecessary second seasons, but also overlong episodes and seasons with too many episodes. Her criticism of TV’s mediocrity also covers the ever-shorter window for critical conversation, the atemporality of consumption, and the role of politics in TV. But I also wonder whether the impulse toward closure within a season has driven too much TV to be less ambitious. Serialized storytelling has an impulse toward openness; the complexity and mess of it all forces creators to leave strings untied so they can be picked up again in the future. Maybe one reason why TV feels “fine” right now is because its stories are more invested in turning off narrative engines rather than in kick-starting them.

Still, the beauty of television is that it’s great at evolving. Serial fiction is uniquely well-designed to evolve with time, and there are already examples of series dodging this problem of closed-ended logic. Ryan Murphy was once the lone creator keeping the dream of anthology-style TV alive, but with True Detective, Fargo, American Crime, and The Terror all adopting anthology seasons, the trend is clearly on the upswing. (It’s no accident that among the unnecessary second seasons that aired in 2018, American Vandal’s was the most successful and also the one with closest thing to an anthology structure.) Hopefully, TV dramas will once again learn from the lesson TV comedies have been better at remembering: Episodes are useful, and they can help fulfill our need for narrative gratification.

That’s why I’m not worried TV will be plagued by the problem of shows that can’t stop for years to come. But this year, right now, in the age of the infinite scroll and the perpetual reboot, it does feel like a particularly suggestive problem for TV to have. As with much of the rest of the world, TV’s 2019 resolution should be to relearn how to let things end. Make space for the new. Learn how to say goodbye. And let Madeline Martha Mackenzie live.

In 2018, TV Didn’t Know How to Stop