Episodes: In defense of the 22-episode season


Let me submit a proposition to you: the problem with the 22-episode season isn't the number of episodes; it's the relative timidity of the networks that still traffic in such large numbers of episodes, which are wary of trying to create artistic TV. (Or, corollary, the industry's increasing struggles with how to write singular episodes.)

You might think I'm thinking about this thanks to The Good Wife, which might end up being the last drama to do truly great 22-episode seasons (though I'd stump for Person of Interest's third season), but it's actually because I randomly revisited the St. Elsewhere two-parter "Time Heals" over the weekend. These have always been among my TV guiding lights, in that they're sprawling, epic pieces of television in and of themselves, but they primarily work in the context of everything you've seen so far. They arise in season four of St. Elsewhere and could only exist within that season.

The premise is that on the 50th anniversary of St. Eligius, the hospital at the show's center, the show will fly back through the hospital's history, visiting key moments in its development and giving a sort of ironic dramatic sweep to everything. There are certain things that happen that we know will have a dark payoff down the line, but in the moment, they seem celebratory or mundane. Similarly, we see first meetings and arrivals and the sorts of life passages that other shows might have crammed into the pilot.

Did I mention this sucker takes up two whole episodes?

Now, to some degree, "Time Heals" ended up being a burden on St. Elsewhere, which kept chasing the high it got from these nearly perfect hours of TV, to diminishing effect. But my larger point is that something like this, or (for more recent examples) The Good Wife's "Red Team, Blue Team" or Scandal's "Run" is mostly possible when showrunners have more episodes to play with, ideally 18 or more.

The big problem with 18+ episodes, of course, is that you will inevitably have a few stinkers in there. If you're trying to make a heavily serialized season, there's no way all of those episodes can add up to the same story without feeling messy (though the bifurcated seasons favored by so many networks now are starting to solve this problem). And if you do something more episodic, well, it's just impossible to make every episode be terrific. Even sitcoms (which have a better chance of pulling this off, especially if the ensemble cast has gelled) accomplish the feat of a perfect 22-plus-episode season extraordinarily rarely.

But consistency is overrated. Always knowing what you're going to get is fine, I guess, but you may as well watch NCIS at that point. The strength of the 22-episode season is that it reduces the potential disastrousness of failure. An episode that just doesn't work takes up less real estate, and that lets everybody try weirder, more out there things.

Of course, nobody's actually doing this, not in the way that St. Elsewhere was, or that, say, X-Files and Buffy seemed to pull off with regular brio in the '90s. Terrified of cable, broadcast has mostly cast its lot with the idea of either serializing everything or running in the exact opposite direction and doing heavily formulaic, episodic stuff.

And that's too bad! The chief strength broadcast has is space. It can sprawl all over the place, and if something it tries doesn't work, well, nobody cares. Something else will somewhere along the line.

The whole broadcast TV model is broken and slowly decaying. Why not lean into that strength? Why not try something to see if it works? The networks still have money, if not as much as they once did, and if nothing else, they have soundstages where they could toss caution to the wind. Give some great writers 22 episodes and just let them do what they want. I'd watch.

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Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.