The Four Hundred: How Many Episodes Are Enough For A Good Season On TV?

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When FX CEO John Landgraf coined the term “peak TV”, he thought there was “simply too much television.” There were 419 shows then. He had predicted a peak in scripted TV series production by 2018, and then a decline by 2019. This was 2015. In 2018, Landgraf was forced to change his opinion of the TV landscape, and his term for TV content. At the Television Critics Association summer press tour earlier this year, Landgraf stated that “the golden age of television has become the gilded age of television.”

The number of television series produced in 2017, according to FX Networks Research, was 487. That number is only set to go up. And while these numbers are not necessarily bad, more TV shows means more content—which is only good news for the binge-watcher. Which brings us to some very difficult questions. How do you select a TV show to watch? Is it based on the genre of the show, or is it based on what kind of show it is? Is it a procedural? Is it a serialized show? Is it a serial/procedural hybrid? Also, how many episodes does it have?

Everyone has their own preferences, so there is no standard answer for most of these questions. But for the number of episodes a TV series should have, there might be answers. Funny enough, these answers also begin with questions. Do the number of episodes in a season make a difference in the content? Maybe not. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider the situational comedies Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has had five, twenty-four-episode seasons, and Forever, which had an eight-episode first season.

 Ideally, we would first want to understand how situational comedies work. As far as sitcom episodes go, there is a definite formula. Author and art historian Noah Charney borrowed poet Philip Larkin’s words for his essay in The Atlantic, to speak of the sitcom plot as having “a beginning, a middle and an end.” Further, he borrows from a blog called Wise Sloth, where the author of the blog has deduced the sitcom episode right down to what happens in each minute of a typical episode.

According to the blog, a typical sitcom episode usually consists of a main plot for the main protagonist and subplots for the minor characters. Each plot is further divided into what the protagonist of each plot wants, the obstacles they face, the steps they take to get over those obstacles, and their ultimate resolutions. Brooklyn Nine-Nine fits into the general mold of a situational comedy. Its main protagonist is Jake Peralta (played by Andy Samberg), a talented but childish cop. His main nemesis would be his immaturity if you could call it that. His main love interest is Amy Santiago, (played by Melissa Fumero), who offsets Jake’s immaturity with her by-the-book, rule-following, uptight nature. Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) is Jake’s sidekick, Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is the captain of the precinct.

Each episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows the sitcom structure as described above. Take the pilot for that matter. Jake doesn’t like the new captain Holt, and he mocks Holt’s robotic way of talking. He needs to solve a murder case to win a larger bet with Amy: if he solves more cases, he gets to take her on a date. The suspect of the murder slips from Jake’s grasp, so he gets assigned to the records room. He looks through the files, finds clues to the case. He and the other detectives help nab the culprit by the end of the episode. Case solved. Episode over. The stuff of classic sitcoms. And then we have Forever, produced for Amazon. Forever is a comedy-drama, that follows the lives of Oscar Hoffman, a dentist who is happy with his routine, uneventful life with June Hoffman, his wife and an employee of a timeshare company, who seems happy on the surface, but her uneasiness surfaces from time to time.

Forever is not a sitcom in the traditional sense of the word, but its episodes have some similarities with the general sitcom episode. Let’s consider the first episode of the series. The first few minutes of the episode show how June and Oscar met, how they fell in love, how they got married, and how their lives progressed into a routine, with the same food and the same lake house vacation. June’s dissatisfaction prompts her to suggest a ski trip instead of their usual vacation. Oscar accepts.

 At the ski resort, Oscar and June run into obstacles: it is too cold, they don’t get beginner classes with adults, they’re forced to take a beginner ski class with kids. A kid is awful to June, she tries to deal with him, the kid falls on the ice, she is forced to sit out the class. Oscar comes over, tries to pacify her, they get into an argument. Oscar goes back to practicing on his own, June goes to a bar. What happens next cannot be mentioned here, because of spoilers.

Most episodes of ‘Forever’ follow this format, just like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, ‘Forever’ has distinct advantages. Its plots can have drastic resolutions, Brooklyn’s plots cannot. A shorter episode series also has the advantage of a standalone episode, one that breaks away from the norms that the show has set for itself. The standalone episode typically is the sixth episode of an eight-to-thirteen-episode series, and it often becomes beautifully disruptive in the larger narrative of the show. It offers viewers a chance to step out of the rut because they’re so accustomed to the ebbs and flows of how a show works.

There isn’t any equivalent in a twenty-four-episode TV show. An argument can be made that each episode in such a series needs to function independently, but it leans more towards the show’s format, rather than offering a space for experimentation. Each format of a scripted TV show has its own advantages. While eight-thirteen episodic series lend themselves more to binge-watching, twenty-four-episode TV shows offer the comfort of watching the episodes in your own sweet time, without the need to know what has happened in other episodes of the series. TV as a medium of entertainment has evolved to give a plethora of options to the average viewer. Whatever your preference, there is a show for you, at the pace you want to view, in the volume you need.