The problem with 22 episode seasons

But – but – but we like 22 episode seasons. LB remembers when they were 24 episodes seasons. Hell, he can even talk about 26 and 39 week seasons – and how many more writers were able to make a good living by doing what they loved in TV. But that was then, and this is now:

by Simon Brew

tvseasonsThe announcement from ABC of the finale date for season one of the bumpy Agents Of SHIELDhas revealed that the finale of Marvel’s high profile TV show will land 231 days after the premiere. That’s 33 weeks, over which a 22 episode season has – in the past few months been dribbled out.

Putting aside the numerous complaints aimed at the show, it means that episode 22, the last of season one, will screen on May 13th. Sadly, for those trying to follow the show, the erratic scheduling has made the job several times trickier than it needed to be. Whilst the first ten episodes ran on a weekly basis, since then, it’s been anything but. We had two episodes in January, one in February, two in March, and the final, uninterrupted run will start in April.

Why? Well, you have to presume that the sheer demands of the production schedule have something of a hand in it. The tradition of US television networks is to order the first 13 episodes of a series up front, and then take an option on another nine episodes. If a show is doing particularly well, it might get the full order in one go. But in the case of Agents Of SHIELD, the order for the back nine episodes was announced on October 10th 2013 – over two weeks after the show had premiered.

Appreciating that all concerned are hardly starting from scratch at that point – scripts will, for the most part, be in place, and there will be options on the cast and crew – it still seems a merciless schedule. Assuming everyone got to work the week before, it means the chances of having an interrupted block of episodes in the second part of the season is virtually nil. Particularly on a show as technically demanding as Agents Of SHIELD.

Lost fell prey to this too. Season two of Lost kicked off a run of ten episodes, that allowed it build up momentum, hook viewers in, and keep them coming back. Then it took the traditional mid-season break, which in itself isn’t a problem. But when it returned, its schedule was all over the place. We got three episodes, then a two week break, another two episodes, then another fortnight break. One more, then three weeks away, before we at least got a straight block of four again. Then the show was off screens for nearly a month, before the final four episodes of Lostseason 2 were broadcast on a weekly basis again.

How are you supposed to follow that? No wonder we tend to binge on boxsets. In the case ofAgents Of SHIELD, it’s become the latest show, I’d argue, to fall prey to the incessant need from US networks to have 22 episode seasons. Heck, even if it had been firing on all cylinders, it’d take something quite special to get any kind of momentum going with such an erratic schedule. But then Agents Of SHIELD is beholden to a US TV scheduling tradition that sees shows debut a season in September, and run through to May. And it’s a system dearly in need of a change.

There’s another reason why change is needed too. Whilst there are a few shows that make the most of 22 episode season runs, is it any coincidence that the programmes that have been attracting the most acclaim are far tighter, have fewer episodes, are scheduled in one run, and have a real sense of momentum as a result?

Breaking Bad is the recent poster child for this. Whilst nominally its final season was said to be 16 episodes, it was clear from the offset that this was semantics. The first part of season five would run to eight episodes, then the show would be off air for a year, then the final eight would run. That’s two seasons by pretty much anyone’s definition.

Read it all