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Adams' Analysis: The Walking Dead Proves Long Episodes Are Problematic



It was a dark cold night in February, and the clocks were striking ten. But Winston Smith is nowhere to be seen; in his stead, a disgruntled television viewer, resting their right cheek firmly on their fist, elbow on the couch armrest for support. An occasional sigh can be heard; the viewer never says why, but the reason is clear: it is 10pm on a Sunday night with work in the morning. This is not how it should be.

Imagining this scene taking place in four weeks’ time is pretty easy. On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead’s eighth season, set to return on February 25th, will take up an 82-minute timeslot (*), the second longest running episode in the show’s history. Eke out more time that evening - you will need it.

(*) Timeslot incorporates the commercials; the episode itself will probably wind 60-minuteund 57-60 minutes.

This, after a midseason finale spanning over an hour, the sixth instalment hitting the 60 minute mark since Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was introduced just 25 episodes ago. His role within the show has come under much criticism - not least by yours truly - but perhaps more egregious than Morgan’s performance is the issue of running time.

It is worth making one thing clear: there are far greater, far more deep-seated problems plaguing The Walking Dead than this; fixing it will not magically turn the show into something strong. But this certainly does not help.

Part of what makes television great is its structure - a structure that has, admittedly, been altered thanks to the advent of streaming services. A crucial element is the limited nature of what you watch. When you go to a cinema, there is no real limit to the length of what you are there to watch: studios may be inclined to reduce a running time for various reasons, but if the "Transformers" franchise proves anything - aside, of course, from the idea that a bunch of robots hitting each other amid inexplicable and ridiculous action and CGI will bring in heaps of cash - it proves that timing rarely matters on the big screen.

On television, that is different. Episodes are intended as chunks, things that people can watch without spending their entire evening doing it. Certainly, it would be misguided to suggest that extended episodes violates this premise, but we would be equally remiss not to acknowledge that in providing so many episodes longer than its standard (dramas tend to level out at around 42-45 minutes per outing), shows back themselves into a corner they need not be in.

This issue is usually exaggerated in a couple of major instances. The first is on Netflix: with no airing schedule to stick to, there is little onus on any control and thus a drama episode can be anywhere from 40 to 80 minutes - The OA, for example, has a 71-minute premiere and a 31-minute fifth episode. The second is the leeway offered to particular creators based on reputation alone - Kurt Sutter was given more freedom to do whatever he wanted, length-wise, with The Bastard Executioner than some countries have.

Writing television well is an art form; writing a tight, engaging story a skill to be mastered. There is far more value in a scribe who can stick to a regular length than one who will just fill time for the sake of it. That isn’t to say overrunning that general length is akin to drowning puppies - ironically, Walking Dead’s second best episode runs 64 minutes - but it is better utilised as a deviation from the norm, rather than becoming the status quo. Everybody has to sometimes break the rules. Emphasis on the “sometimes”.

To return to The Walking Dead, it is fascinating to look at the discrepancy between the pre-Negan and post-Negan era. The season seven premiere, his second appearance, notched up the second highest ratings in the show’s history and it is difficult not to wonder whether Scott M. Gimple, who has been showrunner since the beginning of season four, and AMC decided that with ratings in year six dipping on year five (average in the 18-49 demo was down to 6.48 from 7.36, though that fifth season score is skewed slightly by the series high 8.65 premiere), the best way to maintain its audience was to give it more of the show, even as the episode count remained at 16.

Thus, only four of the seventh season’s quota clocked in below the 45-minute mark with five upwards of 50 minutes and four of those hitting an hour. For comparison, only six had gone higher than 43 minutes in the prior 83 episodes - all of those were bang on 64 minutes.

What this means is quite simple, certainly in terms of the episodes that can legitimately be considered to be extended: suddenly, an important hour is packed with filler moments, and any competencies are blurred by how little story there is to tell, and how badly it is constructed. That 64-minute season six finale, for instance, had about enough mileage for a 20-minute episode. In practicality, it feels rare that any episode extended in any length actually warrants doing so.

It tends to be that the episodes hitting an hour - or close to - are announced as such in advance of them airing. Crucially, they have been produced by this stage, but that fact does little to dissuade the notion that these are ‘event’ episodes, where the actual content is far less significant than the episode’s actual existence. It is entirely possible the show feels emasculated to a degree.

This is not independently a Walking Dead issue. Across the board, it is rare that a show warrants pushing its closing credits back by a considerable time; series premieres are often especially culpable in that regard (Vinyl’s 113-minute opener is a very long time to be watching television). But it also feels like The Walking Dead wastes its elongated presence more catastrophically than others. Game of Thrones’ season seven finale, clocking in at 80 minutes, had several issues, but it would be difficult to argue it did not somewhat justify its running time through an overload of content.

Long episodes are not the crime to end all crimes. They do work when there is a reason to have them, and the writers are able to use that time as effectively as possible. But as a general rule, it seems clear that there needs to be a greater deal of responsibility on both the networks and producers to ensure that there is consistency in lengths. It is not the definitive answer to preventing weak television, but it seems a good step to improving the quality of writing.

The Walking Dead may not be the only culprit, but it is currently the biggest, and shows just how wrong things can go.


 
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