TV shows in the streaming age

Episodic TV shows

More and more, I think the quality of television shows is going down. But as I started to think about that, I figured it was also me. Kind of.


You can’t argue taste. Or rather, you can, but maybe you shouldn’t. What one person likes, another does not, and vice versa. You shouldn’t tell people not to have fun watching or playing something. Well, unless it’s hurtful to others — you should definitely speak up if somebody likes to watch racist hate speech.

However, you can have a discussion about the mechanical side of things. A show that sets up characters with a certain trait, then has them go against that trait with no explanation is not taste. It’s bad writing. Plot holes the size of football fields tend to irk me. No show is perfect, but some smell worse than others. There’s no arguing about taste, but I will argue about mechanics. When somebody claims a TV show is well-written when its characters have the depth of a puddle of beer on a bar, yeah, I will argue. Although, maybe I shouldn’t try to have a technical discussion about writing with people who don’t write.

Has this gotten worse over the years? Or is something more going on? I have changed, and have gained more writing experiences over time. I’ve become more critical. But I can also look at a twenty-year-old show and enjoy that more than some of the current shows. So what gives?

Episodic versus season-arcs

Since the nineties, TV shows have increasingly grown from episodic shows with twenty-episode seasons, to six-to-ten episode seasons that tell a single story. A show like Star Trek: The Next Generation has episodes that were stand-alone. Events did not always carry over. People hurt in an episode are magically healed in the next. An undetermined amount of time has passed. Every episode is its own island.

Contrast that to the recent Picard, which features a clear story arc that fills each season. Each season has ten episodes, but each episode continues where the last left off, the change no more than a scene cut.

One of the reasons for this is the rise of streaming services. Shows used to run at fixed times each week — yes, it was like that in the before times. People could miss episodes, or might tune in half-way through a season. So it made sense that the barrier of entry should be low. Now, you can always start at episode 1 when you find a show on Netflix, meaning a show can create a season-spanning story. And, because streaming services tend to measure success by users finishing an entire season, it helps if they do not stop watching because each episode leads into the next.

That increased focus on entire seasons has led to ‘binging’, the trend of viewers to watch ‘just one more episode’ until they find themselves blinking as they reach the end of a season somewhere in the late hours.

I don’t binge well

So, I don’t binge TV shows very well. To binge TV shows, you need a couple of things: the time to watch for long stretches of time, the mindset to do so, and the opportunity to watch an entire season.

When I was younger, there were no streaming services. During my time in high school, I had the most time to actually watch stuff and play games, but it was simply not possible to binge. You either had to buy a box of DVDs, or suck it up and wait for the weekly episode. As I aged, streaming became more easy. But, by the time that happened, my available time had shrunk. My university education was hard work, and I had a job in IT since my second year there. Later, I got a regular job, and haven’t been unemployed since — not a complaint, I’m lucky and I know it. Then there’s my wife and daughter. My wife and daughter deserve my time more than TV shows. All in all, I don’t have a lot of time to binge.

I also lack the mindset; I get distracted. Sitting passively for hours on end, watching a show, is not my thing. I need to do things. Video games require my input, so that works, but during TV shows and novels I need breaks, or start to fiddle with my phone.

So, I end up watching shows a single episode at a time, or maybe two or three, tops, and then nothing for a week or so. Sometimes I get a bout of the flu, or have a few days off, and I might binge. But that lack of binging does not mesh well with the desires of streaming services. And that has an effect on my viewing habits. These days, I sometimes pick up an old show, or a comedy, because I just want to watch a single episode of something. The investment asked is too daunting, so I don’t even start a show.

Episodic has its place

For me, a season from a show like Picard or Wandavision is not a single story. I watch, and judge, each episode individually. And after each episode there is a decision to make: watch the next, or not?

And that changes the experience. Because the overall story might be okay, but the story of individual episodes doesn’t really hold up that well. These episodes have a beginning and end, and a cliffhanger to keep you watching, but they don’t really round off character arcs. An episode might find Picard having a fight with the captain of the USS Titan, and ends with him stealing a shuttle. The fight isn’t resolved. The shuttle-stealing doesn’t lead anywhere (in that episode anyway). Really, without the context of other episodes, it’s not a complete experience.

There is something to say for this format. It allows writers to really drill down in their plots. The two- or even three-episode arcs in the episodic TV shows of yore were always the coolest too, weren’t they? Like one of the most pivotal arcs in Star Trek: Picard being kidnapped by the borg.

However, with season-arcs, we’re really turning TV shows into six-to-eight-hour movies. And I have no six hours time slot to spare to watch a movie. So my experience suffers. But even if I had the time, I don’t think a six-hour movie is a good idea.

I’ve been racking my brain why I can complain about the Marvel shows and love a show like Bones or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Now I think this is at least part of the reason of my ire. Episodic TV works better, for me at least.

Should you?

Even if it works for other people, I question the wisdom of smearing out a story into a six-hour movie. Human attention span flags at the five-hour mark, and I think for entertainment purposes you should stay well under that limit. I’d argue that beyond the four hour mark you start to run into serious diminishing-return issues. Like Bilbo said ‘it’s like butter spread over too much bread’.

Also, if you make a season into one story, then you’re hanging all your hopes on one story. Tastes differ, so where people used to say ‘well, I like Stargate SG-1, but some of the episodes were crap’, people will now say ‘well, the Witcher‘s really crap since season 3’. Meaning, a part of the audience will almost probably hate an entire season, where they used to hate only a part of a season.

I’d start to cut these TV shows back down into shorter arcs. Now, we don’t need completely unrelated episodic shows. It’s not the nineties any more. People will watch things in order. But cutting a show into distinct sections might work wonders. Individual episodes that tell a separate story in the overall season can work — like the Sandman does, or any detective show. You can go for multi-episode arcs, but maybe stick to two or three episodes. I’d say Picard would have benefited from three distinct arcs per season. It’s not something every show needs, but variety is the spice of life, and some could definitely benefit.

And there appears to be some hope for this. One of the results of the recent strikes appears to be that payouts will be linked to viewing numbers again. Meaning the value of individual episodes of shows for writers and actors will increase, and that will take some of the pressure off entire seasons. So maybe this will actually start to happen. I hope so.

So, if anybody in a position to make shows ever reads this post — as if — you know what to do.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands