Do TV dramas benefit more from short seasons or long seasons?

Quality vs. quantity. It’s time…

Do TV dramas benefit more from short seasons or long seasons?

One time, when I was browsing Netflix for something to watch, I noticed one thing when comparing old shows that aired on traditional broadcast TV compared to newer ones, particularly those dubbed ‘Netflix Originals’, and older ones from cable networks such as AMC. The length of the seasons. For instance, comedy-drama Gilmore Girls, has 22 episodes in seasons 2-7 ( the first season has 21 episodes), while Star Trek: The Next Generation has 22-26 episode long seasons. Contrast with Bridgerton, the adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Regency romance novel series, which only has eight episodes across its two seasons, and The English Game, which covers the early history of the Football Association in the late 19th century in 6 episodes. And there are those that are straight in the middle, such as Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul (a legal crime drama), and mystery fantasy show The Order. Both have 10 episodes per season. Even season 1 of the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender was only eight episodes long, adapting storylines and elements from the animated series it was based on (the first season of which had 20 episodes).

While some TV watchers may feel that longer episodes provide a wider exploration into the story’s world and characters that a shorter series may not otherwise allow, there are others who might be satisfied with shorter seasons, whether that be due to favouring quality over quantity, or feeling overwhelmed by the amount of episodes to watch, counting down until the season is completed. So, do shorter or longer seasons provide a better viewing and entertainment experience?

Shorter seasons are better

First of all, shorter seasons triumph over longer ones as they take the least amount of time to watch overall. What would go into additional episodes instead goes into 50-60 minute episodes. For instance, the live action Avatar: The Last Airbender series on Netflix has eight episodes in its first season, each 50-55 minutes long. The first season of the animated series it’s based on has 20 episodes that are twenty minutes long. For first time viewers of this season, and the second and third, a fair amount of time is spent not just following the main plot of the Avatar learning the elements to save the world, but also filler episodes unrelated to the central arc. Some people might consider these episodes, depending on their content, to be padding to the series and therefore unnecessary to include in the viewing experience. The live action series cut out all the fluff and was able to still tell the story of Book One: Water with only the most important elements, combining several storylines from the source material across the eight episodes.

Shorter seasons also don’t have to worry about dragging out storylines past their end date, instead moving on when an arc comes to its natural end. As well as ensuring that viewers aren’t impatiently waiting for the climax of the season (or a popular episode) to take place, they also get straight to the point regarding the storylines, given that the number of episodes (6 at the shortest, 10 at the longest) forces the writing team to cut the superfluous aspects and focus on the story that really matters.

For instance, watching the first season of Blood and Water, a South African mystery drama across 6 episodes, the length of the season worked with the premise of a high school student, Puleng, investigating the disappearance of her sister. With events such as Puleng transferring to her new school, the politics and friendships she navigates and her father’s legal troubles being covered within six episodes, the season managed to tell the main story and the other background elements very well. Just goes to show that quality works over quantity.

Longer seasons are better

On the other hand, longer seasons enable more world-building to take place, both regarding the mechanics of the story world and the characters that inhibit it. Through filler (or breather) episodes, we can gain an insight into the characters and any hidden depths they have, avoiding the issue of   otherwise interesting characters not being used to their full potential. I remember watching the ‘Midvale’ episode of season 3 (of 22) of the superhero series Supergirl, which looked at Alex and Kara’s childhood and the incident that brought them closer together as adoptive sisters. As well as showing Kara’s verdict of life on Earth compared to Krypton, it also looked at their past friendships, and the sheriff that appeared would later pop up in a subplot of another episode, where Alex approaches him in her hunt for somebody who is trying to kill her. A nice call-back if I saw one.

Not utilising the serialised format to its full potential also means that viewers can feel short-changed by the show/season, and they might feel that the storylines are/were rushed.  This was one of the issues that viewers of Game of Thrones had with its eighth season. As it was the final season, and there were only 6 episodes (compared to 10 for seasons 1-6 and 7 for season 7) to wrap up eight years’ worth of story and character arcs, people had high expectations. Many people and news outlets felt that if the season was longer, with eventual build-ups and pay offs, as opposed to U-turns and air pulls with little foreshadowing beforehand, the drama would have a more satisfying conclusion.

They also believed that the length of the season indicated that the showrunners, David Benioff and DB Weiss, were attempting to sprint to the finish line, due to factors such as their wanting to move onto making Star Wars movies (which ended up not happening), to the lack of direction from A Song of Ice and Fire author George RR Martin (seasons 7 and 8 were based on original material, as the show had overtaken the books). Martin even commented that Game of Thrones would have needed five more seasons to properly wrap up the story. Could you imagine the series lasting for thirteen seasons as opposed to eight?

The verdict

Both short and long seasons of TV shows have their strengths and limitations, succeeding where the other fails. Although shorter seasons make for a quicker viewing experience and more concise, succinct storytelling, longer ones allow for a wider exploration of the story world and a slower pace of telling a story that pays off at the end. Whether one really is better than the other is largely dependent on personal preferences regarding viewing time, and the story that’s being told, along with the production values of the networks and streaming platforms. For science-fiction and fantasy shows such as Game of Thrones and Supergirl, longer seasons work better in terms of exploring a world and storyline, drawing out arcs over a number of episodes. Genres such as mysteries and thrillers, on the other hand, work well within the 10-and-under episode count, as shown in Blood and Water. However, what is most important is finding a balance between telling a good story and building the world without either being superfluous or wasting opportunities for plotlines and character focus.

Header Image Credit: Pexels


Faron Spence-Small

Faron Spence-Small Voice Reviewer

Avid reader of sci-fi fantasy books, enthusiast of spy-action movies, Marvel and DC. Currently attempting to write a sci-fi fantasy novel.

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