A Tale of Two Seasons…Posted: September 18, 2013
Yesterday the New York Times broke the news that the final season of Mad Men will be broadcast in two parts (see more on this here). This isn’t the first time that a television series has been split into two – AMC recently adopted the same strategy for Breaking Bad which saw a gap of almost a year between the first half and the last half of the final fifth season. Nor is this necessarily even a recent trend – HBO notably broadcast the final season of The Sopranos (1999-2007) in a similar manner. In that instance, the decision to split the season into two was arguably more of an afterthought, as the series’ creator David Chase later decided that he wanted the opportunity to “round out the story”. But it’s not just TV (as the HBO slogan goes), this happens in cinema too. Franchises such as Harry Potter (2001-2011) and Twilight (2008-2012) have both recently featured two-part endings in concluding their narratives. The logic behind the two-part conclusion, whether it’s in film or television, is no doubt financially motivated. Indeed, why not draw out the story in two parts and reap the financial rewards? In the case of cinema, this form of serialisation is intended to increase box office takings (presumably people who saw part one will want to see part two), while in television the money comes from subscription fees and advertising. This economic gain may be the main impetus for this trend, but I’m more interested in the way that these patterns of distribution might impact upon the programme’s narrative.
In his article ‘From Beats to Arcs: Towards a Poetics of Television Narrative’, Michael Z. Newman explores the various rhythms of storytelling in primetime drama, highlighting the way in which certain external industrial conventions influence the form of television narrative. Most notably, he draws attention to the way that ad breaks encourage mini-cliffhangers: moments that are designed to ensure that audiences will return after the commercial break. Of course, this narrative technique in not only intended to retain viewers but will also please advertisers and network executives. Newman’s article explores quite a broad spectrum of narrative rhythms, from beats (the individual moments of a scene) up to broader narrative arcs that can take place over several episodes, an entire season or sometimes even an entire series. Regardless of the fact that much of what we watch is now available on demand or in bulk, and that we are no longer necessarily at the mercy of the broadcaster’s schedule , it’s fair to say that patterns of distribution still have an effect on a programme’s narrative structure. After all, these programmes still begin life on TV.
The Episodic Season vs the Serialised Season
In my own research I’ve identified and explored an interesting trend in the way that major US networks broadcast serialised programming. In the case of something like 24 (FOX, 2001-2010; 2014) whose narrative hook is that the story unfolds in real-time, the network took the decision to broadcast the series in a condensed window. Whereas typically US programmes are (or at least at that point were) broadcast over 30+ weeks, 24 was condensed into a block of just 18 weeks – a feat achieved by “doubling up” the first, middle and final episodes and scrapping the customary mid-season hiatus. Given the accelerated narrative format of 24, it makes sense that it would be broadcast in a similar manner. But because of this compressed window of distribution, it meant that (from 2004 onwards) there were more than seven months between new seasons. In the case of 24 which employs a format where seasons are relatively self-contained (what I’ve called the “episodic season” for want of a better term), this isn’t too much of a problem. Viewers will be aware of the premise and there will be less need to recall events from past seasons in order to understand the narrative of present ones. However, other programmes are much more highly serialised at the level of season with stories that continue over each season or even over the entire series as a whole (it should be pointed out that these are not definitive categories and programmes can contain elements of both. Perhaps viewing this as a spectrum is more productive way to think about it). This, for want of a better term I have called the “serialised season”. In these cases, a gap of seven months could be seen as detrimental. How are we meant to recall or remember important narrative details after such a long period of time (even though we are often reminded of these through the “previously on…” summaries or the various other synoptic texts attached to contemporary television series). The example I use to illustrate this is of another FOX programme, Prison Break (2005-2009) whose narrative structure at the level of season is much more open-ended than 24. In ‘”A Stretch of Time”: Extended Distribution and Narrative Accumulation in Prison Break‘ I highlight the way that FOX staggered the series’ broadcast in order to create a shorter break between seasons – a strategy that differed drastically to the one employed for 24. Ultimately I argue that quite often in contemporary television, the pattern of distribution mirrors, emulates and/or enhances the narrative in question. Importantly, the effect of this distributive pattern in which Prison Breakstopped on several occasions, was a narrative arc that featured multiple major cliff-hangers.
This brings me back to where I began: the announcement that Mad Men‘s final season will be split in two. To date, the series has been fairly self-contained in terms of a narrative that unfolds across a single season – I’m not suggesting that character’s stories and/or narrative arcs don’t continue across seasons, rather that each season tends to focus on a particular theme, time and/or phase of the character’s lives. With all of the above in mind, it’s worth asking: What might be the narrative effect of dividing the series in this way? Will this simply result in two shorter seasons written in the same style as previous ones? Will the mid season episode end with a major cliff-hanger a la Prison Break?
Another interesting outcome of splitting seasons in this way is that the number of episodes tends to be greater. While most basic and premium cable series have around 12-13 episodes per season, those divided in two tend to have considerably more. For example, The Sopranos final season featured 21 episodes in total (12 in the first half, nine in the second half). Meanwhile, Breaking Bad‘s final season is 16 episodes long (split equally). Whilst the increase in the number of overall episodes may seem like a minor side-effect of this strategy, it does still have potential implications for the series’ narrative – for example, it could be argued that more episodes will enable the writers to go into more detail or explore more complex storylines. For a thorough analysis of the way that episode and season durations can impact upon the narrative rhythm, see Anthony N. Smith’s excellent article, ‘Putting the Premium Into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series’.
As ever, please feel free to comment below. I should point out that I haven’t yet made it to the final season of Breaking Bad so I’m not in a position to comment on how the narrative may or may not have been affected by the mid-season break.