The trend plays out slightly differently on streaming television, where series feel like they’re running long for no reason other than that they can. At this point in life, I’m habituated to the inevitability that the most impotent mid-season episodes of a Netflix drama will also be the ones that are 57 minutes long. Netflix seems, thankfully, to have moved away from the 13-episode standard of its Marvel superhero shows, series that padded out TV episodes as if they were mountaineers dressing for Everest. All too often, though, success means extension, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel being bumped from eight episodes to 10, or The Handmaid’s Tale from 10 to 13, a creative decision that’s only further exposed how challenging the Hulu series finds plotting.
The phenomenon of stretched-out television is frustrating because, among other things, it isn’t necessary. It’s cheaper to make shows with fewer episodes, and it doesn’t mean viewers will enjoy them any less. Gentleman Jack, HBO’s co-production with the BBC about the architect of Britain’s first lesbian marriage, could have been an exceptional costume drama in the standard three- or four-episode miniseries template; drawn out across eight hours, it struggled to find things for its heroine to do. Amazon’s Hanna, based on a movie that told almost the exact same story in two hours, sagged more heavily in the middle than an overloaded washing line. That’s not to say that the eight-episode drama can’t be well crafted. HBO’s Big Little Lies, told across seven installments that usually run about 50 minutes, is a masterpiece of pacing that somehow does justice to its sprawling cast of characters within tight time frames.