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Offbeat home & life

6 March 2023

The Death Of The 20 Episode Season


In November of last year, Mindy Kaling released season two of her newest show The Sex Lives of College Girls. 


As a big fan of the show I was anticipating the second season, yet despite the season’s gradual release of two episodes a week, I still found that the season was over before I had even really registered it had started. At around 25 minutes per episode, Mindy attempted to cram complex relationships, friendships and the everyday college experience into eight short episodes, an almost identical model as seen in the previous season. Kaling was once a champion of long seasons with her show The Mindy Project having 21-26 episodes for its first four out of six seasons, yet abandons this structure for her most recent sitcoms (her additionally airing show Never Have I Ever having a slightly longer runtime with ten 30-minute episodes). Now, Kaling isn’t the only person who has moved towards the shorter 8-10 episode season, even despite previously enjoying around a 22 episode run. A prime example  where this decline is evident being the recent spin off of the infamous That 70s Show; unlike the show’s originator in which all eight seasons contained at least 22 episodes, That 90s show contains a mere 10, which begs the question: Why this has happened and are we experiencing the death of the 20-episode season in sitcoms?


Sitcoms have been popular in television since the latter half of the 20th century and up until recently, contained around twenty-two 30 minute episodes. This allowed for a number of characteristics within the genre to develop which made episodes enjoyable to watch. From this, audiences watched as characters’ developed into distinct personalities that became of  a knowable comfort and familiarity to viewers. However, with such short seasons, there is much less room to develop characters as seasons become incredibly plot driven. This, unfortunately, gets rid of one of the hidden beauties of sitcom television, which was watching a character change and adapt to audience reception. This can be seen, for example, in New Girl with the development of Winston into a major personality in the show, or the development of Monica and Chandler’s relationship in Friends, whereby producers altered their initial story-lining for said characters after seeing the positive media response to what was initially a small fling. This ability to adapt a show even within a season has created wonderful storylines and helped to evolve a show’s comedic aspect throughout television history, but the ability to do this has become greatly limited with the shortened model of modern sitcoms.


Consequently, television shows have become overly plot driven. The need to act out several plot points within such a short season creates a rushed show with several plot holes and underdeveloped storylines. As a result, viewers face the possibility of disappointment when faced with examples like the first season of That 90s Show, where the string of episodes comes to an end and viewers are left feeling as though only one or two notable things have really happened. Or, in the case of The Sex Lives of College Girls, the desire to cover a series of plotlines within such a short span of time leaves several aspects of the show rushed or undeveloped.


Over the decades, sitcom television has been characterised  by a format reliant on ‘casual viewing’.


Apart from shows such as The Sopranos that defied every expectation of television up until that point by altering the norms of storytelling, television was seen as much less “serious” than film. However over the 2010s the face of television has changed drastically, its production far more complex and professional. In many cases, such as the revered series’ Stranger Things and Succession, dramatic, high production TV shows with episodes ranging from 45 minutes to over one hour have become mainstream and regarded as highly as their cinematic counterparts. In fact, over the past few years it has become a regular occurrence to premiere TV episodes at major film festivals, with instances including screenings at the BFI London Film Festival for example. In regard to shows like these with long episodes and extremely high production values essentially making each episode a near feature film, shorter seasons  with a lesser quantity of episodes make a lot of sense, especially seeing as this is the first time in television history there is such a high concentration of these types of shows. However, the issue lies within how this transition has specifically affected sitcoms like Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. 


The biggest effect I feel that the season length of The Sex Lives of College Girls has is the pacing of episodes and the season as a whole. This was not so much of an issue in the first season where the ten episodes only covered about three or four months of content, from when the girls first arrive at the fictional Essex College to when they all part ways for Thanksgiving break, which works perfectly. However the second season is somewhat over ambitious attempting to cover the rest of the school year in the same amount of time. The jokes and comedic element of the show especially when it came to characters like Lila and Jocelyn continued to be one of the show’s strong points. Nonetheless the pacing of the second season was so off-balanced that it ended up ruining the main characters’ arcs, the girl from the main group who had a real in depth development being Leighton. What originally started out as a fun new relationship breaking Bela away from her usual want for casual hookups turned into a sudden decline in her character, with some of her actions completely contrasting what you’d expect considering the things she endured at the hands of power imbalances over the first season. With soccer season over, this season saw Whitney’s social life and personality be reduced to an abrupt break up followed by an underwhelming fling and nothing much else which is especially disappointing when Kimberly then decides to abandon one of her main personality traits as the loyal friend when we see something develop between her and Canaan. Over a long run of episodes this wouldn’t be much of an issue, however in trying to have all of this and more fit into just over four hours of content makes everything extremely rushed. Especially in the final couple of episodes where it felt like there was a sudden urge to unravel everything that had been built up along the season in order to anticipate the next season.


Now, I love The Sex Lives of College Girls, it’s rare to see fun shows set in college, not to mention that it’s a genuinely funny show with some really likeable characters, but the show’s excellence was greatly hindered by the season length. A prime example of this being the relationship between Bela and Eric. By the end of season one, audience members see the beginnings of what is expected to be a sweet slow burn between Bela and Eric, however in the span on about two 25 minute episodes in season two we see the pair move from friends with benefits to an official relationship to a cheating scandal that ultimately breaks the couple up. The episodes don’t focus exclusively on Bela and Eric either, so as you can imagine all of this happens collectively over the span of maybe about 15 minutes. Thus the cycle continues: A promising storyline, reduced to something much less interesting due to the need to check off plot point boxes by the end of a season. I can’t help but feel dismayed that this has become a common theme plaguing sitcoms with reduced lengths.


Additionally, this makes the idea of a ‘filler’ episode almost obsolete. A filler episode is a common TV trope primarily in sitcoms that are not directly related to the main plot of a show, and whilst some people have always viewed such episodes as something to skip, I’ve always loved them. For me, the best part of many of my favourite shows are its characters, so episodes primarily focused on comedic dialogue between characters is rather entertaining. Unfortunately, such short season lengths have seen what looks like the end of filler episodes in many shows; it appears that even if a show only has eight episodes, there is simply not enough time to distract from the main plot. 


The point of this essay was to highlight a notable change that I have noticed over the past years and unveil my issues with it, so I unfortunately cannot elicit an answer for why this change in season length of sitcoms has happened, although as with many things I know streaming is at least partially to blame. This is largely due to how streaming services such as Netflix release a whole season or multiple episodes of a season at once to encourage binge watching. With streaming services pumping out so many original series at once there’s a need to upload shows in a way that avoids viewer fatigue. Consequentially with the seemingly shortening attention spans of viewers nowadays there’s a desire to have multiple shorter shows at once as opposed to attempting to hold the attention of viewers with shows releasing an episode a week over the course of several months. Therefore, whilst many of us may miss the old model of television where seasons of several episodes were released over a long period of time it simply no longer works with the progression of television at the hands of streaming services. However, it is clear that we are definitely experiencing the slow and unfortunate death of the 20-episode season, which to some extent, at least in my opinion, has hindered the overall quality of recent sitcoms.

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