There couldn’t have been a more perfect way to bring back the classic Fox series “24” than in television form rather than a movie. While it always brought movie-caliber production values to television, “24” always seemed perfect for television because of its near serialized form in each episode representing one hour. And you can add some irony that now it’s back in a miniseries-like form that plays a lot like the serialized form movies saw over 70 years ago. “24: Live Another Day” is basically a one-off that shows perfect episodic form in how all television might operate in the very near future.
As longer-form TV shows continue to flounder, will networks start doing more limited run programming to allow more substance in the writing? The days of doing a full season from roughly October through to May can place more than a little strain on a writing team to come up with material that sustains interest. With far too many concept shows and not enough interesting details to sustain interest for that many episodes, networks may be realizing the days of the miniseries perhaps really weren’t all that disruptive.
Back in the days when the network miniseries would cancel two weeks of regular programming, network execs would hear far too many complaints that it disrupted the flow of a regular series. Thirty or more years ago, many shows were on that were able to sustain through top-tier writers who knew how to keep things interesting with compelling characters. Many long-form shows now have setups focusing squarely on plot scenarios rather than developing characters people really care about.
The age of the limited-run cable series seems to have been the calling card for the other networks in realizing there doesn’t have to be a traditional episodic order to be successful. When you have more substance than the average TV show, ending it with people craving more is the best creative path any writer can take. How many times have we seen all the limited-run shows on AMC and wished there was much more? At the same time, shows like “Mad Me” and “Breaking Bad” give us so much that they still fulfill us while also bringing plenty of mystery to decipher in reruns.
For whatever reason, the mainstream networks have continually been oblivious to the reality that their midseason replacement shows become huge hits over the shows starting in the fall. Every year, we see a show starting in late winter or spring that end up becoming smashes. One reason is because they only contain half the episodes they would in a normal season, giving people just enough to feel they’ve seen everything they need to see.
The curse to the above is when those shows return in the fall and then try to expand into a regular season. Frequently, they fail as a result when they have far too many episodes that veer off into other territory to avoid anyone losing interest. But this loses the series focus along the way.
NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show” was a good example and a warning to future network shows. Fox’s show had great and insigtful comedy through its first two months. After, it started to fall a little flat due to writers not having enough material to keep the situations sharp. Had it just been a limited series that ended after two or three months, it probably would have been renewed for a second season.
With “24: Live Another Day”, we even have a four-year break to allow some breathing room so fans can allow the characters to settle in their subconscious. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good idea to allow a limited series season to only play once a year, or maybe every two years? Cable shows have already gone there if you remember the final season of “The Sopranos” making people wait almost two years for the final episodes. The latter show seems to be getting credit lately for making all these changes mainstream networks will eventually have to consider.
The best thing for over-the-air networks is to choose multiple shows to air in a season that end within two months. They’re already doing this to some extent with their reality shows and various dramas. In some rare instances, they’re also allowing breaks in-between some of their drama shows as more or less a form of intermission. NBC did that with “The Black List” to a startling effect.
Once networks realize the potential of the limited-run series format, TV writing will likely flourish with many more hits. It also gives TV writers a vaster canvass to use when writing the scripts. By decree of psychology, writers will ultimately concoct more brilliant material working in smaller time frames than they would if faced with having to write compellingly for well over 30 episodes.