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Why Netflix Dramas Sag Midseason—and How They’re Fixing It

Netflix VP of original programming Cindy Holland on pacing problems, the pitfalls of serialization and the streaming service’s aim to let creators execute their vision.

Rolling Stone

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'Iron Fist,' 'The Defenders' and 'Ozark' have all suffered from midseason sag syndrome.

You probably know this feeling: You’re bingeing a season of a new drama. You like the characters and the atmosphere, and you’re curious about where the story goes, but at a certain point (usually somewhere between halfway and two-thirds of the way through the season), you start to grow impatient waiting for the show to just Get. To. The point already!

If you’ve felt this way, particularly when watching a new drama on Netflix — which is both the most influential player in the business right now and the worst offender when it comes to how its seasons are paced — you are not alone. Even Netflix’s own VP of original programming, Cindy Holland, admitted in a 2018 interview that she “absolutely” can become restless when watching rough cuts of her series.

Nearly every season of TV ever made hits a rough patch at some point or other. The traditional broadcast network model of making 22 or more episodes per season all but invites that kind of narrative fatigue. But there’s something inherent to the approach that Netflix has taken with its dramas — and that Amazon and some other players have followed — that seems to accelerate that fatigue, whether a season runs 13 episodes, 10, or even 8. (Wave hello, Defenders.)

There are a variety of reasons so many Netflix seasons wind up feeling shapeless and meandering, but the primary one is their shift away from making distinctive episodes. With a few exceptions like The Crown, Mindhunter and The Good Cop (a murder mystery procedural from Monk creator Andy Breckman), Netflix’s dramas have largely abandoned the idea of the episode as a storytelling unit unto itself. There aren’t conflicts or themes that are introduced and resolved in the space of an hour — say, Jessica Jones working a case for a new client — just whatever happens next in the larger story of the season. You’ll often hear streaming drama creators claim that they’re making “a 10-hour movie,” which is a self-defeating concept that ignores the value of crafting individual episodes, even if those episodes are part of a big serialized arc. You don’t even need all 10 fingers on your hands to list the shows that adopted that storytelling model and didn’t sag badly at midseason, and most of them (The Deuce, Bosch) were created by people who worked on The Wire(*). When all you’re doing is elongating the same story, or handful of stories, across your entire season, things tend to feel sluggish after a while. Even a heavily serialized show like Breaking Bad made sure to tell recognizable and satisfying stories within the context of each hour, so that the audience never got tired of Walt vs. Gus, Walt vs. Jesse or whatever larger conflict was being advanced at that point. Ditto The Sopranos, The Shield, Lost, Mad Men and most of the other classic serial dramas of the last 20 years.

(*) A few from outside the Wire family tree: Boardwalk Empire (which did tend to sag in the middle but ended each season strongly enough to compensate), The Knick (where Steven Soderbergh’s direction was so vibrant, it was easy to ignore some of the more listless passages), Rectify (which was mostly serialized but wise enough to sprinkle in the occasional “Daniel paints a swimming pool” or “Daniel goes to Atlanta” type of episode) and Game of Thrones (which is telling so many stories at once that it can get away with this approach, even though its best episodes have tended to be more focused on one corner of the story).

Netflix’s dramas mostly don’t do that. They are just one big, lumpy, 10- to 13-hour ball of plot arranged in chronological order. This is in striking contrast to Netflix’s original comedies (whether animated, like BoJack Horseman or F is For Family, or live-action, like Master of None and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), which are also serialized, but let each episode stand alone to some degree. Not coincidentally, Netflix’s comedies tend to hold up better across each season, while also being more re-watchable.

At a press conference during the Television Critics Association 2018 press tour, I asked Holland about this pacing issue with their dramas. “In some of the earlier negotiations and deals that we did with third-party studios,” she replied, “we were hamstrung a little bit by the convention of the 13-episode cable series pattern. And if you look at the content that we’ve been making out of Netflix Studio and even with third-party partners now, often the seasons are generally no more than 10 episodes.”

Holland was implicitly pointing a finger at Netflix’s Marvel Studios shows, which are definitely the most egregious examples of this problem. But they’re far from the only ones. (See also: Ozark, Bloodline and so many more.) So I sat down later with Holland for a long conversation on why the issue is so persistent, why their comedies seem more immune to it and how Netflix’s still-evolving approach to making its own shows might address this snag in the future.

I’m curious about the philosophy behind the intense serialization of most of your dramas, which is different from the way that most TV drama had been made before. Are you seeing anything in the data that leads to that approach?
There’s no particular mandate that says producers need to make only serialized episodes. We certainly, in the early days, encouraged serialization, encouraged not throwing the kitchen sink into the pilot necessarily. Just helping people get their heads around the idea that, for the most part, our members are watching two-and-a-half episodes at a time, so you don’t have to cram everything into 40 to 60 minutes if you don’t want to. But if producers want to go on a journey and do some bottle episodes or self-contained stories, we wouldn’t have a huge objection to it.

So when you were sitting down with Andy Breckman to develop The Good Cop, was there any talk about adding a major serialized element? Or Andy pitched you a procedural show and that’s what you wanted?
Andy pitched a show and that’s what we wanted. We also want to see what our viewers make of more procedural storytelling. It’s a definite interest of ours to understand what are the boundaries of episodic versus serialization and everything in between. So we’re encouraging our storytellers to experiment as much as they want in that area.

A friend once suggested that you’re so serialized because if there’s a perpetual state of “To be continued,” people will be more inclined to let the next episode play. But if I’m in the middle of a good run of relative standalone episodes with one of your library titles like Mad Men, I’m just going to keep watching when the interface shifts me into the next one.
Yeah, we just want great characters and great storytelling. We’re not dictating how serialized or not something has to be. I’d be surprised if you got feedback from showrunners saying that we’re insisting on it or asking for more, because I don’t believe that to be true.

Your library has over the years featured a lot of shows that were heavily episodic. Do you find that the binge rate is about the same for them as it is for the more serialized things?
There are observable differences and patterns. Take Lost, for example. That is highly serialized, obviously. Members would start at the beginning and go all the way through to the end. In other shows, something like Bob’s Burgers, or in any of the adult animated episodic shows, I’m pretty confident that the most recent and the first seasons are the ones that are watched most. You get this sort of U-shaped thing. How I Met Your Mother, even though it’s a sitcom, it’s lightly serialized throughout, and people start at the beginning and go all the way through. When we had Law & Order on the service, U-shaped.

That’s interesting, because that’s one of the most episodic franchises ever made, but if USA runs an all-day SVU marathon, I know people who will watch all day.
Right. These are patterns that developed over many years on Netflix, so the caveat or asterisk I would put on that is: Since the advent of autoplay, etcetera, does it look differently? I’d have to look and see. But I think it is a general observable trend [for us].

Your half-hours are still very intentionally serialized, but there’s at least an effort to make each individual chapter its own experience. So you’ll hear people talking about the underwater BoJack episode or the Thanksgiving Master of None episode in a way they don’t tend to about your dramas. I’m wondering if that is something you had noticed or talked about.
I would say, to some extent, there’s truth to it. Again, I think probably the [drama] showrunners would tell you we’ve crafted very specific episodes that fit within a serialized framework. That may not be how you’re experiencing it, but we know it’s intentional on their part. We have put some effort into shorter seasons, episodically. Because we think that there is some efficiency and some excitement in having a more contained arc for a season.

Did you watch Justified, the FX show?
It’s been a while, but yes.

Justified would structure seasons to open with a bunch of episodes of Timothy Olyphant just being a marshal, chasing down different criminals each week, and in the background, Margo Martindale is starting to cause problems that pay off in the second half of the season. It was a good way to not exhaust the story of a season too quickly.
Longmire was a little bit like that as well.

I only watched it in the A&E incarnation, not the Netflix one, I have to admit.
We got a little more serialized, but the show’s DNA is what it is and we wouldn’t want them to change it, so we were happy to let them craft the show as they had. They made some changes, but not many. I do think there’s something to highly serialized and longer seasons. Always the creators have a season arc intent, and sometimes I think that they’ll say, “Oh, we have a number of episodes to digress,” but they don’t do something wholly separate. They’re simply digressing. So I think it’s that interesting balance of what’s the difference and how do you keep people engaged.

Stranger Things did eight episodes the first year, which seemed like a really perfect length. In 2017, they did nine, including the Chicago episode, which was the most explicitly non-serialized thing they’d done in either season. And that was the one that, anecdotally, I heard a lot of complaints about. Did you get feedback on whether people liked it?
It’s observable on social media, obviously in reviews we would see that — people watched it, it wasn’t like people were getting stuck there. They were getting all the way through the show, but people either loved it or hated it. It was quite divisive. And it was something [co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer] really, really wanted to do, and we supported that.

A phrase I hear a lot from drama creators these days is, “We’re making a 10-hour movie.” Would you sit in a theater for 10 hours and watch one movie?
It depends on what the movie was. Because I might. I might, because I am a fan. And the beauty of our model is that people are watching two to three episodes at a time and they’ll choose when they want to watch. We see different rates of completion for different types of shows and how long it takes somebody to get through a season on average.

Is there a particular reason you’ve thought about or discussed internally that the comedies tend to do more distinctive stuff within each episode than the dramas?
We haven’t talked a lot about it. My suspicion would be, the training that those writers come from is more episodic in nature and they’re flexing a new serialized muscle, right? So there’s more balance there, whereas, honestly, a lot of the folks who are creating dramas for us have come from places where they’ve done serialized drama before, or they come from a film background, where that’s natural to them.

When you come from a film background, it can be easy to think, “This is just a movie, but longer.” And I think that there are certain distinctive differences between the two mediums.
There definitely are. You can say some are successful and not successful in that transition, but I do think that those filmmakers are all really engaged in trying to understand that translation to episodic form and what that means.

This is a new mode of storytelling that you’ve been doing for about five years. Do you feel like the storytelling model is at the moment what it should be, or is it still evolving?
We’re in early innings of what creators can do. Not just with number of episodes but episode length and varying episode length. Think of Brit [Marling] and Zal [Batmanglij] and The OA, you can see them sort of testing some things out.

One of their later episodes is only 31 minutes long.
Yeah, I think that’s really exciting. It’s one of the things I get up in the morning for: enabling artists to really experiment. The first season of Sense8, if you were willing to put in the investment of following all of these separate stories, when they come together, it takes off and it’s magical. But it requires an investment on the part of the viewer. I think a worthy one.

The Marvel shows are a separate thing, because that’s an outside studio you’ve agreed to pay for 13 episodes per season. But if the showrunner of a Netflix original comes to you and says, “We’ve been in the room for a while, we feel really good about the story, but in cracking it, it feels like seven instead of 10,” is that something you have the ability to do? Is that something you would even want to do, or would you tell them to come up with three other episodes?
No, no, no. We absolutely [let them have the number of episodes they want]. A good example is Barry Sonnenfeld and A Series of Unfortunate Events. So he’d put a room together, and they came back after a period of time and said, “Well, we think the whole story, all the books, is three seasons. And it’s exactly the number of episodes that we have. Is that OK with you?” And I said, “If that’s what it is, that’s what it is.” He was like, “Are you kidding?” I said “No, I’m not kidding. We only want the story as you think it should be told.” It’s often the other way around, where a storyteller will say, “I need more time. There are things I want to try,” and we want to be supportive of that. Because ultimately, it’s their creation, it’s their name on it.

With The Crown, when Peter Morgan comes to you with this Royal Crisis of the Week approach, was there any concern that someone might come to the end of an episode, and say, “Oh they’ve solved the fog problem, I can go away for a couple of weeks and come back to it”?
No concern on my part. I think Peter’s writing is just incredible and those characters and the people who play them are so engrossing that we never had any concerns about people deciding they’d had enough. We knew that people would watch it all the way through.

Do you have particular favorite episodes you would cite of some of your original dramas?
I actually am one of the people who liked the episode seven of Season Two of Stranger Things. Do you count Orange as a drama? I think it’s a comedy, but we’ll count it for this purpose, because I like the chicken episode in Season One. But that show was episodic in nature [in] the early seasons. It was totally up to Jenji [Kohan] how she crafted that show every season. In House of Cards, there are certainly episodes that stand out to me: Stamper killing Rachel, Claire going to New York, when Corey Stoll’s character dies — and surprisingly not the end of the season. Mindhunter I think is more episodic than not in a lot of ways. Because those interviews are so distinctive that you do feel them that way — the Speck interview, and the first interview you see is incredible.

[A publicist suggests the first season finale of Mindhunter as a favorite.]

It’s a good one.
Well, I was trying not to choose finale episodes.

If something is super serialized, picking the finale is almost cheating.
That’s right.

Breaking Bad, which is an intensely serialized show, did a whole lot of standout episodes at midseason, like the one where they’re trapped in the RV or chasing the fly.
Some of those are probably for budget reasons though and they’re like, OK, how do you get the bottle episode in here? So, I’m not casting aspersion, I just, knowing production as I do, that’s often what happens.

But sometimes, necessity winds up being the mother of invention. The Good Wife did 22 episodes a year on CBS, and maybe half of them were serialized in some way and half were just to fill the episode order. And one of the latter group was the mock trial episode, “Red Team, Blue Team,” which worked out so well, it wound up reshaping the direction of the show for a long time. They stumbled onto something great because they weren’t just trying to get the seasonal arc from A to Z.
We enjoy it when storytellers come to us and say, “We want to try this or that.” I mean, the underwater episode [of BoJack] that you mentioned is one of those. [Creator] Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] had a very clear vision for what he wanted to do, and we’re like, “OK, great.” And then, I think Season Two of Master of None is almost sort of anthological in nature.

Season One is, too. But Season Two is even more, and it’s wonderful.
Right, but Aziz [Ansari] and Alan [Yang] were like, “How about this? Can we do black and white, can we do partly silent, we’re gonna go to Italy, we’re gonna do these other things.” And I’m like, “Yeah.”

And the great thing about that show is, if I’m in the mood, I can go back and revisit one episode, where with a lot of intensely serialized shows, I know that if I try to rewatch one, I’m going to want to rewatch five, and I don’t have the time.
Because of what happened before. You almost need a little recap to get to that point.

Does the data show that people tend to rewatch your shows more than once?
Depends on the show. But yes.

What kind of shows get rewatched?
The super fandom shows definitely do. But I also think it may be subject matter and, I think, their implied demographics, probably. The viewers of House of Cards and The Crown, for example, are probably less likely to go back and revisit, because they’re just not that kind of viewer. Whereas viewers of Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why or even Orange, they are going to go back and watch their favorite episodes. Or watch the whole thing over and over again.

If something is really intensely, primarily serialized and the focus is on what’s going to happen next, once I’ve watched it, I know what happens next, and do I need to go back and look at it again? How much value do you place on rewatchability? Or does that not really matter, because the library’s so big?
We certainly are happy when it happens. Again, I think it’s the shows where people really fall in love with those characters and they just want to spend time with them. And they’ll go back through those stories to just sit with those characters even though they know what happens. Or they just want to relive it.

You say you don’t want to tell creators what to do, but if Good Cop becomes a big success, how, if at all, is that going to change the kinds of shows you pick up or the kinds of notes you give to other shows?
Obviously, we might be inclined to do some more. We’ve already got another few that we’re working on that are more procedural, less serialized. Because we know that there is an audience who prefers to watch storytelling unfold that way. And we want to see how that fits with the Netflix viewing experience. A lot of our members come to us to get immersed in a world and stay there for a while. Our members tend to start with one show and finish it. They don’t really hop around and watch multiple things at once. They tend to go start to finish and then move on to something else. So we may order more of them, but I wouldn’t change our notes. Once we’ve had the initial conversation with the creators about what they wanna make, and we say yes, we’re pretty clear that it’s really their vision. And they’re free to come to us and say, “Y’know what, I changed my mind, I’d like to make it more serialized or more episodic or take this tangent,” and we’ll support that.

Without naming names, do you ever find yourself, when the rough cuts are coming in, saying, “This is dragging. I would like to get to the end…”

OK, that does happen.
Yes, it does. Absolutely.

When you met the TCA, you talked about some of your favorite shows growing up. What were some of your favorite episodes of TV ever?
Favorite episodes of TV ever, oh my gosh. “Angels in Chains” [from Charlie’s Angels, where the Angels go undercover in a women’s prison] has to be high up. Because it doesn’t even take itself seriously, but it’s amazing. I’m embarrassing myself, but it’s true. There’s a bunch of Seinfeld episodes I just loved: “Soup Nazi,” obviously, and “The Muffin Tops.” I guess for me, as a viewer, I think about shows more holistically. Because I love The Wire, but it’s harder for me to pick out just one.

Yeah, other than episodes where people die, there aren’t notable standout episodes of The Wire.
Yeah, so I’m more of a fan of shows than I am of a particular episodes. And I’m personally not one to go back and rewatch a lot of stuff. So for me to rewatch it, it has to be on in syndication or something, probably.

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This post originally appeared on Rolling Stone and was published August 18, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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