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The Year the Hourlong Drama Died

Or at least took a backseat. In 2016, our favorite TV shows were miniseries, anthologies, and boundary-pushing half hours.

(AMC/FX/Ringer illustration)
(AMC/FX/Ringer illustration)

Awards aren’t a science; they’re not even art. They are, however, a nifty status check of their given field, and this year’s Emmys were especially so. The once-minor Limited Series category dominated the night thanks to courtroom tour-de-force The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Best Comedy was so thoroughly stacked — Transparent, Black-ish, Master of None — it felt cruel to honor a single show, even one as deserving as Veep. As always, the Best Drama award was announced last, in theory because it’s the most significant. For the last 17 Emmy nights, the category has been the keystone that unites critical acclaim and cultural prominence, honoring The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, and Breaking Bad. This year, Best Drama felt like a comedown — and worse yet, an afterthought. How did we get here?

We’re past the point of debating television’s artistic validity and its cultural dominance. Now we’re also past the point of discussing television as a single medium; it’s a word that’s defined more by inclusiveness than specificity. At various points in 2016, “TV” referred to: a 10-hour filmed stage play available for purchase à la carte on a comedian’s website; a six-part short stories collection adapted from a streaming show adapted from a mom-and-pop web series; an eight-hour documentary that is also, somehow, competing for an Oscar; and the sitcoms, procedurals, and everything else that have constituted TV up until now. What they ultimately have in common is … pretty much nothing, except that they’re all capable of excellence.

Surveying the maelstrom at year’s end, though, it becomes clear that a rising tide does not lift all boats. Even as old formats refresh themselves and new ones spring up by the day, one lags behind. Paradoxically, it’s precisely the form that kick-started TV’s cultural dominance in the first place. The vanguard of the televised revolution may have become its victim. To put it bluntly, there aren’t a lot of great hourlong dramas around. To say so isn’t to qualify television’s vibrancy, but to highlight it. Excellence in a single season or even 30 minutes or less has never been easier to find.

The past few years have seen the gradual uncoupling of form from genre. It may have taken the Emmys a few years to catch up, but a 30-minute runtime no longer denotes comedy or anything other than length. The genre-agnostic half-hour isn’t new: Transparent is the current standard-bearer of this new status quo, as Enlightened was before it. Fire off a quick list of 2016’s breakout shows, and you’ll find those shows have company: Donald Glover’s urban odyssey Atlanta, Pamela Adlon’s single-parenthood semimemoir Better Things, Steven Soderbergh’s character-study-cum-filmmaking-lab The Girlfriend Experience.

These are the shows that have come to symbolize television’s possibility. Atlanta came from a creator with a smart-sitcom pedigree and a rap-dilettante reputation, announcing itself with a logline (“two cousins on their way up in Atlanta’s rap music scene”) that invited all kinds of easy assumptions about style, theme, and character. And then the show itself, strange and melancholy and pointedly aimless, upended all of them. Transparent continued to prove you could fit an entire family’s messy, multigenerational history with identity into 10 raucous chapters a year and enlist a Cannes darling to help you do it. BoJack Horseman kept taking the most underestimated category of all — not just comedy, but animated comedy — and using it to hit an emotional trifecta; viewers laugh and think and feel, with each response reinforcing the other rather than undermining it.

Other series merely excelled in their chosen genres. In its second season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt kept the Technicolor vibe and rat-a-tat pacing of its NBC roots while letting in some of the grown-up messiness of its adoptive Netflix home. Veep and Silicon Valley continued to function as twin satires of America’s centers of power. You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, and yes, even Love furthered television as the preferred venue for antiromantic comedies plumbing the depths of intimacy, subverting a certain kind of movie even as they started to replace it. Issa Rae’s Insecure took cosmopolitan flailing into new, yet familiar territory while that milieu’s mascot had a banner year. Broadcast television hasn’t been at the industry’s frontier for a while, but this year network sitcoms built on their ability to be sharp (Superstore), socially astute (Black-ish), and in a few cases (The Last Man on Earth, The Good Place), genuinely strange and innovative.

There’s something about the half-hour itself that encourages both precision and experimentation. A tighter window means more fat to trim, a greater ratio of attention to each minute of show, a higher threshold for scenes and lines and stories to make the final cut. At the same time, a lower investment (money for producers, viewing hours for audiences) encourages bigger swings, while precedent looms considerably less large over series that were never trying to be The Wire, much less live up to it.

Sophistication and depth of feeling are no longer the exclusive province of the hour — not that they ever truly were, except in the popular imagination. It’s a shift in conventional wisdom that liberates not just consumers, but also creators. There’s no better example than The Girlfriend Experience. Just a few years ago, a drama about a sex worker overseen by a legendary auteur would have been unthinkable as a half-hour. Now, with 13 brief installments that work as loosely connected chapters of a larger story, it’s unthinkable as anything else.

Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s adaptation of patron Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience manages to combine both of the formats that have emerged as alternatives to the traditional hour: the half-hour and the anthology. Since the debut of American Horror Story in 2011, it’s become increasingly common for new television shows to start each season anew, sometimes with the same cast but more often with only a creative team and a concept to connect them. What began as an outlet for Ryan Murphy’s congenital restlessness has grown into a reliable means of generating efficient narrative and star power. Megawattage loves a meaty role and hates a multiyear commitment, and anthology series offer both rather than, like most television, trading the former for the latter. Now, along with the miniseries, it’s where the bulk of successful hourlong television currently resides, including Fargo, American Crime, and even the trailed-off True Detective. They’re not so much series as events.

Murphy began the anthology trend, and in 2016, he helped orchestrate its peak: The People v. O.J., the wildly ambitious first outing of the nascent American Crime Story. According to Murphy’s road map, the show will take on a different real-life case each season, starting with the most high-profile trial in American history and continuing with Hurricane Katrina and then the Versace assassination. The People v. O.J. owed part of its success to the unpredictable X factor known as “zeitgeist”; two decades past the fateful verdict, we’re confronted with the same issues (racism, misogyny, police brutality, celebrity worship) that made the case such a flashpoint in the first place. But to overvalue timing would be to undervalue some of Murphy’s cannier decisions — which have, in turn, become trademarks of the form he pioneered. By concentrating a finite story into a handful of episodes and bringing on experienced feature film writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to help him do it, Murphy modeled a new structure for the hour — one that happened to borrow heavily from another medium.

Over the past few years, there’s been no crutch more reliable, and therefore meaningless, than calling TV “cinematic.” Historically, the term’s been a shorthand for visuals crafted with the same intention a writers’ room brings to a script; now, it applies to narrative of a similarly choreographed nature. For creators, the anthology’s the best of both worlds: They can continue to mine ideas and worlds for years on end even as they can wrap up stories or character arcs that might otherwise drag. No wonder Matthew Weiner’s going the anthology route for his Mad Men follow-up, or that even nonanthology shows like The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire are starting to ape its tactics with informal “reboots” between seasons.

Meanwhile, the stand-alone miniseries is enjoying a mini-renaissance of its own. It took nearly the full 10-week run of Horace and Pete to figure out exactly what it was, but after the 10th episode, Louis C.K. flatly announced it was over and done: “That was it.” Perhaps no series earned the cliché “novel for television” more than The Night Of, the visual manifestation of a Richard Price shades-of–New York tragedy. The Night Manager became the summer distraction we needed by improbably turning the story of an arms dealer doing business in the Middle East into a tour of European vacation destinations. Yet the line between mini- and anthology series, like so many distinctions in television, is blurring: C.K. has said he’s open to a second season of Horace and Pete and obviously wouldn’t need a network green light to do it; HBO programming president Casey Bloys is game for another round of The Night Of if Price and Steven Zaillian are. Here, the cinematic parallels fall short. As TV models itself even more closely after the movies, TV’s most movielike vessel is inching closer to the traditional series.

As the rest of television evolves, where does that leave the conventional hour? The current landscape resembles the results of a brain drain: As the elder statesmen live out their remaining days, the young and vital have decamped for greener pastures.

Nearly all of television’s best current dramas have expiration dates, and with them a caveat about the state of the genre; to every “The hour’s doing well!” they add a “… for now.” Game of Thrones has two years left in its master plan. The Americans will end in two seasons, and The Leftovers sometime this spring. Rectify is currently in its final weeks. This fall, Halt and Catch Fire got a renewal and a cancellation all at once, a bittersweet announcement that represents how networks have started to slice their rosters while preserving their reputation for commitment to artistic vision. Only Orange Is the New Black is in the clear for at least three more seasons. This wouldn’t be so noteworthy if the hour’s heirs apparent hadn’t hit a series of stumbling blocks. Twenty-first-century paranoia thriller Mr. Robot and ruthless Bachelor hitjob Unreal had almost nothing in common until they aired disappointing second seasons at almost precisely the same time. Westworld, HBO’s freshman gamble, is neither a disaster nor an unmitigated success; its second season will be tasked with correcting for the major, though not fatal, faults of its first — and, like Mr. Robot, accounting for the expectations of an ever-savvier fan base, as well as its own story.

In fact, of all of 2016’s breakout shows, only one is an ongoing hour. Tellingly, there was doubt as to whether there would be a Stranger Things Season 2 up to the moment it was announced. The Duffer brothers’ surprise hit was explicitly modeled after 1980s sci-fi, and had the seemingly closed ending to match. But instead of going the anthology route, Stranger Things and its child stars will run it back. For my money, the best traditional dramatic hours on television — the ones that have proven their capacity to sustain themselves over multiple seasons — are Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the oft-lumped-together CW pair that breaks from the hour’s historic association with (literal) darkness, violence, and sparse humor. Even our best hours tend to fit that stereotype (The Americans is no one’s idea of a feel-good show), making Jane’s genre salad and Crazy’s satirical jukebox stand out. As the half-hour has grown more pliable, the hour has only become more rigid.

The turn-of-the-century migration of prestige to platforms with maximum wiggle room led to an unfortunate conflation of length with seriousness and quality. 2016 was the year it unraveled, revealing the association to be as arbitrary as it was fragile. If the hour truly is consigned to a diminished role in the larger TV universe, it’s not necessarily worth mourning. Instead, one could interpret it as an encouraging sign of the medium’s vitality — that after the hour helped legitimize TV in the form of antihero vehicles like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, TV has moved on to new sites of innovation.

Television is an open kitchen, where witnessing a work or even art form in progress is part of the fun. Sheer volume guarantees its share of failures, and the current alignment of market forces ensures the volume of series is torrential and only increasing. Yet the best of television has never been better, alternately vicious, bemused, topical, timeless, curious, empathetic, shrewd, epic, life-sized, and devastating. Shows as different as the Zach Galifianakis–starring Baskets and the British import Fleabag gave that unmistakable feeling of traveling into someone else’s brain, demonstrating the potential of trusting in singular vision and hinting at the possibility of untapped talents to come. Even if excellence is clustered in a certain corner of the industry, the industry itself is living proof no equilibrium is permanent; even the failures are easy to accept as part of the game. It’s possible we needed late-era Glee to get People v. O.J.

For the hours and half-hours alike, this year has proven the threshold for essential TV has never been higher. It’s no longer sufficient to adopt the form of yesteryear’s luminaries and hope the function will follow. TV is Darwinian. Only the flexible shine.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.