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‘Stranger Things’ and Streaming TV’s Indulgence in Overlong Episodes

This weekend’s ‘Stranger Things’ finale is slated to run 140 minutes, a move that has few precedents in the history of television. Our TV critics discuss the exacting task ahead, and a trend that’s increasingly prevalent in the medium.

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

When Stranger Things returns Friday to wrap up its fourth season, the latest happenings in the Upside Down won’t be the only thing to raise eyebrows. The finale is slated to be 140 minutes long, a fitting end to a season in which nearly every episode ran over 70 minutes. It’s a move that has few precedents in the history of television: Even CBS’s two-and-a-half-hour slot for the series finale of M*A*S*H accounted for commercial breaks. But by releasing one of the longest television episodes of all time, is Stranger Things giving fans more of what they want, or biting off way more than a Demogorgon can chew? Below, Ringer staffers Miles Surrey and Alison Herman convene to discuss the lengthy season, Netflix bloat, and whether any shows can make a two-plus-hour episode of television work.

Miles Surrey: I don’t know about you, Alison, but when it comes to movies, I’m never one to complain about runtimes. There’s nothing wrong with a longer movie if the filmmaker is using that time judiciously: I’ll be the first to admit I thought the director’s cuts of Doctor Sleep and Midsommar, which both run around three hours, improved upon the theatrical releases. But I rarely, if ever, share that sentiment about super-sized episodes of television. (To give just one example: the final two seasons of Game of Thrones had plenty of long runtimes, and it was easily the worst stretch of the series.) It seems like a lot of showrunners conflate longer runtimes with greater importance or some element of prestige—as Vulture aptly put it in 2018, it’s become the “manspreading” of TV. Whether the creators of Stranger Things, Matt and Ross Duffer, are guilty of that themselves, well, that’s something we can address.

With the understanding that I’m an easy mark for any pop culture that leans on ’80s nostalgia and science-fiction—two of my biggest guilty pleasures—I actually think the latest batch of Stranger Things episodes has been its strongest since the first season. (Turns out, having a compelling villain that’s an actual person instead of a CGI blob can do wonders for your story!) Considering the show is juggling so many storylines from Hawkins and California to Russia and the Upside Down, some of these episodes feel stretched out by necessity.

That’s not to suggest Stranger Things should be exempt from criticism over longer runtimes—if anything, the series has backed itself into a corner. Unlike other breakout genre hits, Stranger Things has been quite hesitant to kill off major characters while continuing to expand its scope; as a result, it’s never seemed more unwieldy. A part of me wonders if the show would’ve been better off letting Jim Hopper heroically sacrifice himself at the end of the third season, especially when the Russia check-ins are so redundant. Maybe all Stranger Things needs to do to become the best version of itself is heed Millie Bobby Brown’s advice (bloodlust?) and start taking some pieces off the board.

It’s your turn to roll a D20, Alison: Am I being too soft on Stranger Things and its longer runtimes? What do you make of the new season thus far?

Alison Herman: I’ve already written on Stranger Things 4, so I’ll avoid hypocrisy and keep things brief: I agree that this season features some of the show’s strongest material to date, especially its villain and genuine creep factor—a reflection of its heroes’ brush with adolescence, the scariest horror of all. It also undercuts that material by refusing to clear out the clutter that overshadows these new additions. Perhaps the Duffer Brothers could call up their fellow Netflix star Marie Kondo for some tips.

Neither of us are against long episodes on principle alone. You are a devoted fan of Too Old to Die Young, the Nicolas Winding Refn series that stretches out to 13 hours of footage over 10 supersized installments. (As for movies, I’m with you: I cheered through all three heart-pounding hours of RRR without complaint.) And long episodes aren’t anything new; the two-hour premiere or finale is a time-honored tradition, and I’m old enough to remember when film directors deigning to do TV was so novel they let Martin Scorsese make a two-hour pilot for the utterly misbegotten Vinyl. So why are we so concerned now?

For nearly a decade, streaming has chipped away at now-quaint concepts like time slots or the binary of hour and half-hour shows. (Ted Lasso, as we’ve discussed, straight-up Animorphed from one into the other.) The result has been a Wild West where creators run free without petty constraints like act breaks—though perhaps not for long, now that Netflix is going into the ad business. But last year, extended runtimes went from a side effect of streaming’s structure to an outright incentive. That’s when Netflix started sharing a limited slice of its ratings data, ranking shows by the metric of hours viewed. It doesn’t take a PhD in data science to figure out that shows with 80-minute episodes stand a much stronger chance of topping those charts than streamlined sitcoms—or that the rubric reflects a general desire on the part of streaming services to keep us engaged for as long as possible, whatever it takes.

That’s how you get the 90-minute pilot for Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, or the 63-minute season premiere of The Witcher, or the 76-minute finale of the most recent season of Money Heist. Netflix isn’t the only culprit, of course; just one episode of The Staircase on HBO Max comes in under an hour (and at 59 minutes, only barely). Nor does every Netflix show succumb to temptation—the latest season of The Umbrella Academy stays entirely under 53 minutes apiece.

But Netflix shows do tend to epitomize the pitfalls of running long for long’s sake. Runtime is just one of many flaws in Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’ take on iconic scammer Anna Sorokin. Yet the show’s poor choice of framing device and lack of perspective are all the more glaring when we’re forced to sit with them for nearly two hours. Such is my feeling about episodic bloat: It’s rarely a fatal flaw in itself, though it tends to make other weak spots stand out, or at least less easily skipped over.

Well, I’ve already broken my promise and gone on too long. (Even as we complain, I can understand the impulse!) Before I hand things off: What do you think makes episode length an issue? And besides Stranger Things, are there any other shows you find egregious? Or on the flip side, exactly as long as they need to be?

Surrey: With streaming services among the biggest culprits in bloated episode runtimes, I can’t help but think about how, like you mentioned, television has operated for decades with consistent time slots and ad breaks. Certain showrunners might find it restrictive to work within this mold, but that’s what makes a well-executed 22-minute sitcom episode so captivating—it’s a challenge in and of itself. It’s the same reason why someone writing a column on a strict word count often gets their point across better than a blog without limits: Structure can be good as long as it isn’t suffocating. (Not that either of us would ever be guilty of filing pieces that run way too long!)

Of course, not all TV shows need to abide by such constraints. I’m much more lenient on an auteur like my beloved Refn or David Lynch trying to do something new with the medium. (After cramming over 12 gory hours into nine episodes, the Too Old to Die Young finale being only half an hour long is iconic.) But reinvention isn’t always necessary, and doesn’t always lead to improvement. The last three seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm featured multiple episodes running over 40 minutes, and I can’t think of a single one that benefited from being stretched out that much. For Larry David’s antics, 30-odd minutes seems like the ideal cutoff point.

But even an average episode of Curb is better than most other shows out there. As far as egregious examples go, there is a special place in hell—or Amazon, same thing—for Matthew Weiner’s anthology series The Romanoffs. I would also mention that Westworld was the peg for the aforementioned Vulture blog about bloated runtimes, but as someone who’s inexplicably enjoyed the fourth season, I will mention that none of the episodes screened for critics went over 55 minutes. It’s a small bar, yes, but at least Westworld cleared it. (I still can’t believe I’m back in on Westworld; when we’re done here, maybe we should double-check that I’m not actually a host.)

But while we’ve been dunking on Netflix, thankfully not all streamers have been so self-indulgent with their runtimes. Your mileage may vary on shows that take place within Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but a lot of these series don’t overstay their welcome. Baby Yoda aside, one of the best things about The Mandalorian is how restrained the show is with the majority of its runtimes.

If I were to try to narrow my feelings down, I have a greater patience for longer runtimes when there is some artistic merit—even if it doesn’t always work out as intended—versus satisfying an algorithm, and unfortunately, the latter seems to dictate most of the decision-making at Netflix. It’s why a show like Stranger Things is rewarded for having such excessive runtimes padding the stats while The Baby-Sitters Club gets canceled for the crime of subscribers wanting to take their time with it.

In fairness to Stranger Things, we’ve yet to see the lengthy season finale, and the series has certainly managed the meatier runtimes far better than Inventing Anna or any other shows guilty of Netflix bloat. I’m inclined to think Stranger Things will handle its uber-long finale better than most series, if only because it has more in common with a summer blockbuster—all the way down to its hefty price tag. Are there any other shows, past or present, that you believe could make a 140-minute episode work?

Herman: The poet Robert Frost once compared writing in free verse, without a rhyme scheme or a meter, to playing tennis without a net. Frost made that remark a couple decades before TVs were common in American households, but his observation applied to more than one medium. That’s one definition of traditional TV, with its strict limits on money and time: playing tennis with a net. And while streaming shows aren’t without their own rules, they tend to be more relaxed.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the names we’ve touched on so far come from the world of film: Refn, Scorsese, Lynch, Luhrmann. To embrace economy and concision is, in many ways, to embrace TV as TV. And while there’s much to be said for new voices that push the medium forward, as Twin Peaks: The Return did by leaps and bounds, the shows credited with revolutionizing TV did so by leaning into its inherent qualities—which once included brevity. Mad Men is Mad Men because it told a gradual, long-term story that wouldn’t make sense in any other format, and it did so less than 50 minutes at a time.

Film and TV have been intermingling for years now, and in more ways than one. Auteurs aren’t the only part of the influx from big screen to small; franchises like Marvel and Star Wars are, too. We’re in the middle of a summer blockbuster season that’s spread from the multiplex to the living room. You’re right to point out that Star Wars and the MCU have partly thrived because they’ve adapted to their new environs. But the pressure to produce a capital-e Event series also helps explain Stranger Things’ need to get as close as possible to an actual tentpole, runtime included. We’ve yet to see the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, but I wouldn’t be surprised if its length tended more toward late Thrones than early.

I’ve written about a phenomenon I call form confusion, where there’s an apparent mismatch between a story and its chosen template. I think that’s why I’m skeptical of any show that would make a 140-minute episode, even much-improved ones like Stranger Things. At that point, I’m not sure the storytellers even want to be making TV in the first place—which means my interest as a TV viewer is already dimmed. Besides, let’s be real: It’s a lot harder to avoid looking at your phone or dozing off on your couch than in a theater. Our puny attention spans need the novelty of a new chapter!

Surrey: When there’s so many showrunners referring to their projects as an [insert hour here] movie, peak TV means we’ve also reached peak form confusion. It’s one part of a larger problem where the line between television and film feels increasingly blurred, as nearly all non-blockbuster movies have been pushed out of theaters and left scrambling to find homes on streaming services. These days, almost everything appears to fall under the broad umbrella of [sigh] content. (It also doesn’t help that studios have narrowed the window between a film’s theatrical release and when it’s available to rent or stream at home, either.)

Of course, this isn’t something a single showrunner or director is going to fix—it’s simply the ecosystem they find themselves in. But just because the powers that be don’t care about the delineation between television and film doesn’t mean that influential creators like the Duffer Brothers should follow suit. Once upon a time, Stranger Things was a new series that won audiences over with its ’80s references, adorable ensemble of kids, and supernatural worldbuilding through episodes that all came in under an hour. The first season might have had the sensibilities of an old-school blockbuster, but there was no form confusion to be had. It was, first and foremost, a good season of television.

Maybe it says more about me that, as much as I’ve enjoyed the pricey spectacle of the fourth season, I feel the same nostalgia for the early days of Stranger Things as the Duffers have for the works of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. But perhaps we’re fighting a losing battle, and what we thought would always remain hallmarks of television have been turned upside down in the streaming era—possibly for good.

Herman: I understand your pessimism there, though I’d like to counter it with optimism. (We are gathered here because of a kids’ show about the power of friendship to overcome interdimensional monsters, after all.) There’s been something of a resurgence in efficient, episodic TV in the zeitgeist lately. The first big breakout of the year, Abbott Elementary, is a straight-up ABC sitcom; the most recent, The Bear, builds up to a penultimate episode that’s just 20 harrowing minutes long. TV’s expansion hasn’t gone entirely unchecked.

As for Stranger Things, the Duffers still have one more season left to finish out the story. My hope is they’ll reverse the trend of eternally one-upping themselves—the only place left to go is a three-hour episode, God forbid—and go back to their roots. The show has always styled itself after a film franchise, what with the numbered seasons and frequent references to blockbusters of yore. But I think the reason people are so drawn to the show is fundamentally rooted in TV’s eternal appeal: they like hanging out with these characters; all the CGI and Kate Bush cues are just a fun bonus. When it comes to quality time, though, more isn’t always more. Some longtime trends in streaming have recently begun to reverse, from runaway subscription growth to unrestricted spending. Maybe sprawling runtimes are next on the list.