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In Praise of the 30-Minute Drama

‘Homecoming’ has a ton going for it—Julia Roberts, Sam Esmail, a tantalizing mystery—but its episodes’ run times may be its biggest selling point

Amazon/Ringer illustration

Television’s second Golden Age has been defined by several things: streaming, quality, an overwhelming glut of options—but perhaps most glaringly, long episodes. Over at Netflix, for instance, episodes of original programming as disparate as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Haunting of Hill House, Ozark, and the streamer’s Marvel Television collection routinely clock in at about an hour, if not longer. The movement isn’t exclusive to Netflix: Kurt Sutter’s FX series Sons of Anarchy was a frequent culprit (as is his follow-up series, Mayans M.C.), while AMC has allowed The Walking Dead to consistently extend its run times. Over on HBO, Westworld has also been susceptible to airing lengthy episodes, while the final season of Game of Thrones has been touted as six “feature-length” episodes. As Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk noted in April after a particularly exhausting set of overlong Westworld installments, the “manspreading of TV” is in full thrust, and is more than a little troubling. “Again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story,” VanArendonk wrote. “They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time.”

The lengthening of TV episodes isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. The last two Thrones season finales were 80 and 68 minutes, respectively, and both used their run times to the fullest effect, each featuring plenty of action, important narrative revelations, and, in the case of Season 7, incestual coitus. (Thrones gonna Thrones.) But recently, television dramas on the whole have seemed to conflate longer run times with prestige. Why else would Matthew Weiner drop multiple episodes of The Romanoffs that take just as long to watch as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird?

This is why, among the many virtues of Amazon’s thrilling new series Homecoming, the fact that it’s a 30-minute drama feels like its greatest selling point. Anecdotally, I can assure you that I’ve convinced more people to watch the show by touting its succinct run time than by extolling the work of Julia Roberts and Sam Esmail (though, those factors don’t hurt). You could watch Homecoming’s entire 10-episode season in roughly the same time you could watch three gaudy episodes of The Romanoffs, or five episodes of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

In this way, Homecoming feels particularly rare: The 30-minute drama does not have a lot of company in the TV landscape. Its only peers are Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience—which experimented with 30-minute episodes in its second season—and stray entries like HBO’s anthology series Room 104 and Facebook Watch’s new Elizabeth Olsen–led series Sorry for Your Loss. There’s also Atlanta, though that show embraces myriad tones, is often widely classified as a comedy—especially where it counts, in awards competitions—and is probably best described as a dramatic comedy. (See: the ridiculous Season 2 episode in which Paper Boi is just trying to get a haircut, which is still the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.) Homecoming, however, doesn’t play with sitcom tropes or other comedic leanings, and aside from some cheeky interplay between Roberts’s Heidi Bergman and Stephan James’s Walter Cruz, the show embraces a tense, paranoid atmosphere that feels right at home alongside other mystery-inclined series like Legion and Westworld—shows that often run nearly twice as long.

The brisk pace is part of what makes Homecoming so effective. After episodes end, the incentive is there to keep watching for two reasons: (1) The time commitment is relatively minimal and (2) neither the show nor the characters are dillydallying. The closest Homecoming gets to “filler” material is beefing up the story of Department of Defense worker Thomas Carrasco. This feels remarkably refreshing in contrast to shows like Jessica Jones devoting several episodes to a frivolous story line about Trish Walker’s past as a child star, or Westworld producing an unnecessary, albeit compelling, stand-alone episode for Akecheta, a character who barely had any import for the rest of the season.

While not all dramas would necessarily work at 30 minutes, the less-is-more approach has its merits. For Homecoming, the developments between two separate timelines—distinguished by different aspect ratios—move at a propulsive pace that is thrilling in and of itself, despite the fact that most of the series boils down to characters talking to other characters in offices or by phone. Were Homecoming twice as long, these scenes might still prove compelling, but they wouldn’t be nearly as effective. No time is wasted, which makes the story better and makes watching the story easier.

Homecoming has already nabbed a two-season order from Amazon, so at the very least we’ll get one more dive into the shady tactics of Geist Group, and with it, certainly more 30-minute episodes. (Why change what doesn’t need changing?) Whether that drops in 2019 or beyond remains to be seen, but hopefully the second season of Homecoming will arrive with some contemporaries—or at least a few more dramas that understand that length does not equal substance, and that restrictions can breed creativity.