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In Praise of the 22-Minute Episode

Shows like ‘Everything Sucks!’ and ‘The End of the F**king World’ are proof that one of TV’s oldest formats is perfect for the streaming era

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There’s a new show on Netflix, and it’s kind of hard to get into, but don’t worry: It gets pretty good once you’re about five episodes in. That could refer to a lot of Netflix Originals — Altered Carbon, The OA, Mindhunter, and basically anything that isn’t Bloodline, which inexplicably never goes anywhere — but the most recent example is Everything Sucks!, the ’90s coming-of-age comedy that dropped its 10-episode first season on Friday.

Initially, Everything Sucks! is nothing more than a collection of ’90s callbacks — the kids are really into Tori Amos, drink Surge, check out “the web” in the school library, and are extremely hopeful that the new Star Wars movie is going to be awesome. Everything Sucks! runs on nostalgia fumes for four episodes until it finally finds a dual focus: Freshman protagonist/AV club nerd Luke (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) finds out his sophomore girlfriend Kate (Peyton Kennedy) is questioning her sexuality, believing she might be gay, while the AV club teams up with the drama club to create a cheesy sci-fi B movie, mostly as a means to avoid getting bullied by senior douche bag Oliver (Elijah Stevenson). The remaining episodes trace the hilarious, oft-chaotic production of Intergalactic Lust, while Kate and the other young teens grapple with their sexuality, families, and who, exactly, they want to be.

It’s nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve watched shows like Freaks and Geeks or Degrassi, but Everything Sucks! delivers an earnest message about learning how to be comfortable in your own skin that most people can relate to — even if they didn’t go to high school in the ’90s. And most important: The episodes are mercifully short. Everything Sucks! routinely clocks in at around 22 minutes; the longest episode hits 27 minutes (which is more like 25, since the end credits that Netflix pushes you to skip through are just about two minutes). If you skip those two-minute end credits each time, watching the entire season takes less than four hours.

That’s crucial. As Uproxx TV critic Alan Sepinwall wrote last year, the sheer amount of television available right now makes it increasingly difficult to stick with shows that require hours of investment before they eventually get really good. Enjoying HBO’s The Leftovers means getting through a slog of a first season, nearly 10 hours of slow, often brutal television. The two seasons that follow are sublime, some of the best made in the past five years, but who can blame anyone for moving on to other shows after getting tired of watching Justin Theroux shoot dogs? If a show doesn’t grab you immediately, why waste time on it when there are eight others in your queue?

Committing to something like Everything Sucks! is far easier. The series also asks you to stick with it, but doing so takes less than 90 minutes, just a bit longer than the runtime of one first-season episode of The Leftovers.

Everything Sucks! is one of a few recent Netflix shows that’s followed this condensed approach. The End of the F***ing World, acquired from the U.K.’s Channel 4, is eight episodes long, with each running around 20 minutes. The Ezra Koenig anime Neo Yokio is even shorter: six episodes with a 20-to-24-minute run time each. Netflix is building a roster full of shows that are easily digestible and perfect for bingeing, offsetting their collection of dramas (Ozark) and comedies (Master of None, specifically its 57-minute episode) that are given the freedom to be overstuffed.

Of course, Netflix didn’t invent the 22-minute episode — it’s a concept that’s existed on network television since the 1950s, when televisions became a staple in the modern American home and advertisements were built into television’s DNA. I Love Lucy (1951–57) remains a quintessential sitcom of American television history, and its episodes were in that 23-to-27-minute range, supplemented by sponsored programming. Other shows — both half-hour and hour-long programs — existed within a similar framework, when networks first sold advertising spots alongside its programs in the 1960s. For sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66) and Sanford and Son (1972–77), 22 to 24 minutes was par for the course. TV’s most legendary sitcoms of the past few decades — Cheers, Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, the American version of The Office — also created within the strictures of this framework. There’s a formula to 22-minute episodes that, perhaps in part because we’ve been trained as viewers, produces extremely pleasing, comforting results. The formula is typically as follows: The A plot (the main story) propels the episode, while a B plot features secondary or tertiary characters and runs concurrently. A good episode — especially if you’re binge-watching — links the A plot with the B plot and creates a new conflict for the show to deal with in the next episode. As the expansion of cable and streaming — with it the elimination of restrictions — has proved, this framework was good for something more than just making room for ads.

“Sometimes I Hear My Voice,” the sixth episode of Everything Sucks!, is a perfect example of how the show uses traditional sitcom plotting to great effect. [Spoiler alert for this and the next paragraph!] At this point, Luke and Kate are still dating, if only to avoid arousing suspicion at school about Kate’s sexuality. Luke knows that Kate is a big Tori Amos fan, so he buys them tickets to a show (the A plot). Meanwhile, Luke’s mom, Sherry (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako), and Kate’s dad/high school principal, Ken (Patch Darragh), go on their own date, unbeknownst to their kids, after some sparks fly between them at school (the B plot). At the concert, Kate sees two girls in the crowd making out, and comes to the realization that the faux-relationship dynamic between her and Luke is unnecessary — while also becoming more confident in her own identity as a lesbian. Elsewhere, after smoking some weed and jumping into the school pool, Sherry and Ken share their first kiss. When Kate tells Luke she wants to end their relationship, things get heated — and after their car gets towed, they need a ride home from the concert. Kate reaches her dad, who cuts his date short and picks the kids up.

By episode’s end, the dynamic between Kate and Luke is in bad shape — which makes the secret relationship between their parents all the more fraught as we head into the next episode. What will happen if the kids find out? Skip those two-minute end credits and keep watching; it won’t take long to find out.

What makes an episode like “Sometimes I Hear My Voice” so pleasing to watch isn’t just the short length and the efficient storytelling, but that the story itself never really ends. It leads into the next one, and the next one leads into the next one. And of course you continue watching, because the price of admission is only 22 short minutes.

Everything Sucks! and shows like it follow basic tenets of storytelling that tend to get lost in some of prestige television’s most audacious programming. Sometimes, Peak TV’s proclivity for indulgence pays off — Twin Peaks: The Return could make you feel like you were under hypnosis — but more often longer run times are mistaken for added nuance. Contrastingly, these shows with 22-minute episodes present a value judgment argument that’s difficult to ignore. As it turns out, a format as old as television itself is a perfect fit for streaming TV.