The 30-minute TV-drama revolution is here

Watch closely.
Watch closely.
Image: Amazon Studios
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A day after Entertainment Weekly publicized that the producers of Game of Thrones once envisioned the show’s final season as a three-part series of two-hour movies, the release of Amazon’s Homecoming proved you can make a TV drama with episodes every bit as fulfilling as the hit HBO fantasy series’ elongated installments in a fraction of the time.

Homecoming is one of several great new dramas airing this fall that are comprised of snackable 30-minute episodes, providing a much-needed corrective for the increasingly bloated dramas that populate “prestige” television. The Hitchcockian series, which is directed entirely by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail and stars one of the world’s biggest movie stars (Julia Roberts), is every bit as prestigious and showy as its longer competition. But it’s bite-sized prestige: all the profundity and seriousness of a 60-minute with half the fat. Who wouldn’t want that?

With few exceptions, 30-minute TV episodes have historically been reserved for comedy series, while dramas generally range between 40 and 90 minutes per episode, depending on the show’s budget and the level of self-indulgence of its creators. The bloating issue is especially pronounced on American cable and pay-TV dramas. In what Vulture cleverly called the “manspreading of TV,” cable and pay-TV networks have spent the last few years trying to compete with streaming services over viewers’ hours by lengthening the episodes of their shows. A long show signals that it is important, worthy of viewers’ time and attention, and probably deserving of lots of awards. Streaming services have responded by making the episodes of some of their shows longer too.

Sure, there are plenty of cable and streaming “dramedies” comprised of half-hour installments: Atlanta, Fleabag, Barry, and Transparent come to mind. But you can make reasonable arguments that each of these shows is closer in tone to a comedy than a drama. (I’ve argued it’s probably most correct to call these shows “genreless”—or “genre-bending”—neither comedies nor dramas.) Homecoming, however, is a drama in earnest, combining the paranoia of Esmail’s prior series with the emotional depth of a show like The Americans. It’s dark and thrilling and features very few moments of levity. It’s a drama. A 30-minute drama.

And it’s not the only one.

In fact, some of the best new dramas this TV season eschew the 60-minute tradition for zippier episodes. Facebook Watch’s surprisingly good drama Sorry for Your Loss, about a young writer coping in the wake of her husband’s death, is made up of 30-minute episodes. Half of the episodes of Maniac, the weird Netflix miniseries starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, are under 40 minutes long, and two of them are under 30 minutes. And Showtime’s Kidding, which stars Jim Carrey as a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s show host grieving the recent death of his son, is comprised of half-hour chapters, too.

sorry for your loss
Elizabeth Olsen and Kelly Marie Tran in Facebook’s “Sorry for Your Loss.”
Image: Facebook Watch

HBO has experimented with the format in the past, most notably with the therapy drama In Treatment and more recently with anthology series Room 104. Starz has dabbled in shorter dramas as well, in The Girlfriend Experience, Sweetbitter, and Vida, for example. But these were all outliers. The format never truly caught on, until now.

I often find myself trying to guess how much time is left while watching many modern TV dramas. Every episode of Homecoming, however, ends before I expect it to. It’s a surprise every time. It’s wonderful.

Since our minds are trained to expect the rhythms and flow of an hour-long episode while watching a serious drama, a 30-minute episode can be almost jarring in its relative brevity. When they end, you’re left wanting more—because you’re used to getting more. It takes a while for the brain to adjust to the quicker pace. But once it does, you may find yourself never wanting to go back.

Many of Homecoming‘s positive reviews (and there are a lot) focus on its superb pacing and persistent forward momentum. Both of these are facilitated by the show’s shorter run time. The rest of the TV industry would be wise to capitalize on this growing phenomenon.