Published on TV Pixie, July 2011
In the so-so comedy series Episodes, which starred Stephen Mangan and Tasmin Grieg earlier this year, there was a great scene where Matt Le Blanc, playing a slightly twisted version of himself, explains to Mangan the difference between British and American TV shows. They’re debating whether the female lead in the show, who in the UK version is a lesbian, should be straight in the US version to create sexual tension with Le Blanc’s character.
“How many years you do the show in the UK?” asks Le Blanc. Four, Mangan replies. “That’s how many episodes?” Twenty four, says Mangan.
“That’s one season for us. Friends did 236 episodes. You’ve got to give yourself places for stories to go.”
It’s strange to write these words, but they’re true: Matt Le Blanc was right. The length of American TV series – even high-cost dramas like Mad Men – typically have twelve to fourteen episodes a year. This makes maintaining the quality of a show for more than a couple of series extremely hard. Even HBO’s Deadwood, after its revelatory first two seasons, lost its way in its third and final year.
To prevent the rot setting in, program-makers sometimes carry out a ‘reset,’ adding a few crucial plot points that move the story in a significantly different direction to keep things fresh. One obvious recent example is Mad Men: at the end of series three, the main contexts in which the series’ action had mostly taken place – the Sterling Cooper ad agency and Don Draper’s marriage – were both jettisoned, in favour of a new agency and a new bachelor life for Don. The result was a fourth series that was uneven, but felt fresher and more intense.
Another great American series, Nurse Jackie, is in the middle of its third series – and it’s about to carry out one of the subtlest, smartest resets I’ve seen. With episode three, screened on Sky Atlantic this week, the third series began to move in a direction that will change the tone of the show markedly.