Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"The Long And Short Of It"

The elasticity of time.


It depends on what you’re used to.

Here’s what I’m talking about. 

I am beginning to watch Netflix.  (Then I don’t do it for a while and when I go back to it, I forget how it works.  Then my daughter comes over, she grits her teeth and she retrains me.  I see these interactions as father-daughter bonding moments.  Call it “The Teeth Grit of Love.”)


Anna turned us on to a show co-created by (with Alan Yang) and starring actor/comedian Aziz Ansari, entitled Master of None.  I have watched a couple of episodes of Master of None, and I am a qualifiedly enthusiastic fan.

I get excited when creators get to make exactly the show they intended to make, unencumbered, as we were, by mass-market homogenization and network executive demands.  Am I envious?  Not entirely.  Why not?  Creative restrictions are limiting, but also obligatory and clear.  It takes a bold spirit to run unboundaried and free.  I am not certain I have that level of gutsiness in me.  Although it was never an option, so who knows?

Anyway again…

In what I read elsewhere is being labeled an “instant classic” episode of Master of None called “Parents”, Aziz and his Asian friend, both offspring of immigrants, ponder the contrast in filial dutifulness between themselves and their parents, as compared to their parents’ filial dutifulness their parents.

Aziz’s friend refuses to go grocery shopping for his father, “because I’m going to a movie and I love answering those ‘Trivia Questions’ they put up before the show.”  The episode compares that response to that of his father, who, following his father’s instructions, chops the head off a chicken for dinner, which the youngster had previously regarded as a pet.

The point – which I have finally arrived at – is that, to me, even this considerably above average episode of an above average comedy series felt conspicuously padded and excessively long.

I wondered why I reacted that way.

Then in the blink of a sentence, I realized why.

Half-hour episodes on Netflix run for – minimum – half an hour.  Half-hour episodes on the networks, where I have watched half-hour episodes in the past, last… at one time, twenty-six minutes, then down to twenty-two, and now, somewhere around twenty and a half.

All of which are shorter than the Netflix-length thirty minutes.  (Or possibly longer, because what does Netflix care about half-hour programming blocks?)

If you’ve ever been in therapy for any extended period of time, you get a sense when your fifty-minute session is over.  You just feel it in your whiney, complainy, “I guess my time is up, huh?” bones. 

It is the same process with sitcoms.  You watch sitcoms for fifty years, and your internal clock tells you when it ought to be done.  If it runs “past time”, it registers, on some level of the viewers’ reaction mechanism as “Too long.”  And while you’re watching it, “Too slow”.

Even if it’s good.

(Relevant Sidebar – Single-camera comedies, of which Master of None is an example, unfold their stories via an accumulation of equally weighted jabs and counter-jabs but, rarely if ever, with haymakers, generating, for me at least, a pace and rhythm that feel creepingly – and ultimately tediously – monotonous.  Also, multi-camera comedies – for example, Frasier and Cheers – are structured to build to a hilarious comedic pay-off, which single-camera comedies rarely achieve, or, for that matter, shoot for.  I shall leave this discussion at that, for fear of this becoming “The Parenthesis That Ate My Blog Post.”)         

And now back to the subject at hand.

“Time”, I am arguing, informs you when “Time is up”.  When the episode continues beyond that time, you involuntarily start thinking, “Shouldn’t this be over by now?”, triggering a sense of discomfort, bordering on annoyance.  Simply because your TV-watching “Body Clock” has conditioned you to something else.

And yet…

Shouldn’t a show be able to retain your interest however long it is?

Or it that impossible, because the conditioning process is so ingrained in us – or at least in me – that no matter how commendable the show’s attributes, it inevitably feels long?

(“Curiosity” Sidebar:  Do viewers habituated to Netflix sense that network situation comedies are short?

Anyway… for a third and hopefully last time…

This dilemma will eventually disappear, and we’ll get used to whatever it is.  That is simply – and wonderfully – the way it works.    

In the meantime, however, during my “Transition Period”, I’ll be watching comedies on Netflix, knowing that, before they are over, I will be drumming my fingers and looking at the clock.


JED said...

I wonder how much of the networks' ability to get away with reducing the length of "half-hour" comedies is their belief that the audience's attention span has shortened over the years? I see this limitation in myself and have tried to increase my attention span to previous levels when I could read books without constantly jumping up to do other things before they slip my mind.

In my defense, though, I will mention that my wife and I enjoy watching Foyle's War on Netflix (these are replays of the original show from Britain). They have a running time of about 100 minutes and we're usually surprised that the time has passed. Maybe that's the trick of increasing my attention span - just watch good shows and read better books.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think there are more ads because they can't charge as much now that audiences are smaller. A couple of recent BIG BANG THEORY episodes barely cracked 18 minutes.


Canda said...

The way Lifetime cuts the comedies they show destroys much of the comedy and build to big laughs (sometimes cut altogether) that the producers and writers originally achieved.

Josiah said...

I see that Netflix is now streaming Nurse Jackie. That's one of those rare sitcoms that makes me laugh and also deals w/some meaningful topics. And those 30 minutes will fly by.