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Saturday, October 27, 2012
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Can The Pace of TV Shows Ever Be Too Fast?

By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist

***

Despite all of the amazing shows on Sunday nights, the evening is about one series for me: Showtime’s Homeland.

Come 10 p.m., I’m glued to my TV screen — especially this week, after [SPOILER ALERT] the CIA detained Brody (Damian Lewis) in the last episode.

This twist came much sooner than expected, which made it so great. In fact, many of this season’s events arrived earlier than most series would attempt to execute them: Saul (Mandy Patinkin) finding Brody’s confession tape, Jessica (Morena Baccarin) discovering Brody’s a Muslim and kicking him out of the house, and Carrie (Claire Danes) telling Brody she loved him.

The second series of the hit drama is only four episodes into its 12-episode season, and a season’s worth of material has already been told. Could Saul have not found Brody’s confession until the middle of the season? Yes. Could Carrie and Brody have kept using each other for information for a few more episodes? Yes. Could Homeland have waited until the finale to capture Brody? Yes.

In fact, most shows follow such a pace, but Homeland is turning a program’s progression — and audience’s expectations — on their heads.

Though keeping a few steps ahead of the audience is undoubtedly solidifying Homeland as one of the best dramas on TV, is it ultimately a wise decision?

The only other TV show I can think of that’s as quickly paced as Homeland is The CW’s The Vampire Diaries (bear with me). The teen vampire drama repeatedly takes risks and airs episodes that could serve as finales early in the season. That’s one reason why it’s so entertaining (Ian Somerhalder is another) and fans passionately defend it to those unwilling to watch.

However, The Vampire Diaries doesn’t get much serious recognition for its pacing because the show borderlines on soap opera, and it’s expected that those types of series have such gasp-worthy moments to make up for a lack of expertise or gravitas elsewhere. Even though I could argue that the first season of ABC’s Revenge is more than the average soap, it and its twists are likewise treated for the same reason.

As for more award-worthy fare like Homeland, this rapid speed in storytelling is rare. It doesn’t hurt that Homeland executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon also worked on Fox’s thrilling 24, but is it realistic for Homeland to be this way?

As for now, I say yes. Saul finding Brody’s confession made for fantastic TV, and Carrie outing Brody established that no matter how much we may like Carrie, her pride and possibly her illness make her a constant liability to the CIA. Hopefully, the drama can keep weaving its intricate storyline without jumping the shark — although some criticized it as doing so when Brody warned Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) about the assassination attempt.

Regardless of whether or not Homeland can keep up with itself, it will be intriguing to see how it will affect viewers and other series.

It seems that as the years go by, audiences are becoming increasingly impatient. The bombardment of procedurals throughout much of TV history cemented expectations for when audiences would get answers, as a case or a tricky operation would usually be resolved by the end of the hour.

As for other dramas, viewers usually anticipate that big turns in the narrative, whether they be answers and/or cliffhangers, will come halfway through a season or by a season finale. It’s a delicate balance, as if they come too early, a show can lose steam. On the other hand, if they arrive too late, people will become frustrated and tune out.

All one has to do is look at audiences’ responses to previous seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, AMC’s The Killing or Showtime’s Dexter to see that if there aren’t enough risks or resolutions in a series, especially a thriller or an action drama, people become restless and bored.

AMC’s Breaking Bad, HBO’s The Sopranos and ABC’s Lost are among the series that have shown how to do it right and are up there with Homeland in terms terms of pace. They also changed audience’s expectations in their own right, but Homeland is pushing these limits even further.

But there’s still an niche for slower shows, even if it’s getting smaller. AMC’s Mad Men is a critical darling, but the most action viewers see is in Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) bedroom. NBC’s Parenthood and Friday Night Lights are also series that crawl through their plots in the best possible way.

It’s telling, though, that Parenthood has constantly been on the bubble throughout its four-season run, as was Friday Night Lights when it was still on. Mad Men also saw its highest-rated finale when the fifth season ended in June, attracting 2.7 million viewers, but The Walking Dead — a much quicker series, even if people had issues with it — drew 9 million viewers for its season two finale.

Even award shows are beginning to prefer action to passivity: At this year’s Emmys, Mad Men lost its first Outstanding Drama Series statue to Homeland, and it won none of its 17 nominations.

The tide is changing in TV, and the surge of non-stop action, twists and turns may be upon us sooner than we could imagine — just as we like it.

 

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  • Arnon Shorr

    Although you list “The Walking Dead” as a “quicker series”, I think it is much better paced than some other shows in that category. “Revolution” (which I still watch, in hope that it’ll get better) tried to squeeze in to one episode what “Lost” took an entire season to do. In a way, the reason “The Walking Dead” seems faster-paced is that the world is much more straightforward. It doesn’t require more than two episodes to understand what’s going on. Everything else is character and story. “Lost” really required the entire run of its show to get us to a point where we know what’s happening (and even then… do we?) So, I don’t think “Walking Dead” is necessarily moving through its story quickly — it’s an easier setting to define, so the show can focus on the characters and their journey, rather than on the details of their world.