Carol: Who knows? Maybe real people will respond to it!
Beverly: There are real people in LA?
Carol: (apoplectic laughter) No…no, no, no, we bus them in.
Last night’s episode of Episodes marks the season finale of the show’s brief run. But wait, it hasn’t been canceled yet! Episodes is an American-British co-production whose subject matter is all LA, but whose production style is a little more UK. Seven episodes is a full season for this new comedy, which aired concurrently on Showtime and BBC Two.
I don’t know too much about British situational comedies, but Episodes seems to fit the creative criteria. The show is written by only two American TV writers, rather than the fabled roomful of monkeys hacking away at a dozen Smith-Coronas. Many British sitcoms are characterized by this notable absence of a writers’ room and a fairly short season by American standards. There are only fourteen episodes in total of the original UK version of The Office. In comparison, its bloated American counterpart has reached, much like the Duggars, 143 Episodes and Counting.
As a writer, I can think of some distinct advantages to a decidedly more British approach to television. Fewer writers generally correlates to greater creative control among the existing writers. Like Beverly and Shaun on Episodes, a two-person writing team can more easily be involved with the entire production process of a show, from an initial idea to the editing of a pilot episode. A season of six or seven episodes also places far less pressure on the writers to come up with novel ideas for every episode of a standard American season. Why do we even have writers’ rooms on shows like 30 Rock or The Office? Because no two-person team, no matter how creative or diligent, can possibly create an entire 22 episode season alone!
As a result of this seemingly brief season, every episode counts. In a decent show like Episodes, there are no filler episodes. Every show introduces new scenarios that move the plot along. There aren’t entire half-hour episodes sustained by a single gimmick like Threat Level Midnight (yeah, I’m really not going to let that one go), nor is there a lack of character development. We’re often introduced to characters so quickly that we barely have a chance to become fully acquainted with them before they begin to change. This can be a good thing, however, because it causes us to pay closer attention to the show.
In a mediocre show that follows the British sitcom formula, I imagine that stock characters might become common since it’s easier to define characters that viewers already recognize as certain types. We see a little of this in Merc, the crudely opinionated network executive, but ultimately he’s given enough of a backstory and home life that he doesn’t seem too flat. If this particular creative obstacle can be avoided, then it seems as if the British system may be better than its American counterpart.
If American shows operated in this manner, we’d likely see many more strange, low-budget niche series. Fewer episodes means more airtime for a variety of shows, and a shorter season would also likely pressure networks to take more risks on interesting, distinctive television. I’d rather see a 10 episode season of 30 Rock where every episode is a winner and Tina Fey had a hand in each than the current 22 episode season where inconsistent quality rules. If this ideal 30 Rock were then followed by a dozen Community-esque shows, I’d be in television heaven. I’d also probably never have a real job again.