The great thing about television is: The story can go on as long as you want it to. Whether it’s six half-hours or two hundred hours, TV can take all the time it wants to flesh out its characters and explore every narrative avenue. But lately, some TV networks and streamers have been taking advantage of that flexibility, stretching stories that would normally be a two-hour movie into bloated eight or 10 or 12-hour limited series. Simply put: A lot of limited series these days are toooooo long.
The latest example: Hulu’s docudrama The Dropout, which premieres next Thursday and stars Amanda Seyfried as disgraced tech whiz Elizabeth Holmes. The rapid rise and fall of Holmes and her company Theranos make for a juicy story, yes, but there’s not enough there to justify eight hour-long episodes. (Even the podcast it’s based on was only six hours long.) The premiere focuses on Elizabeth’s formative years and college experience — which, in a typical two-hour movie, would’ve been a ten-minute flashback at most. But here, we’re asked to wade through multiple hours to get to all the good scammy stuff we came for.
The Dropout is not alone, though: Overextended limited series are practically an epidemic right now. True crime docudramas seem to be especially prone to this brand of bloat, with Netflix’s Inventing Anna, Apple TV+’s The Shrink Next Door and Hulu’s Pam & Tommy all testing our patience in recent months. The extra running time theoretically allows these shows to sharpen their focus on minor characters and deepen their storytelling. But too often, it just ends up having a numbing effect, with the shows repeating the same story beats over and over and taking pointless detours to kill time, wearing us out before we hit the finish line.
So who’s to blame for this epidemic? The rapidly changing movie industry is one likely culprit: With studios primarily churning out big-budget superhero fare, the kind of mid-level prestige drama we used to see is now turning to the small screen. And since TV movies are nearly extinct, outside of HBO, the only choice is to fluff it up to a full-blown limited series, which means tripling or quadrupling the running time. (These limited series also attract big stars who want a chance to win an Emmy without committing to an ongoing series.) Plus, with streamers touting the number of minutes each series is viewed, there’s incentive to push these stories beyond their natural storytelling parameters to pump up those crucial viewership numbers.
But we, the viewers, are paying the price. The Dropout had some potential, but I just couldn’t invest eight hours in a story that could easily be told in two. Last year, Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain played infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the theatrical release The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Chastain was excellent (and earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress), and we witnessed the full scope of Tammy Faye’s life story in just over two hours. I’m glad I saw it (it’s streaming now on HBO Max)… and I’m very glad that some network didn’t try to turn it into a 12-hour miniseries.
Do you agree that limited series are stretching their stories too far? Hit the comments and weigh in.