U.S. TV production companies could stand to learn a thing or two from the BBC’s Sherlock. The latest incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerhunter-capped detective played by Benedict Cumberbatch just returned for its third season, the first episode of which aired on New Year’s Day to record ratings.
In a week or so, the season will be finished. That’s because they’ve only made three episodes. The same was true for the first two seasons, too — three episodes each. This lean production style is actually typical of U.K. productions, where six episodes per season is the norm, 13 the exception, and the American standard of 22 almost nonexistent.
Of course, Sherlock‘s episodes clock in at a beefy 90 minutes each — double the length of a typical drama. Still, this leaves the length of a season far, far below the American standard. Is this part of why the show has maintained a level of quality that’s almost unmatched? Should more American productions adopt shorter seasons to maintain quality?
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There is some evidence for this assertion. Most of the latest cable output has adopted shorter seasons, with HBO, Showtime and AMC producing most of the critics’ favorite shows, and almost all of them running 13 episodes seasons. It seems plausible that these shorter seasons have allowed the showrunners to maintain higher standards, with more time for writing, pre-production, rehearsals, production and more. With fewer hours of footage to film, and fewer script pages to fill, there’s less of a rush and more of a chance to be selective about what makes the cut and what doesn’t. There’s no need to compromise on quality to meet a high episode order or leave weak scenes in to pad out the running time or drag plots out.
Unsurprisingly, viewers and critics respond to the increase in quality. Sherlock has been a huge success for the BBC, both in the U.K. and abroad, and we all know how well shows like Game of Thrones have done. What could HBO, with its lavish production budgets, do with a running series that only shot three feature length episodes per season? In the right hands, that could see some phenomenal television put together.
This long-running miniseries idea is a bit of an odd one for American TV, but could it offer the chance for some seriously brilliant TV? After all, if Sherlock is anything to go by, it works bloody well.
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