Thursday, October 25, 2007

No more hour episodes of THE OFFICE! Please!

Half hour shows are supposed to be… a half hour. Twice as long does not make it twice as good. It makes it a quarter more bad. THE OFFICE has been airing hour episodes and if you ask me it’s killing the show. THE OFFICE is normally a snappy show with a lot going on. These hour stanzas have been bloated and uneven. I’m sure it was the network’s idea to do it. Rarely do producers plead to do double the work.

I’ve written hour episodes (or two-parters) for MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER. And here’s what I’ve learned: They turn out to be 45 minutes worth of story and fifteen minutes of filler. The stories are generally too long to tell in a half hour, not long enough to sustain a full hour.

The “Goodbye Radar” episode could have easily been a half hour. But CBS wanted to make a big “Sweeps” event out of it so we had to concoct this whole generator-going-out business, which did nothing to improve the show.

Often times episodes don’t start out as hours (or two-parters) but the first drafts come in so overloaded with story that you decide to expand them. And then you find it doesn’t expand enough. So you toss in a B-story and just keep going.

Sitcoms have their own rhythm and method of storytelling. Again, to use MASH as an example, we would normally tell two or three stories and pack each scene with as many jokes and quips as we could – to the point where we would often think it’s silly. Radar would enter the Swamp and Hawkeye would have to have a smart remark. I used to say, “What if, just once, and I know this is daring, he just said HELLO?! Y’know, like a normal human being?!” We got away with it in the half hour format but when we stretched the show to an hour the stylistic seams really started showing, and it felt like overkill.

But at the end of the day, these are writing issues and if you expressed them to the network they would laugh. Longer episodes mean more commercial time to sell, something special to promote, and one less half hour of a show that isn’t as popular. And for your series finale they want two hours. They just never realize that by forcing you to do hours along the way they hasten that finale by two or three years.

36 comments:

Mark P said...

60 minutes is too much, 30 minutes is not enough, but those occasional 40-minute 'super-sized' time slots that the Office got last year seemed to be just about perfect. Once Scrubs is off the air, NBC should seriously consider not replacing it in the 9:30-10 block and just make Office, 30 Rock and Earl 40 minutes each. I think the creative teams behind those shows have the talent behind and in front of the camera to do it.

Gail Renard said...

I agree with Ken that 30 minutes is the perfect sit com format. The moment you go overtime, you're into something else which could well be the series' tipping point. Ricky Gervais ended his British series of The Office with a two part Xmas special, totalling 90 odd minutes... and remember, the BBC has no commercial breaks. It was so good, it was a benediction to Gervais's viewers. But In Britain, we have a tradition of hour or 90 minute Xmas specials of our favourite sit coms, like Only Fools And Horses, etc. In fact, call us sad, but it's the highlight of many British families' Xmas... aside from the Queen's Speech, of course!

Diogo said...

Perhaps the one bad episode of Frasier is an hour one, called "three dates and a breakup" from the 4th season, which comprises essentially the same gag over and over. Frasier throws a party, and, by some miracle of miracles manages to get 3 dates for a 3 day weekend. so far so good. the problem stars where, a third of the way through the show we get the "how I lost her" scene, 3 times. True, it was funny in parts, but, at the end of the second one going haywire, you know the 3rd one is gonna go even worse. to Watch a man loose a date in a funny fashion is great, to watch loose 3 in a row it's just sad. Perhaps they could have made it so it didn't feel like a repetition, by changing the place of the date for example.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Half an hour may be the perfect format for sitcom, but the genre as a whole lost something when they downsized that half hour to 21 minutes. The cut-off point for me was 22.5 minutes. Any shorter and the stories suffer. Case in point: I went to a wednesday runthrough and a friday taping of the show The Class last year. Although the show benefitted from some rewriting, especially in replacing a scene that was to short to carry it's emotional weight with a more superficial, but better suited one. But other scenes had single lines scrapped here and ther to speed things up - and they completely lost any sense of reality they had. A certain amount of redundancy is needed.

By the way, those 40 minute specials are terrible for us foreign viewers. Will & Grace used to do them and the broadcaster here just cut off the episode after 30 minutes. They had no time slot for that sort of nonsense, certainly not in a daily rerun rythm.

Mef said...

i agree with the thrust of your post, but i thought they pulled off that last hour really well.

mark

ShaWn said...

you spoke to late ken!
it is back to half hour format

:)

estiv said...

Best example of sitcom overkill in my memory: the two-and-a-half-hour series finale of MASH. I remember reading that the odd length (not two hours and not three hours) was determined by the number of commercials that CBS had been able to sell for the big event. Not the best thing for the creative juices. And as tempting as it must have been to end the series with the end of the war, maybe it should have been more like the end of Frasier: making it clear that we the audience would not see the end of the saga, but would just watch the characters continue to slog until they were out of our view.

Van said...

Bad news: The first half hour episode of the season wasn't especially funny or interesting.

Is it the network executives' fault that the writers haven't figured out a good central plot for this season?

Diogo said...

that might be true about the MASH finale being too long, but, the fact is, it remains the single most watched episode of television to this day, so they might have a counter-argument there. See, I think in a finale special occasion it is needed, what I don't like is when they leave you hanging on a cliff hanger for a week, just for the sake of it (usually during sweeps) or, God Forbid, a whole summer of waiting. I don't mind the large finales, because, well that's a special occasion, that counts even more if the show has been around a while (like MASH, Cheers, or Frasier). but to have to wait 4 months to see if someone stays together, or if something good or horrible happens to someone else, that's cruel. I think "Soap" used and abused of these. every stinking episode was a cliffhanger, and every single year they did a "summer cliffhanger". Cheers also did these, specially in the Diane years. I think of the most famous comedies MASH had like 6 one hour shows (not bad, if you consider there were 250 of those) and Frasier had something like 10, and both of them didn't use the "summer cliffhanger". Not bad performances in that regard

Max Clarke said...

There was an interview Jeff Goldsmith of Creative Screenwriting did with the lead writer or show runner for The Office, and you could hear behind his polite endorsement of one-hour episodes it wasn't their idea. He told Jeff it was tough doing four one-hours, the equivalent of a couple months in shows done at once. Clearly, they would have stuck with 30 minutes.

There's also the issue of viewer attention habits. I expect an episode of The Office to last half an hour, I have a feel for the pace and rhythm of the show. Even if the hour show is good, it will feel as if something is off.

Tommy Williams said...

I have been reading your blog for a few months now and I enjoy your writing (I'm still reading, after all) but I am discovering that my opinion of TV shows is different than yours.

I loved the hour-long episodes of the Office. Towards the end of last season, the show felt stilted or just floating in the doldrums a bit to me but the hour-long episodes that started this season let them expand the characters and build some real richness into the story. I was disappointed when last night's episode was just thirty minutes: I laughed and enjoyed it, but it seemed diminished.

If I am rational about it, this tells me that I don't understand TV very well (see Scott Adams's post "Gifted or Defective": http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/09/gifted-or-defec.html).

But humans are rarely rational so I will continue to remember those hour-long episodes pleasantly *and* I will continue to read and enjoy your writing here.

alan said...

In the future, after we ditch cable networks and go to a cheaper version of the iTunes format, tv shows will be as long or short as they need to be. Viva La Revolucion.

Schottzie03 said...

I haven't timed the episodes out...but I have a feeling they were more like "Super-super-sized" rather than an hour...if that makes much difference.

Seems like they filled a goodly portion of the time with NBC promos and those Seinfeld Bee things.

I believe they have more hour long episodes coming up, plus a record number of weeks of new shows. Gotta wonder if the end result will be the same number of great episodes as last season, with the rest being mediocre.

Schottzie03 said...

"In the future, after we ditch cable networks and go to a cheaper version of the iTunes format, tv shows will be as long or short as they need to be. Viva La Revolucion"

Like the half hour version of shows being broadcast on TV, and supersized, any-sized, any-length versions on the web/dvds.

jbryant said...

Well, I disagree with van. I thought last night's half hour was excellent, with many classic lines and nice, warm (if unlikely) ending. And I disagree with tommy, too. The hour-longs felt padded, and I simply didn't laugh as much either. If NBC wanted an hour of The Office (presumably because they didn't have a solid new half hour series ready for air) why didn't they just let the producers make self-contained half-hours as usual and show 2 of them back-to-back? It might still have been too much of a good thing, but at least it wouldn't have had that padded feeling.

Mark P said...

Diogo, that Frasier episode you cited is one of my favourites of the whole series, so don't think of shaving even a second off! The scene where Frasier has his apartment prepared (music on, lights dimmed, wine chilled) and he smugly says, "I could teach a course" is still one of the best little character moments Kelsey G. ever did.

TSW said...

I agree with Ken -- hour-long episodes of The Office were getting painful to watch. I was seriously considering not watching it anymore.

I don't think it's necessarily a sitcom constraint (though it might be). In the case of The Office, much of the humor is gained from Michael humiliating himself. 30-40 minutes seems about the right length for that. In the hour-longs, (for me) it just became painful to watch.

Diogo said...

They have more episodes and hour long episodes because, NBC ordered extra scripts from some of its comedies, like "the office" and "My Name Is Earl", to try and gain some leverage in the ratings battle. Interstingly enough, ER (yes, that one) won its time slot last Thursday. It looks like we might see season 15. Talk about beating dogs to death. both ER and Law and Order will probably outlive us all.

Tim W. said...

One of my problems with sitcoms that are expanded into hour episodes is they usually end up being more drama than comedy. It's as if television writers are so programmed to write half hour comedies and hour long dramas that when a half hour comedy is expanded into an hour, the drama reflex kicks in and a serious issue has to creep in.

Anonymous said...

First rule of showbiz: Always leave 'em wanting more.

b

Will Teullive said...

The Office espisode where Jim and Pam spent the night at the Schrute B&B was really good. It was a hour episode, but it didn't drag at all.

Mose Schrute may be the most frightening character on primetime network TV since Leno hosted the Emmy's back in the 90's.

The worst part of the one hour episodes are the non-stop barrage of those unfunny Seinfeld shorts for his upcoming bee movie.

I won't be at the theater unless I find out Larry David is the co-creator.

Adam said...

Your comments are interesting, Ken, since in my radio days I always found 45 seconds to be the optimal length for spots and promos.

Actually, 15-seconds worked well, too, because by the time you've hammered it down that far, it's usually a lean, focussed bit of radio.

For some reason the 30's and 60's never worked for me, always feeling rushed or padded.

Someone should do a study on this. :-)

Anonymous said...

Whatever shut up. An hour is just fine. Some people just like to find something wrong with everything.

Jim E. Ceb said...

The one episode that really seemed to fit the hour-long format was "Money"; it was a slower-paced, somewhat downbeat episode. It was the exception that proved the rule. I agree that the show really benefits from the supersized episodes, though.

Mike said...

Ken, I'm glad you mentioned the "Goodbye, Radar" episode, because I've always been curious about something:
Radar is a completely different character in that episode.

He's ten times more assertive than he ever was before; he accepts authority readily, without humility. The other characters are waiting for him to show up not just because they miss him, but because everyone is unable to do the smallest task without Radar there.

I wonder if there was some behind-the-scenes reason that Radar had to be written that way for that episode.
(Don't take this as a criticism of your writing, Ken. You've written a large number of my favorite TV episodes ever.)

Anonymous said...

I thought the season opener of TO was hysterical. I couldn't believe how the writers could sustain (what's the true running time? 45 min) that much hilarity but they pulled it off in spades.

The Crutnacker said...

Okay, let's get to the thing that really pisses me off. The 40 minute shows and the "begins at 8:31 and ends at 9:02" shows that screw up any attempt to TIVO multiple shows on other networks.

That's why I have two TIVOs.

EditThis said...

I usually work on hour long shows, and every time we've done a two-hour, it's because the network asked for it. It always turns into an hour of programming stretched across two hours. Yawn.

Dhppy said...

Slate.com recently posted an article about how The Office is experiencing its first bad season. I have to say, I'm not seeing it. While I don't think any of the shows this season have been as good as their best episodes, I still think the hour longs have been fairly strong.

And I say this as, seemingly, the only person who thought The Sopranos got boring.

SK said...

Green Wing: hour-long (well, actually not a proper hour, only about forty-five minutes 'cause there's ad breaks on Channel 4) sit-com/sketch show hybrid, which had an even longer Christmas special as the final episode. And it worked.

'Course it was conceived that way form the start, whihc probably helped, rather than being designed to do half-hours (or whatever that works out to on a channel with ads) and then extended.

Jonathan Potts said...

In fairness to "Soap", it was supposed to be spoofing soap operas, after all, which are famous for cliffhangers. The problem was that the show made people care about the characters in their own right, which made the cliffhangers so frustrating.

miles_underground said...

I guess the BBC has more freedom in that it doesn't have to sell ad time, but there's something enlightened about letting a sitcom clock in at 28 minutes one week, and 35 minutes the next. Almost like the story its trying to tell is more important than the block of time it's supposed to fill.

Of course, I've never heard of one rich British tv writer, so screw the limeys.

rob! said...

i dunno, ive really been enjoying the Office--as i have every season previously. to me, More Office = Better.

Hell, if I ran NBC i'd finally take ER behind the barn and shoot it and make Earl, The Office, and 30 Rock and hour long each!

Plus, ive found that the Office eps have been broken in a way that they can be repeated as 1/2 hrs and they'll work just fine as (semi) complete stories.

Slightly OT: one thing i dearly, dearly hope the Office doesnt do--break up Pam and Jim, EVER. Krasinski and Fischer have such a wonderfully warm chemistry now i find it a total joy to watch, and i dont want to see the crack staff at the Office turn it into the tired "get together/break up/get together/break up" formula that nearly every show has fallen into(Friends, i'm looking in your direction).

i dont think, judging by the commenrtary tracks on the dvds, that they ever intended the show to be "about" Whither Pam and Jim, so now that they've solved it i hope they dont think they need to keep it going for the remainder of the series.

there are LOTS of interesting long-term storylines inherent in the show, so i hope they mine them and just let Pam and Jim be a happy couple in perpetuity.

...i've obviously thought a lot about this.

Anonymous said...

I personally felt that the recent return to the well-known half hour format marked the return of the Office. The one hour attempts at comedic genius fell short. At least once we had regained the 20 minute portrayl, it seems as if the writers now know what to do with themselves.

The one-hour episodes are simply too much of a strugle, and probably a foreign concept to the writers of the show.

Kid Shay said...

Hey Ken, thanks for writing this blog. I like hearing the thoughts of a comedy writer (vs an actor or director).

I really enjoy the longer episodes of The Office. Especially since half an hour really means 20 minutes, and an hour really means 41 or 42 minutes. I usually watch it on DVD anyway, and the deleted scenes extend the length of a given episode by about 10 minutes.

Maybe if I were watching TV "as nature intended" I would feel differently about the pacing, but given the freedom to come back later and finish an episode I'll take more jokes & story every time.

This also applies to longer movies. Anything longer than 2 hours in a theater and I feel fatigued. But at home, bring on the 4 hour director's cut.

Walt Porter said...

I'd have to disagree with you on that one. I think the fluff of television shows are the most enjoyable parts of the show. Longer episodes just means I get to enjoy the office that much longer. I'd watch that shit forever. You have no idea what you're talking about.