It’s pretty common, in this age of “peak TV,” to discuss prestige dramas in cinematic terms: a 10-hour movie, a 12-hour movie, etc. The implication of these labels is that their stories unfold over entire seasons, rather than in the “anthology” style of older dramas and sitcoms, in which a story takes 22 or 42 minutes (you know, after commercials), and then everything returns to the status quo the next week, with very little indication that our heroes even remember what’s already happened.
But the “12-hour movie” label also effaces the episode as a unit of narrative, implying that the five-act structure of a television episode is less satisfying than 12-hours of...stuff. As the pushback to this attitude indicates, episodic storytelling is still useful, and still, I would argue, the norm: I'm hard-pressed to think of an epsiode of Mad Men, or even Game of Thrones, that doesn't develop themes and present narrative arcs (or several, parallel arcs) that come to some sort of end as the credits roll. Yes, things build, and stories continue, but individual episodes are generally still valid as units of narrative.
One thing I’ve found very interesting about internet TV shows is their variable length. (We can include HBO in this as well, since they don't worry about commercials). Most episodes of House of Cards, for example -- one of the earliest major internet shows -- stay close to the traditional length, albeit with a few extra minutes. Episodes average 47 to 53 minutes long, with season premieres and finales occasionally running a full hour. Game of Thrones varies a bit more, with episodes running between 52 and 70 minutes (and a whopping 92 minutes for the finale of the seventh and most recent season). I sort of like this variability: it lets a show "breathe" in a natural way across an entire season: some episodes are short, some need a bit more space. Small-to-medium arcs can arise and resolve themselves within the larger structure, taking a bit more time when necessary, and shorter, more self-contained episodes can break up the flow. I confess, however, that even I don't always notice the structure of episodes: when I was binge-watching the first six seasons of Game of Thrones over the summer or 2016, for example, I stopped and started whenever it was convenient, paying little to no attention to where individual episodes began or ended -- it was an undifferentiated flow that I dipped into at the gym, or when I had a spare fifteen minutes to kill.
Which brings me to Longmire. Longmire is a police procedural about a sheriff and his small team of deputies in a fictional Wyoming county. It's one of those shows that Netflix rescued from cancellation. The sixth and final season came out last fall, and we've been watching it this week. It's a ten-episode season, and the thing I've noticed is that they're all about 65-70 minutes long, yet they tend to adhere to an absolutely old-school procedural structure. It's not all case-of-the-week stuff, there are long-term arcs. But they seem to be highly compartmentalized. The show left itself with several long-running threads to tie up, but it seems as if the producers decided to do so by devoting one mega-episode to each. The crazy survivalist who's been a thorn in Longmire's side gets one mega episode; a civil suit against the sheriff gets another. A cursory look at the episode list tells me that most of the same people are still involved, and the writing/directing duties are no more or less evenly distributed than in other seasons. Maybe some of this is just the liquidation process that happens when the writers know it's the last season, but I've found the effects interesting. The consistent use of 65-70 minute episodes in a police procedural (that is, longer than standard, but still much shorter than the "feature length" 90-120 minutes found in a series like Sherlock, for example) seems to carve out some kind of new territory, in which the undifferentiated, multi-season momentum of binge-watching collides with the conventions of episodic storytelling. I've found myself checking my watch more often than usual, not because the show is boring, but because conventional markers of timing don't seem to apply. I've sometimes wondered aloud to my wife, "has this all been one episode?" because they feel so long.
I'm not sure this observation is particularly deep, but I wonder about the way in which formal/narrative structures collide with the practical constraints of episode length, production schedules, etc. I wonder if this might reflect some new era of post-broadcast TV production: not the "breathing" sense of variable episode length found in many online/premium cable shows, but some new standard of episode length. In the case of Longmire, I'm not sure this is always entirely successful -- but at least it's interesting.
[As a postscript: perhaps I'm just being too conscious of the timing of my entertainment these days, since the other recent time I checked my watch was during the last reel or two of The Last Jedi. Not because I was bored -- anything but -- but because I knew how long the movie was, and couldn't imagine how things would possibly be tied up in only 15 minutes or so - particularly once Luke showed up. Maybe the solution is simply not to pay attention to how long a show or movie is, at all, in order to stop this sort of meta-framing from intruding...]