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How ‘Format Creep’ Became a Hallmark of Peak TV

Ongoing series that should be limited, limited series that should be movies... it's a golden age of misformatted TV.
  • Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in the series finale of Killing Eve. (Photo: David Emery/BBCA)
    Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in the series finale of Killing Eve. (Photo: David Emery/BBCA)

    That ths month's series finale of Killing Eve was poorly received wasn't exactly a surprise. Most viewers seem to agree that the show had been on a steady decline ever since its highly acclaimed debut season. Even still, Killing Eve managed to disappoint fans and critics in a particularly acute way, with the Twitter/Tumblr hordes raising holy hell about how the show did their star-crossed lesbian lovers dirty, while critics lined up to decry the show's shoddy and cliched wrap-up. Variety called it a "total betrayal". Vulture deemed it cruel.

    And a chorus of people posited (again) that the show should have just closed up shop after Phoebe Waller-Bridge left at the end of the first season. This is something we've been saying for years, of course, every time a rapturously received first season curdles into a disappointing or outright hated final run.

    But now that we live in an age where there' s truly no standard length or format of a television series, it's even more tempting to mentally tinker with the presentation of shows and imagine them in more ideal formats. Killing Eve should not have gone on for four seasons, that much is clear. The same could be said of HBO's Big Little Lies, which was intended to be a one-and-done seven-episode limited series before market forces dictated a second season.

    Today we're inundated with multiple seasons of shows that should have wrapped up in six episodes. But that's not where the format creep stops. We're also in a golden age of eight-episode limited series that should almost certainly have been movies instead. This makes sense, given that television is pretty much the only place where mid-budget stories about adults without superpowers are being told these days, but it often adds up to bloated series that are 6-10 hours longer than they should be.

    Step back and take a look at the TV shows of the last several years and you'll see dozens of shows that probably should have existed in a different format. Here are a few of the more prominent examples:

    Ongoing Series That Should've Been Limited

    They may have set the modern standard for shows in this category, but Killing Eve and Big Little Lies aren't the only series that failed to hold onto the delicate mix of tones that made their first seasons so much fun.

    The Flight Attendant currently sits on the precipice of whether a show with an exciting but limited premise — a mysterious dead body in the main character's bed — can stretch what sure felt like a one-season premise into an ongoing dramedy. Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy, who has made a career out of mastering the one-season closed-loop story on shows like American Horror Story and Feud, is set to return with a second season of Ratched, although lord knows where this One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest prequel could possibly go after its bugnuts first season.

    Another upside of going with a limited series instead of an ongoing series is that you save yourself the embarrassment of getting canceled after your first season. Lovecraft Country could have been an Emmy-nominated series that burned fascinatingly for a short period of time and left on its own accord instead of now being branded as a show that didn't catch on.

    Limited Series That Should've Been a Movie

    Again, it's the economics of a blockbuster-driven film industry that's seen a lot of tidy feature-length stories become padded out limited series. Still, facts are facts. Netflix's Anatomy of a Scandal might not have been good either way, but it would have stood a better chance as a lean and mean movie. Similarly, Inventing Anna went seriously wayward trying to be too many kinds of shows at once, while as a movie it would have had to pick a lane and go with it. Ben Stiller's Escape at Dannemora earned a bunch of awards attention, especially for Patricia Arquette, but the strain of trying to tell this story across the expanse of a TV season was felt heavily.

    It's not just narrative bloat that makes us wish some of these TV shows were movies. Features are far better equipped to keep viewers in a highly stylized headspace, which is why a show like Netflix's Maniac might have dazzled as a head-trippy movie instead of as a meandering series. Perhaps FX's Legion was too much story for a single movie, but it could have worked over the course of a trilogy.

    The same could be said of several of the Marvel series on Disney+, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the most obvious candidate for "shoulda been a movie" considering how straightforward a story it was and how unnecessarily long it took to get to the bloody point.

    Limited Series That Should've Been Ongoing

    This one's a trickier argument to make, mostly because it takes us down the same path that led HBO to extend Big Little Lies. "It was so good! Why not more of it?" Still, in the case of a show like Watchmen, which established such a fascinating universe with a world of side characters and cataclysms to come, it's easy to envision a second season that could stand on its own. There was still meat on that bone.

    Meat on the bone isn't exactly the issue with The Circle, Netflix's isolated-living reality show. The issue is that The Circle speeds through to its conclusion, when in reality, Netflix could (and should!) just keep funneling new cast members into the game indefinitely. Install prize distribution at certain mile markers so that you're not forcing the contestants to chase monetary rewards forever like some kind of dystopian Running Man, but keep the game going! This show could be a hybrid between Big Brother and Days of Our Lives, cycling in new cast members forever.

    Back to the MCU and Disney+, with Moon Knight being the show least tethered to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, why artificially truncate its existence after just one season? Loki and Wanda have to do that so the movies can eventually cycle them or their story developments into Phase 4 (or whatever). But Moon Knight could keep Moon Knighting for years without anyone feeling the lack of Thor or Nick Fury in the proceedings. Let Oscar Isaac really explore the space! Similarly, with Kate Bishop not having a movie franchise to funnel into at this point, why not bring Hawkeye back for a second season with Kate as the sole superhero at its center.

    The Exceptions

    There's an asterisk to all of these, which seems to boil down to: if the show is good enough, it can get away with being in the "wrong" format. A lot of people seem to have wanted Apple TV+'s Severance to have wrapped up after just one season, but it did such a good job with world-building and suspense that a second season will be more than welcome. Yellowjackets could have easily been a kick-ass movie, but things are going so well as an ongoing TV series that we're letting it slide. The White Lotus wants to come back as a quasi-anthology series? Let's see how it goes! Only Murders in the Building wants to unpack a second murder? Heck yeah! Russian Doll wants to take a second trip through time? What a concept! But if anyone so much whispers a hint of Mare of Easttown Season 2, we are shutting that crap down so fast.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Killing Eve, Big Little Lies, The Circle, Escape at Dannemora, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, The Flight Attendant, Hawkeye, Inventing Anna, Lovecraft Country, Maniac, Moon Knight, Ratched, Watchmen