After a long break, “Game of Thrones” will return to HBO in a few weeks for its final season. The first four episodes will clock in at 54, 58, 60 and 70 minutes, respectively. The final two are slated at 80 minutes each. “It’s a spectacle,” the chairman of HBO told Variety in January. “The guys have done six movies. The reaction I had while watching them was, ‘I’m watching a movie.’” The slight wrinkle in this compliment was that the guys in question — that is, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — had already said at a panel years before that they saw their series not as a television show, and not as a collection of movies, but rather as one grand 73-hour movie.
This sort of thinking has suddenly become very en vogue among the prestige TV creative class. Television that aspires to the long, cinematic and amorphous is now considered nothing less than a hallmark of genius. And freed from the traditional mindset of the medium, with the gates of cinema in sight, what’s to stop episodes of television from creeping slowly past the hour mark and toward 90-minute territory?
The appeal of the streaming age is that it has made obsolete the less savory constraints of television. A show no longer needs to be 22 or 45 minutes because there’s nothing necessarily scheduled to come before or after it; it exists in own space. Scripts and scenes don’t have to be timed for act breaks anymore because there are no ads. No advertisements means no advertisers, and thus no need for creators to hew to the plots and characters and premises that conventional wisdom dictates will win over the most viewers. In many ways, this is a good thing — without these developments, we don’t end up with “Orange is the New Black” or “Shrill” or “BoJack Horseman.” It is a kind of radical conceit: art for art’s sake. Art that doesn’t have to mold itself to network contours. Art made just because it can be made.
And artistic freedom is great, sure. But with great power comes great responsibility. For every Dalí painting there is an “Episode I: Phantom Menace.” For every Mahler symphony, a (shudder) montage set to “Fix You” by Coldplay on “The Newsroom.” Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. There is — believe it or not — value in constraint and discipline. Maybe in theory there are circumstances in which it’s appropriate for an episode to run 70 minutes long, but if “Mad Men” could lay bare the show’s central relationship in one utterly perfect 48-minute episode, if “The Good Place” can upend its entire plot and sprinkle in some eschatological ruminations in 22 minutes every week, I’m having a difficult time imagining what exactly those circumstances are.
There has always been a lot of handwringing in the art world about the relationship between content and form. Are they distinct elements? Is the message inextricable from the messenger? There are no easy answers here, except that when you’re making television, both of them are very important. Cable and streaming shows these days deal in profound ideas and metaphors, and when done well, they are moving and beautiful and impossible not to appreciate. But when the pacing is sluggish, when the scenes feel a slog, when you are angrily checking your watch and wondering why HBO spends so much money on CGI-ing dragons and not, say, on one editor, the profundity is all for naught. I love TV that challenges, that experiments and subverts. More importantly, though, I love TV that ends.