The Rise of the Half-Hour Television Series in the Era of TV Auteurism

Jeffrey Tambor in 'Transparent'
Jeffrey Tambor in ‘Transparent’

Ever since The Sopranos premiered on HBO in 1999, the hour long cable drama series became synonymous with the new golden age of television. A plethora of scholars, critics, and fans began to pay attention to television, and as a result, shows like The SopranosThe WireMad Men, and Breaking Bad were valued as great works of art. For the first time since its invention, television surpassed film in its ability to produce sophisticated narrative fiction with complex characters, innovative plots, and high production values, and audiences around the world were paying attention.

15 years have passed since The Sopranos made its impact, and much has changed in the world of television. Most significantly, the male anti-hero, as described in Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and the Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, has become a tired cliche, as evidenced by the lukewarm response to shows like Low Winter Sun and Luck. It’s fair to say that the first wave of the hour long cable drama series crashed with the conclusion of Breaking Bad in 2013, and although some series with male anti-heroes still linger in the undertow (most notably House of Cards and Rectify), a second wave of television programming is on the rise. This new wave has reinforced the relevance of the half-hour television series, which air on cable networks like FX and HBO, and streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Crackle. These shows are artistically and culturally significant, and challenge the commonly held misconception that the hour long drama series is more sophisticated.

Like the hour long drama series that came before, the contemporary half-hour series is the product of what some critics have called the “TV auteur.” TV auteur theory is inspired by François Truffaut’s “la politique des Auteurs,” which was subsequently expanded upon by Andrew Sarris in 1962 and given the more common term “auteur theory.” Auteur theory, according to Sarris in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” is rooted in the belief that the director is the author of the film, and that “the way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels” (516).

The TV auteur can be understood similarly, and it is used to refer to showrunners like David Chase, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan, who control the content of their shows and express a grand artistic vision. There’s an underlying implication that TV auteurs are more important than, say, the creators of generic sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, and that their work demands more critical reflection in the culture.

TV auteurs have traditionally been associated with the hour long drama series like The Sopranos and The Wire, and with the exception of a few individuals like Norman Mailer, Jerry Seinfeld, and Garry Shandling, the half-hour comedy series has not been celebrated for its artistic merits. We watch Friends not because it is a challenging work of television, but because we relate to the characters. And while it is certainly acceptable to relate to the characters in shows by TV auteurs, something more significant is being presented to us. Shows by TV auteurs are defined by their willingness to deviate from narrative and stylistic conventions, and they ultimately strive to be more than mere entertainment.

The Sopranos, for instance, is considered the definitive work of TV auteurism, and it is easy to comprehend why. Not only are the show’s production values significantly more sophisticated than most network television shows (and indeed, most films), its challenging narrative defies the conventions of TV storytelling. For example, the series is littered with dream sequences, alternate narratives, unresolved subplots, and characters that disappear without warning. Unlike network crime shows like Law & Order, Chase tells a continuing story that unfolds over the course of six seasons, but he has the audacity to experiment and produce some episodes like “The Test Dream” that have nothing to do with the show’s overarching narrative and more to do with probing into the main character’s mental state. Consider this scene, in which strange things happen to Tony (James Gandolfini). Chase was devoted to his artistic vision until the very end, when the now iconic series finale concluded ambiguously with an abrupt cut to black. This ambiguity is a central component to the series, and what made it so unique and revolutionary.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

In addition to these formal and stylistic deviations, the series addressed serious themes like the decline of the American family and the disillusionment with the American dream, all of which confirms that The Sopranos intended to educate and enlighten as well as entertain. We laughed, we cried, and we shrieked in horror, but we also thought about what it all meant and why it mattered. This, precisely, is what separates generic TV from auteurist TV.

If 2014 has taught us anything, it is that the half-hour television series has rightly earned its TV auteur status, and that it remains as vital as the many hour long drama series that signified the new golden age of television.

The most innovative half hour series is FX’s Louie, which is written and directed by comedian Louis C.K., who also plays a fictional version of himself in the lead role. I’ve written about this show in the past, and continue to be blown away by its originality. It is well documented that C.K. has complete creative control, and the ways he defies narrative and stylistic conventions solidify his auteur status.

Like Chase, C.K. incorporates fantastical sequences into his show, including a beautiful and funny bit in the episode “Elevator Part 1” where his daughter and girlfriend play violin together. It’s a bold, bewildering moment, and it demonstrates the risks C.K. is willing to take in order to express his artistic vision.

Louie has dismantled the sitcom paradigm, and has shown that the half-hour format can provide humor and pathos. Unlike sitcoms, which exist to make the audience laugh, half-hour comedy series like Louie experiment with different genres. One scene, in particular, takes place on a subway, and plays like a short horror film. It is completely devoid of humor, and demonstrates C.K.’s unconventional approach to television storytelling. Louie can shift from horror to hilarity and back again in the blink of an eye.

Similarly, HBO’s Girls is written and directed by its lead star, Lena Dunham, who continues to push the boundaries of what is acceptable on television. Girls is one of the most perceptive series on television. Dunham accurately depicts what it is like to be a twenty-something New Yorker in the digital era. Unlike Sex and the City, which glamorizes New York and unrealistically suggests that columnists like Carrie Bradshaw could comfortably afford an apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, Girls finds its characters struggling to pay the bills in Brooklyn. A number of snarky critics have dismissed the series as an obnoxious ode to hipsterdom, but such complaints overlook Dunham’s artistic intentions.

Lena Dunham, Creator and Star of 'Girls'
Lena Dunham, Creator and Star of ‘Girls’

The point of Girls is to portray a generation of narcissists that came of age with the Internet, George W. Bush, and a you-go-girl, DIY cultural mentality. The characters are not supposed to be “likable,” but they are human and Dunham wisely refuses to judge. Hannah Horvath and her friends have spent their entire lives in comfortable bourgeois complacency, and they are unable to navigate a world in which things will not always go their way. First-world problems, to be sure, but narrative fiction has always taught us that all human beings suffer, regardless of status.

Like C.K., Dunham blends comedy with drama, and her show is at once outrageously funny and disturbingly sad, often in the same scene. Consider, for example, the highly debated sex scene between Adam (Adam Driver) and Natalia (Shiri Appleby) in Season Two’s “On All Fours.” Some critics have called it rape, much like they did in a more recent episode of Louie, but I believe that Dunham is after something a little more nuanced and complicated. For many young men and women, the line between consent and refusal is often muddled, and it is difficult to discern what, precisely, the opposite sex wants. Rather than comment on a rape culture, Dunham uses this scene to make a point about the characters’ inability to communicate with one another in the social media age.

Girls is often cited for pushing the boundaries with its graphic sex scenes, but more confrontational is Dunham’s willingness to place her characters in difficult emotional situations. Her series is raw to the bone, and many audiences are turned off because they cannot deal with its unfiltered authenticity. There’s one scene from the episode “Beach House” in which the girls finally call out each other’s flaws, and it is incredibly powerful and realistic to the point where it is almost unwatchable. It’s harrowing television, to be sure, but the cruelty is unbearable. I cannot help but wonder if Dunham wrote this scene in response to the critics of her show, as if to incorporate all of the negative complaints about her characters in a way that serves the narrative and makes the audience realize that the point from the beginning was to follow unlikable people.

Those who have seen Dunham’s early films, particularly Tiny Furniture (2010), will notice that she brings this sensibility to Girls. That a 28 year-old woman would have creative control over a television series on HBO is an achievement by any standard, but Dunham has dominated the cultural conversation because the series is consistently excellent.

More recently, streaming services have allowed TV auteurs to express their vision. Amazon, for example, has produced Jill Soloway’s Transparent, the best television series of 2014. Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a transgender individual who has lived her life as a man, married, had children, and finally decides to come out as a woman in late middle-age. Soloway and Amazon deserve credit for telling a story about those within the transgender community, but that would hardly matter if the show weren’t any good. Transparent matters precisely because it is a masterful family melodrama that interrogates notions of identity and the self.

Crackle, as well, has reinvented television with Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, a talk show that deviates from the form by allowing Seinfeld and his guests to chat in cars. Seinfeld’s guests are not there to promote a product, and the show instead is an excuse for Seinfeld and guests like Chris Rock, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman to discuss the craft of comedy. Episodes vary in length, and although it is easy to classify the series as the ultimate show about nothing, Seinfeld’s musings make it more interesting than the generic late night talk shows on network television. Even the way Seinfeld incorporates product placement is creative. Rather than render it invisible, he calls attention to it in a comic manner, and has turned it into a running gag that viewers anticipate.

Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David in 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee'
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David in ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’

The series that I have discussed above do not by any means cover the entire spectrum. In addition, there are Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride’s Eastbound & Down, Ricky Gervais’ The Office, Extras, and Derek, Armando Iannucci’s Veep, Mike White and Laura Dern’s Enlightened, Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback, and Michael Lannan’s Looking, among others.

Some of these shows are no longer on the air, and others have just begun. The point, to put it plainly, is that the half-hour television series has established itself as an artistic platform for auteurs interested in creating challenging narrative fiction. In 2014, the half-hour series has surpassed the hour-long drama in artistry, originality, and quality, and it remains the reason why television continues to be culturally significant.

Featured image source: Ruvena Fanador.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. Klinger

    One of the great things about half-hours is that there’s no room for a C-plot, no “Wesley meets a girl” / “Quark learns to golf” deadweight that comes from too much time and too much cast. With 22 minutes, there is literally not a moment to spare, so the form is tighter, faster, and often more fun.

    • Boy, is this ever right on the money. Even the best hour-long shows tend to be padded and anyone who has watched the one-hour Twilight Zone or Hitchcock episodes understands how diluted they were compared to the half-hour classics.

  2. These half hours, no matter how good or deep (like Louie or Girls), I’m banging out while I’m eating dinner or folding laundry or something, while the hour-lengths are an EVENT. You’re settling into a world for an hour, whereas with the half hours, it never feels much more than a nice time filler.

    • Weinman

      I think if there’s more experimentation going on in half-hours it’s not really saying all that much for half-hours, which are pretty formula-ridden these days, with a few exceptions. (For example nearly all broadcast half-hours are locked into the formula where you have multiple plots per episode and you have a lesson at the end. This was not true as recently as the ’90s.) But most dramas that aren’t procedurals are locked into serialized formats, which leaves very little room for really experimental episodes – if you’re always picking up the thread of what happened last week, it’s hard (not impossible, but hard) to go out on a formal limb. LOUIE can experiment with form more than a drama because it doesn’t have “previously on”-s, but if a drama comes along with the X-FILES kind of freedom to do true standalone episodes, then that kind of freewheeling experimentation and individual writer voices could come back.

    • I think half-hours are more portable, because most of them are still only loosely serialized. Thus you can pull out a particularly fine joke and reference it over and over again, and quickly show curious people why they should be watching. Whereas most of the best moments of Game Of Thrones or Justified (or even Sons of Anarchy) are generally the culmination of a lot of serialized backstory, without which the supposedly “indelible cultural moments” that today’s dramas aim for lose a lot of their impact.

      A sitcom isn’t generally going to be able to hit a grand slam because it doesn’t have the time to do all the laborious work of getting men on base first (Arrested Development being the counter-example here). But a show like 30 Rock that can be relied upon to deliver a single each and every week is arguably accomplishing more than a show like Lost, where a bad episode or two (especially at the end) puts the whole enterprise’s legacy in jeopardy.

      • Nice baseball analogy. I guess what I was getting at was that the half-hours could never replace the hour longs for that exact reason. If the culture of tv is cyclical, as Todd says, I am certainly not looking forward to a time period where the hour longs are boring and derivative and the half hours are mind blowing. It just won’t be the same.

  3. And we also have the “15” minute shows that are coming along very strongly as well, especially on Adult Swim.

    • Punky Brewster was a 15 minute show, and arguably the greatest show ever produced ever in the history of television.

  4. Arthur Tatum

    “Louie” was my favorite show of the year. I think comedies can take more risks when it comes to structure and narrative. You can be anything with comedy. Dramas will always have pressure and standards to live up to, and are harder to break new ground at this point in the history of the medium. That’s why comedy feels more vital right now.

    • My favourite Louie episode (maybe ever) was “Daddy’s Girlfriend Part II”. The direction and cinematography was fucking gorgeous and the writing was so goddamn sharp.

  5. Much like the “British shows do it better with shorter seasons” argument, I’d say many hour-long dramas would improve drastically if they became half-hour shows. The best candidate would be (the now departed) Dexter. No more wasting time with the rest of the retarded station and more focus on the main plotlines.

    • Richard

      I think Mad Men is possibly the best at using its running time on TV. It’s so incredibly ambitious and is filled with so many quiet, reflective moments but never feels rushed.

    • sean b.

      On the flipside, there’s a couple shows I can think of that would benefit from Sherlock’s TV Movie seasons idea. Most prominent for me would be, oddly enough, Justified.

  6. Very prescient observation regarding the half hour. Just recently, I realized there has been a return of the half hour blocks where you can watch a few shows in a row (and then pass out on the couch, as in my case).

  7. Thanks to an unintentionally iPad-based viewing style, I watch gobs of anime, and of course all TV animation, east and west, is 22 minutes or shorter, regardless of genre (nod to the Adult Swim shows you alluded to). This year, I didn’t see a single episode more thrilling than the anime Madoka Magica’s big payoff episode, “I Won’t Rely On Anyone Anymore”, which manages to pack 5 runs through a Groundhog Day loop into an ultra-tight half-hour, with stealth protagonist Homura managing to screw up reality even worse every time through the loop, finally bringing things back to where episode 1 began from the title character’s point of view.

  8. ForeWorn

    Nice piece Jon.

    I kinda feel like comedy has to be the underdog in the game of television programming, at least a little bit, or else it kinda defeats the purpose. think about it: comedy is about poking fun at the conventional in some way. conventional expectation, conventional genres, conventional tropes and attitudes. if and when comedy is representative of the conventional rather than a reaction to it, then it ceases to be funny. maybe if one comedy film ever broke through to with the Best Picture Oscar it might be because it’s pretty funny, and the Academy felt they ought to recognize that fact. but if it became a regular occurrence, to the point that comedies started winning Oscars in proportion to the number of comedies made vs dramas, you can be certain that those would be bland, boring, laugh-free comedies that take zero risks, and pander to the tastes and attitudes of Academy voters. in terms of genre designation they would be comedy, but not functionally so.

    television is a medium that more than any other respects comedy. comedy has a place of prominence on television, both in the mainstream and in the critic’s hearts. that’s traditional to the medium. but in spite of a current wealth of wickedly funny subversive, experimental, and absurdist comedy on television, what usually wins? Modern Family. and perhaps that’s as it should be. because if, say, Archer typically walked away with an arm full of Emmy switchblades, what would that say about Archer? it would say that’s it’s not stepping outside the comfort zone of the viewing audience. and stepping outside that comfort zone is the source of the show’s humor, so if it’s not doing that, then it’s not really funny anymore.

    there’s a reason Louis is always so embarrassed everytime he wins: because on some level he sees it as an indication that maybe he’s doing something wrong. he’s not, of course. he’s just an outlier in getting respect for quality original comedy. that happens every so often. but if everyone who was pushing the envelope in television comedy started getting the respect they deserve, well then they clearly aren’t stepping on enough toes to earn that respect. suddenly the comedy world is nothing more than a roast, with the audience as the person being roasted. or just a bunch of razor blades stacked so close together that they form a flat surface; alone they can cut deep, but bunched together like that they’re safe.

  9. StephKocer

    It’s plain fact that comedy is harder to achieve than drama. And I’m a firm believer that it just takes one creative voice on a show to make the comedy work. I always come back to the example of “Arrested Development.” That show was so ahead of its time. If it was on a network like HBO today it would work. Its creator Mitch Hurwitz had that creative control you’re talking about and it made the show consistently funny. There’s something about the idea of one person or a group of people running a show that just makes sense. They will have a clear vision for what makes the show funny and what their characters would do in given situations. Half hour comedies are the perfect place to get creative with comedy.

    I think you make an excellent point here. I’m excited to see where TV is headed in the next couple of years as we move into this idea of comedy. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Again a great post! Insightful article on a TV phenomenon that continues to be very prominent with perceptive comments and a great writing style. I really like your work and will definitely follow your blog 🙂

  11. Shawana

    All this praise for the current half-hour format without a look back to television’s roots, when there were more of these? How about The Twilight Zone — which gets my vote for Best. Show. Ever. — an iconic example of the half-hour drama, though in an anthology format that is antithetical to today’s serialized dramas.

  12. Mickaey

    This re-vamping of half hour shows is hardly revolutionary.

  13. FranceFreedman

    My favorite 30 min series are:
    1. Louie
    2. Parks & Rec
    3. Gravity Falls
    4. Community
    5. Girls
    6. Archer
    7. Bob’s Burgers
    8. Veep

  14. jamezon

    I think it’s notable that we are also a lot more forgiving of cheap comedy than we are of cheap drama.

  15. The half-hour is making a resurgence and there a ton of good ones on right now, but they really don’t hold a candle to the hour-long dramas.

  16. Its interesting to think that at one point being on TV was a step down from a film star. I’m sure there are still people that believe that, but with such a sophisticated and well executed TV programming the line between film and TV isn’t so obvious anymore.

  17. TV shows are way better than movies nowadays.

    • Ty Isaac

      I think the whole “TV shows are better than movies these days” is based mostly on comparing today’s TV shows to most movies that come out of Hollywood. But of course at this point it’s gotten much easier to watch movies that aren’t manufactured by Hollywood, and so there’s no reason to make that comparison other than to lambast the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood, which has been quite obvious for awhile.

  18. This was a great year for 15 minutes, if you watch Adult Swim. I mean shows like Children’s Hospital.

  19. O.Harrell

    I wish there were more good half hour shows that interested me. I like to watch stuff during my lunch break, but hour long shows are way too long (even though I do get an hour for lunch). I blew through all 8 seasons of Curb that way, but now I need something else!

    • If you liked Curb and don’t mind British accents, try Peep Show.

  20. Your analysis of these shows was very thorough and interesting; it made me want to pay closer attention to the shows that I watch. I’m glad that half hour shows are starting to get the critical attention they deserve!

  21. Love this article! maybe there could be a little more about the ways in which transparent played around the 30m form and the streaming/binge-watching factor (30m episode or 5 hour film?) — similarly to louie’s most recent season and the episodes that came in 2 or more parts — also the piece about comedians in cars getting coffee seems a tad out of place here

  22. Nof

    This was a great article, and very interesting in the approach and perspective on the matter. I, personally, cannot stand watching shows that are longer than half hour because I can only sit in front of a screen for so long…

  23. LaurenCarr

    I have to agree with StephKocer, comedy is much harder to be successful at than drama. Now, comedy can exceed the limits it had during the Seinfeld era. With that said, what comedy has been as notable since Seinfeld?

    Great read, thank you!

  24. I have to say, this is quite the intuitive article. I really enjoyed it. Great read with an in depth look and what’s a better show to use as an example than The Soprano’s?

  25. Matt Phillips

    Great piece. You make a good argument for half-hour taking over––I wonder if that is a good or bad trend? In any case, the storytelling is superb. Transparent, I thought, was incredible. I’ve also found Looking to be quite interesting and dramatic in its own careful way.

    Another show to look at, I think, is the Duplass Bros’ HBO series, Togetherness. I’m wondering how the storylines will evolve, but so far I like it.

  26. Christina Cady

    Really interesting and insightful article! Another aspect to be explore that supports the idea of the raising artistry in half hour shows could be binge watching. At first it may seem counter intuitive that shorter shows follow the trend of binge watching but there is definitely an argument that these shorter stories are more digestible. It could be argued that because the storylines are more streamline they are more driven and the viewer is more compelled to watch more.

  27. It’s a result of shortened attention spans. People don’t always have time to watch hour-long shows and pay full attention, but a half-hour show can hold their attention well enough.

  28. I don’t disagree with the central thesis but I think that shows like The Closer and Major Crimes are more representative of these trends than Girls, et al. (The Sopranos is excluded from this).

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