6:30am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Episode Time Limits and More TV Ballot Propositions for the Midterms
As you may have heard, today, Tuesday, is Election Day.
Seriously, stop reading this article and go vote.
We aren't just voting for the Senate and Congress and several governorships. As always, there are myriad propositions and ballot measures. In California, for example, we'll be voting on new standards for farm animal confinement, rent control and something confusing about kidney dialysis clinics that I badly need to research more.
However, it's really easy to get things onto the ballot in California and here are a few potential laws, restrictions and incentive programs associated with the TV industry that this TV critic wishes were on the ballot. I'm not sure if I'd vote "Yes" on all of them, but these are conversations we need to be having.
So first: Go out and vote!
Then, check out some funny, and not-so-funny, television ballot measures for 2018.
Episodic Length Limitations and Approval Board: Sorry, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but there's just no excuse for a TV show based on a YA comic series to be doing episodes running over an hour. Sorry, Ozark, but you just didn't have enough story in your second season for nearly every episode to be at or over an hour. Come on Kurt Sutter and Ryan Murphy, why not at least try to fit your episodes into the format devised by the corner of the medium you've made your home? Somewhere along the line, cable and streaming executives stopped requiring showrunners to edit their glorious verbosity. This regulation would put a cap on episodes of episodic dramas running over 50 minutes. Any episode running over 55 minutes would require approval from an internal appeals board within the network and any episode running over an hour would require approval from an outside board of regular TV viewers with better things to do. This would force all showrunners to say, "Do I really need 67 minutes for one episode of a TV show that is already taking 10 hours to serve as what is effectively a pilot for the real show I want to make?" Apparently nobody is doing that anymore. (Opponents of the law argue that running times are arbitrary and meaningless in a bingeing TV landscape and that nobody will have time to be on the approval board of people who don't have time to watch Jason Bateman glower in darkness doing nothing for 61 minutes.)
Episodic Length Limitations, Credit Sequence Allowance: My imaginary 2016 Ballot offered tax incentives for shows with great opening credit sequences. It didn't work. This year's attempt to encourage the design of original title sequences is to subtract that credit time from the restrictions put forth in the previous measure. So because Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has a fantastic animated title sequence, those 90 seconds don't count toward episodic running times. Because Haunting of Hill House's credits are dull, though, they still count toward episodic running time. Ozark gets exactly one bonus second of running time because that title card with the glyphs reflecting key parts of the episode are cute. (Opponents of the allowance say, "Huh?")
Half-Hour Drama Incentives: Proposed by opponents of the "stick" approach in the two Episodic Length Limitations bills. This "carrot" alternative would offer tax credits for producers of half-hour dramas and dramedies, pointing to shows like Homecoming, Sorry for Your Loss and Vida as proof that this is a format that has been ridiculously underutilized in recent years and yet still works when used properly. (Opponents caution that this program would just open the door to shows that should be half-hours stretching to 40-minute running times, which represents at best a zero-sum game.)
TV Critic "It Gets Better" Quota: Not all of the restrictions on the ballot are on TV creators and networks. This measure would cap the number of times TV critics are allowed to say in their reviews that a show starts slowly but gets better and that viewers with dozens of conflicting demands on their time and attention really owe it to themselves to wallow through five or 10 hours of exposition just to get to the fun TV show they actually hoped they were getting. The cap can be instituted at anywhere between two and five "Be patient, it gets better" reviews per year, and any critic who makes such a claim without answering two key questions — "Precisely which episode does it improve in?" and "Is it required to watch those earlier episodes in order to understand the good stuff?" — will forfeit a future "Be patient, it gets better" review. (Opponents argue that any critic claiming that, for example, Succession really got good after four or five episodes simply didn't understand the tone of Succession, and that claiming Rise got better after six episodes did nobody any favors, making this a nebulous and fundamentally useless law.)
Twitter Research Act: The act requires all television networks and studios to read through the complete digest of Twitter communications for every potential showrunner and cast regular for every new show. This protects the producers of shows from being shocked that their relatively unknown twenty-something thespian tweeted stupid homophobic slurs when he was still in high school and protects reporters from disingenuous hedging when asking executives about how they can pretend to be shocked when a series mastermind with a history of racist or xenophobic or sexist online commentary says the same kind of thing after their show is on the air. Provisions within this act also allow for it to be adopted by movie studios looking for franchise directors and also major league baseball teams preparing for the draft. (Opponents of the bill previously proposed the Boys Will Be Boys Act, offering full immunity for inappropriate tweets, however recent, on the grounds that "They're just not the same person now that they were then.")
The Heathers Restriction: Named in honor of Paramount Network's embarrassingly snakebit remake of Heathers, this limitation prohibits a network from ever airing or distributing a show that has had its release delayed more than once due to national tragedy. Advocates for the rule argue that if your show is delayed once, that could be a sign that you're sensitive and conscious of the world around you, but if your show has to be delayed twice, you've made a show that probably shouldn't be aired in our current world unless it's actually got something to say. Put a different way, the rule requires networks to stand by the artistic value of the show they made and prevents them from looking for a tiny, tragedy-free corner of the calendar in which to smuggle a disreputable program that, more than anything, illustrates a failure of creative development. (I don't particularly care what opponents of the rule argue. Stand by your show or don't, but if you aren't prepared to stand by your show, it's best to take a few minutes of internal reflection on where mistakes were made.)
Lighting Restoration Measure: If you're making a spooky ghost story, you can make your entire series dark. If you simply think people will take your story of an accountant laundering money for a drug cartel more seriously if every frame is underlit, this measure will require directors and cinematographers to watch every episode of their pretentiously moody, murky TV show on either an iPhone, iPad or on the balky online sites set up for critics. Under those viewing conditions, cinematographers will be asked to identify characters in dark corners or key props introduced only in shadows. If they're unable to do show, the producers of those shows can choose between dipping into a small taxpayer-funded kitty set up to finance brightening every frame of their show or go out of pocket to pay for larger laptop/phone/tablet screens for every one of the show's viewers. (There are no opponents to this proposition. Vote Yes!)
The Definition of Insanity Redefinition: From the same advocates behind the "Stop Begging the Question Question" and "Horses Champ at the Bit, Not Chomp, Chump" and "Enough Already With Frogs and Scorpions" comes another provision meant to prevent THR chief TV critic Daniel Fienberg from needlessly tearing his hair out. You know how at least once a week a character on a TV show quotes Albert Einstein that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," even though this was a thing Einstein almost certainly never said? Stop it. What's worse is that these words are often put in the mouths of smart people because it sounds like a smart observation even though it's not, thereby making ostensibly smart characters sound dumb, like John Oliver's peculiar insistence on ruining otherwise erudite commentary with a "Begs the question" misuse. A "Yes" vote will criminalize this kind of hacky writing. (Opponents say this redefinition ignores that language is a living thing and that if enough people say something wrong, it becomes right, even if it's demonstrably wrong.)
Ryan Murphy's Half Initiative Expansion: In 2016, Ryan Murphy set up a foundation within his production company to have at least 50 percent of all directors on his shows be women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. This vote would expand Murphy's admirable aspiration across all of television. (Opponents point out that while the Half Initiative is a fine start, it's a somewhat self-congratulatory aspiration that doesn't go far enough, since it's not like white men represent 50 percent of the actual population. This is a fair criticism.)
Saturday Night Live Equal Time Proposal: No, this measure doesn't require that for every second Saturday Night Live spends mocking Republicans that they chide Democrats equally. No, it states that for every second SNL thinks it's being edgy and rebellious in lampooning Donald Trump, a picture-in-picture screen has to remind viewers of Trump's stint hosting the show, as well as the myriad other ways NBC encouraged and enabled him over the years leading up to the 2016 election. (Opponents of the bill send tweets putting the author of this article's name in parentheses as if they cracked some complicated, Dan Brown-style code to discover that he's Jewish.)
TV Favorites Return Reauthorization Act: Voters strongly affirmed the 2016 version, which read, "This proposal will establish a simple opt-in box on tax returns contributing a dollar to a fund to bring established television favorites back to the medium that's already home to all of entertainment's best writing and directing. Initial beneficiaries will include (but not be limited to) Jennifer Garner, Dennis Franz, James Badge Dale, John Goodman, Betty White, Jennifer Aniston, Connie Britton (assume she's leaving Nashville) and the entire cast of Bloodline." Since that time, Garner, Goodman, Aniston and Britton have all signed on for regular TV series projects (multiple, in the case of Goodman and Britton). Accepting that Franz is enjoying retirement and Dale is still committed to movies (even if I haven't actually seen any of said movies), this year's prime beneficiaries will include (but not be limited to) Kyle Chandler, Halle Berry (with a good cable show, not a strange CBS summer drama), Joe Pantoliano, Linda Cardellini (or nearly anybody from the cast of Freaks and Geeks who you haven't seen on TV recently) and Denzel Washington. (Opponents of the act argue, "There's no way in hell Denzel Washington is doing a TV show.")