I don’t think I ever used the word ‘hiatus’ before moving over here. I suppose I knew from things like Buffy that American TV seasons run long, much longer than the British norm of six or eight episodes. But I naively thought that that meant they were on all year round, with a short summer break. Long time readers may recall that among my many struggles as a new expat was the struggle to find any TV shows to watch. Well, this year, I sorted that out in time for baby A’s birth, and was hooked on Revenge (Wednesday nights) and Once Upon A Time (Sunday nights) before realising that my weekly indulgences would be snatched away quite unpredictably for a hiatus, replaced with a low-budget documentary, a random rerun or… I don’t know, Christmas.
OK, I’m willing to accept Christmas as an interruption to normal TV programming – though surely in Britain series are neatly arranged to finish before Christmas, or start afterwards, aren’t they? But the hiatus thing is much bigger than that.
Once Upon A Time has only been going since the end of October, and it’s already had three hiatuses. Or take Revenge. I’m going to have to explain some plot to make my point. It’s a silly but fun revenge drama (surprise) set in the Hamptons, with the premise that a young woman called Emily Thorne, real name Amanda Clarke, is returning to her childhood home to bring down the rich and glamorous Grayson family, who had her father imprisoned for a crime they committed. It started in September with a pilot episode that flashed forward to Emily’s engagement party where, it seemed, her fiance Daniel Grayson got shot. There are more flashforwards in subsequent episodes. So on 15th February we finally reached the engagement party in the plot, and SPOILER ALERT! it turned out it wasn’t Daniel who gets shot, but his evil former friend Tyler – but we don’t know who shot him. It felt like a finale: all the action had been leading up to the engagement and murder; Daniel surviving was a nice reversal of our expectations; and while Tyler was out of the way, the mystery of who killed him seemed like a fresh start.
So when Revenge wasn’t shown the next week, I thought: OK, that was the end of that. But no. After a week’s hiatus it was back with an episode about the aftermath of the shooting and the beginning of the police investigation. And then it disappeared again, for a proper hiatus, until last week, by which time I’d got confused about what we did and didn’t know about who was on the beach where Tyler was shot, who had guns, what Tyler had told Daniel… you catch the drift.
ABC had anticipated this problem and ran an hour-long catch-up reminding you of everything important that had happened in the season so far, which I did not deign to watch because I thought it was stupid. There are only five episodes left out of 22: why have this bizarre gap and reminder so late in the season, when you would be able to remember all the plot points from week to week if they would just keep to a normal schedule? Why destroy the rhythm of the series so disastrously? And, most importantly, how do they choose what to show in the hiatus?
Whatever they show, you can be sure it’s annoying. It could be the Superbowl or an awards show, which I grudgingly accept. It could be the network trying out a new drama on their desperate, cheated audience. It could be Revenge For Real, a tasteful documentary about an actual murder in the Hamptons. Or it could be a repeat of a previously aired episode, apparently chosen at random, which is designed – what? to hook in new viewers? – or to persuade you not to switch channels because, remember, first time round you missed five minutes in the middle of that episode during which perhaps something crucial happened?
This sort of thing is made for TV geeks. Geek blogs run polls on which episodes will be repeated during the hiatus. Then the bloggers watch them and blog about what they noticed this time and did not notice before, and what the selection of this episode may indicate about which plot strands are going to feature in the next episodes, and/or they indulge in the inevitable conspiracy theory: the hiatus means the programme is about to be cancelled, or even if that’s not the intention, putting it on hiatus will lead to viewers forgetting about the show and deserting it, and it will get cancelled anyway. All of this generates buzz and is great for series like Once Upon A Time (from the makers of Lost) that drop endless tiny clues about what might be going on that you probably only pick up after multiple viewings. But it is most irritating for your simple tired expat who does not want to read the blogs, participate in buzz or watch episodes several times to make minutely detailed comparisons. I just want to follow a story from beginning to end – is that too much to ask?
This whole phenomenon was irritating enough when I thought it was to do with the show falling behind on its shooting schedule, or the TV network toying with cancelling it, or changing its direction, or trying to grub together the money for the next episode. (When you see the appalling CGI and polyester costumes in Once Upon A Time – see above – or notice that the latest episode of Revenge is full of references to helicopters that are never shown, you are forced to assume that there is some kind of budgetary crisis behind the scenes.) None of this seems very respectful to the person waiting patiently for the next instalment, but perhaps, I thought, it was unavoidable.
But then I read (on Wikipedia, where else) that hiatus culture is partly do with stretching the season out to run the best episodes in the weeks when TV ratings are assessed, which apparently happens only four times a year. Since the ratings are used to calculate advertising costs, the networks want to get them as high as possible, and show either the season finale in those weeks, or special episodes with a guest star or something.
And then I felt even more of a capitalist pawn.