How 'Suits' Proved The Power Of Split-Season TV
Harvey Specter knows what he's doing. So, too, do the people putting him on the schedule.
Not so long ago, TV audiences were used to a season being one relatively continuous block of 22 episodes. That's no longer the case anymore. There are about a half-dozen different ways we get our shows served to us, from the now-common 13 episodes with or without the option for more, to limited runs like the 9 episodes HBO's The Newsroom just completed. Suits, which airs on the USA Network, will have its midseason finale tonight and return for the rest of its third season next year. And while that's maddening for some fans of Harvey and his colleagues, the hit drama has proven that the split-season formula isn't so farfetched.
On the surface, it certainly seems like an awkward proposition for viewing audiences, who are asked to start a new season and then wait months to see the rest of it. But TV shows, and viewers, aren't what they used to be when we were watching those 22-episode marathons years ago.
For writers, a split season means more possibilities on the table. Suits has woven masterful serialized storylines every season, and rather than have to come up with one arc that's long enough and compelling enough to last the entire season, the writers can now concentrate their efforts into creating two smaller, stronger ideas. (Longer is not always better; ask the folks behind 24.) The first half of season three focused on a high-stakes murder trial, but there's so much else to explore, be it Pearson Darby Specter's contentious split or whatever other litigation might be on the horizon. Serialized shows benefit from not having to drive the whole length of the field in one series. And when the writing is as excellent as it's been on this show, it's almost irrelevant. Suits gives us more in half of its seasons than most series do in their entire ones.
Splitting up the workload also allows for more in front of the camera. It's undoubtedly easier to book an actor for a recurring role if it's only for a handful of episodes than if you need them for the majority of a season, especially if that actor has commitments to another show, like Conleth Hill, who appeared as Edward Darby in Suits and also plays Lord Varys on HBO's Game of Thrones. If Ava Hessington's murder trial was drawn out to go over most of season three, would he still have been available? We don't know, but with a split season, he's there for the most important bits. (Maybe even in the future. As Suits, like most USA Network shows, has built itself a stable of recurring players who might come back at any time. Bet you didn't think you'd see Neil Brown, Jr. (Clifford Danner) again, did you? But you did.)
What about the fans, though? Well, once you get past your perfectly understandable desire to have all your presents at once, it's actually better for you, too. You get to enjoy two season premieres and two season finales, which are usually the biggest episodes of the cycle; in the case of Suits, that means you get to leave your jaw on the floor four times, instead of two. And with all those other things that keep you busy, you don't have to commit to watching a show every week for 22 weeks straight; you can set aside some of your Tuesdays now, and then come back later. When Suits returns, it'll be after all the holiday madness, and we can start the new year with a bang.
From an attention standpoint, the break is good for everyone. There are die-hard fans who never miss an episode, but many TV fans are more casual viewers, who probably don't watch a show live, and more than that, probably don't pay super-close attention. Especially with a show as layered and complex as Suits, most people aren't going to remember everything that was important if they watch a traditional 22-episode season. With a split cycle, we can focus on what's happening in the first handful of installments, enjoy it for what it is, and then do the same with the second set.
For the hardworking folks in the Suits writers' room, they can look back at the first half of the season, and take some time to see if something didn't work, or if it worked really well, or what the audience is reacting to. Most writers do not have every little detail of their show locked in from the start of the season. A lot of the time, the best things are the ones that happen organically, through the moments you don't see coming, or the ideas that are brought to the table over the course of production. A pause in the middle of the chaos is very good every now and then.
And everyone who works on a TV show, from those writers to the crew you never see and the talented cast, deserves a breather. Most fans can't fathom how hard it is to turn over a new 40-plus page script each week, with dozens of people putting in long hours to learn it, create it and get it onto film. Making television is a marathon, not a sprint. While it would be amazing if we could have new episodes of Suits all year long, it's just not physically and mentally possible. Even if it were, this is a powerhouse of a show, unlike anything we've seen on TV since Showtime's Brotherhood; that kind of quality doesn't happen easily.
Suits is a prime example of why split seasons are great for TV; it's beautiful, it's complicated, and it's flourishing in a way that might not happen if we enjoyed it all at once. It'll be agonizing to wait until next year for more of Harvey, but we know that it's going to be absolutely worth it.
The Suits midseason finale airs tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on USA; stay tuned after the finale for our recap and review.
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