In some ways, Creator Mike Kelley’s removal as the showrunner of Revenge (it’s a “difficult mutual decision,” which usually means it wasn’t all that difficult for the network or the studio) is bigger news than the firing of Dan Harmon or any of the ten zillion showrunner firings at NBC. The closest comparison is the revolving-door producers at The Walking Dead, but at least there the reasons seem mostly budgetary. Revenge and Kelley, have had bigger problems this year. The show was not only a hit in its first season, it was a critical success and a zeitgeist success. No prime-time soap since the first season of The O.C. had had such an impact. But now it’s looking even weaker than The O.C. did in its middle years. It’s not impossible for a show to start big, burn out in its second year, and then stabilize enough to keep running: Glee will make it to season 6. But the bad publicity around Kelley’s departure, and the perception that the show has run out of ideas, could make it even harder for it to get back on track.
Kelley has seemingly chosen the right spin to put on this situation: reports suggest that he blamed the show’s problems on the need to do 22 episodes a season, and asked ABC to give him 13-episode orders instead. This is an argument that works, whether or not it’s true, because it’s an argument that a lot of people are making. Hannibal and The Following are two recent shows that only do short seasons, both for scheduling reasons and artistic ones (Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller has stated that he’ll never do a 22-episode season again), and there’s a general perception that one of the advantages of cable is that there’s less burnout with a 13-episode season. So if Kelley plays this right, he could come off not as the guy who turned out a problematic season and had trouble getting scripts ready on time, but as a symbol of the outdatedness of the 22-episode model.
I’ve never agreed with that idea – I still believe in longer seasons, rather than shorter ones – but I find it at least plausible for an intense show like Hannibal or The Following. I find it much less plausible for something like Revenge, we’re not just talking about any type of drama: it adopted the form and style of a soap opera, and soap operas don’t benefit from extended hiatuses (hiati?). Soaps are supposed to keep us entertained and titillated and eager to see the next episode; a good soap keeps throwing out new complications every time it looks like we might get bored with the current batch. The enemy of a soap is losing our attention or having a big break in the storyline. And with shorter seasons, every episode is expected to carry more weight than it can probably handle (which is a problem the new Dallas has to contend with). Besides, if Revenge didn’t have good story ideas for the second season, and it really didn’t, a shorter episode order would not change that. It would just make those ideas less stretched out, but I doubt the fans would have liked them any better.
One of the inevitable issues with doing a prime-time serial is that when the storyline is disliked, the viewers have very little else to fall back on. The Good Wife is to some extent able to recover from bad storylines because it has the case-of-the-week formula to fall back on, so the viewer who is bored with the storyline can at least have the chance of enjoying the topical case. Revenge, like many network shows, started with a procedural backbone (you almost have to include these in your pitch to get a network drama on the air). But also like most dramas today, it mostly abandoned that after doing some first-season case-of-the-week episodes about Emily getting revenge on individual guest characters. You can bet that almost any drama will drop the procedural framework once it has established itself – this goes all the way back to the original Dallas, which phased out story-of-the-week episodes during its second or third season. Which makes sense; those weekly cases are hard to make interesting and are not what the writers or fans are interested in. But there is that downside, where if the fans don’t like the ongoing storylines, they don’t like anything.