Long Episodes, Short Episodes, And All The Episodes In-Between

While Glee doesn’t seem a great bet for a long run (the ratings weren’t great for a post-Idol show and a lot of people tuned out in the middle), there’s a growing sense that it might have done better if the network had aired a longer version of the episode. The version of the pilot that was sent to critics, and which turned up on various online sharing sites, was several minutes longer than the version that ran after American Idol. The aired version was about 43 minutes, the length of a regular Fox episode; the original version was closer to the length of one of Fox’s “remote-free TV” episodes. And while Fringe and Dollhouse have not made particularly great use of the longer format (which they will no longer get to use next season), the Glee pilot in its uncut form apparently was much more coherent and unified than what millions of people saw. In particular, it had an opening that explained why the lead character was so obsessed with teaching Glee club, it had scenes that filled in other plot holes, gaps and backstories, and it had a little throwaway scene that gave the star, Matthew Morrison, a chance to do some singing himself.

When producers have to cut several minutes from an episode, they cut the scenes that can be sacrificed most easily, which are often throwaway scenes and backstory moments, but when a show loses everything that isn’t directly related to the forward motion of the plot, it winds up feeling choppy and mechanical. In the case of Glee, this created a situation where people who had seen the advance screeners (the uncut version) were raving about it and people who saw it on Fox (the way most people saw it) were wondering what the fuss was about. By not giving a few extra minutes to this show, Fox may have really hurt its chances for a success. They will try to make up for this by showing the “director’s cut” — i.e. the long version — before the series’ official premiere in September, but they’d have been way better off showing the longer version right up front.

Although I’m an advocate of longer episodes, I don’t think longer cuts of an episode are always better. The short version of the Arrested Development pilot works better — is tighter, faster and funnier — than the 28-minute version that starts off the DVD set, and most shows that put the deleted scenes back in for the DVD make the episodes worse, not better. There’s a certain art in getting shows down to a certain time; as Greg Daniels has commented, sometimes the necessity to get the shows to length will inspire creative solutions. But with Glee, it really does seem like the producers expected to have a longer episode, cut it with that in mind, and then had to cut more than they had planned. Maybe that’s not the way it happened, but it would explain why the long version made a better impression than the one we saw last week.

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