There's A Good Reason Marvel's Netflix Shows Inevitably Become Unwatchable: 13-Episode Seasons
Photo: Netflix

There's A Good Reason Marvel's Netflix Shows Inevitably Become Unwatchable: 13-Episode Seasons

One of the main reasons Netflix seasons are short is because they don't have a schedule to fill like a TV network. This is often an advantage, as show creators aren't forced to drag stories out and cram in filler episodes. Stranger Things is a prime example of this working well: with just eight-episode seasons, they're able to weave a concise but compelling narrative. So why do Marvel's Netflix shows have 13 episodes? 

While some of the best original Netflix shows indeed share this (seemingly arbitrary) formula with the Marvel shows, the ones freed from this constraint are often much better off for it. That's not to say that a 13-episode requirement guarantees a bad show - the people at Netflix have proven themselves capable of producing high quality content, even in this format.

But this rigid restriction causes serious problems from a storytelling standpoint, especially when the stories are somewhat predetermined, as is the case with comic book adaptations. Marvel's Netflix shows occupy an interesting space in the complete history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and constraining their scope in this specific way can lead to a lot of issues. What follows is an exploration of why Marvel's Netflix shows have 13-episode seasons, and how they're harmed by this structure (plus a fair amount of spoilers). 

  • In The Beginning, TV Shows Would Air 30+ Episodes Per Season

    Season 1 of I Love Lucy had 35 episodes, a number almost unimaginable by today's standards. By the '90s, most sitcoms had settled on an established norm of 22 or 23 episodes per season, but once cable started to get into original programming, things started to change. This was especially true with premium networks like HBO and Showtime, that have little to no incentive to run shows longer than 10 or 15 episodes. They become too expensive to produce, and wade into diminishing returns.

    Game of Thrones may not mark the advent of 10-episode seasons, but they've certainly perfected the paradigm. George R. R. Martin's adapted fantasy has seemingly found the perfect formula to tell compelling and rich - but not overstuffed - stories. Why, then, does Netflix insist on 13 episodes for its Marvel properties? It's certainly a boon they aren't shooting for the old standard of 20+ episodes, but 13 still feels like an unwillingness to fully embrace this new era of entertainment. 

  • There's Rarely Enough Story To Sustain 13 Episodes

    No one ever said, "That show was so great thanks to its extraneous plot lines and overly developed background characters." These tools, however, are necessary evils in the workshop of Netflix writers when it comes to meeting the established 13 episode arc for their Marvel shows.

    Season 2 of Daredevil felt like it had ended by the eighth episode, yet it persisted for another five. Luke Cage's first season had virtually the same issue. These adapted stories only have so much life; when they're drawn out it feels disingenuous and ultimately does more harm than good, as far as telling a compelling story goes.

  • Shows End Up Treading Water With Flashback Episodes

    Flashback episodes are really frustrating. You get halfway through a season, watching the tension build as the story drives to an exciting conclusion. Suddenly, you're ripped back in time to events that took place before the season or series began, events you've probably already deduced or inferred thanks the clues laid out in the show to that point.

    We were subjected to an anachronistic pop song by Patsy (Rachael Taylor) called "I Want Your Cray Cray" in Season 2 of Jessica Jones because of this tired trope.

  • Inconsequential Side Stories Often Act As Filler

    Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a very interesting character in incredibly specific doses. So, what did her struggle with ALS have to do with the main story of Jessica Jones in Season 2? Nothing. A tertiary character was given a completely fleshed out storyline to run parallel the main character's for little-to-no payoff. If anything, it feels like audiences were supposed to become more sympathetic towards her character, but many fans felt like it ultimately weakened her.

    This happens with a multitude of characters. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) pops up in several of the Marvel Netflix series. When she was introduced in the first season of Daredevil, critics applauded her character and the strength she brought to the role. Since then, nearly everything that happens with Karen feels like a contrived and forced parallel plot in an attempt to... what? Prove non-super people have valuable skills? That's not really the point of superhero stories.

  • Shorter First Seasons Could Lead To A More Avid Fan Base

    13 episodes is ambitious. Starz has taken to ordering just eight episodes for a show's first season, so the production can really focus on quality instead of forcing the writers to stretch the story arc to untenable lengths. Season 1 of Breaking Bad only had seven episodes. Once they made an ensconcing first season, they were then able to extend future seasons to 13 episodes.

    These Netflix Marvel series could really benefit from this same approach, because 13-episode seasons really do offer a bevy of storytelling pitfalls.

  • It Takes Far Too Long To Get To The Climax

    Tension can only build for so long, and with most superhero stories savvy viewers are able to infer how things are going to end long before they do. If the audience has indeed reached the point of guessing the inevitable conclusion, then the storyteller has most likely failed.

    Stagnation is a dreaded word when it comes to narrative: it's a sign you once compelled the viewer but have lost their interest by dragging things on or telling irrelevant side stories. The Punisher suffered from this - in a season with less than a handful of meaningful players, the story almost seemed to repeat itself midway through.