If there’s a common thread to 21st century television, it’s speed. Procedurals juggle large casts and still solve cases in an hour. Serials chew up huge swatches of story, creating a perilous demand for plot twists. Influenced by Seth MacFarlane’s animated series, comedies fire off jokes at a rat-a-tat clip, as if the measuring stick is at-bats, not hits.
Reality programs engage in extended, suspense-building foreplay, but the general assumption has become that scripted shows must move, move, move. Indeed, who has the patience to sit through a TV movie when you can get all the emotional angst once found in tawdry Lifetime movies distilled down into newsmagazine segments and reality shows, like Investigation Discovery’s half-hour “Who the Bleep Did I Marry?”
Like most things, though, there’s blowback to almost any trend, or exceptions that prove the rule. And while it’s unlikely a horde of such programs could survive, a discriminating subset of viewers clearly enjoys picking a few slo-o-ow-rolling dramas and luxuriating in them, like the video equivalent of a warm bath.
Whatever one thought about “The Killing” finale — and the blistering reaction probably said as much about the impulse to make noise online as the episode itself — the AMC show’s signature style hinged on teasing out a single murder investigation in a purposefully methodical fashion.
Next month, meanwhile, brings back a pair of dramas that aren’t afraid to unfold at their own leisurely pace — “Breaking Bad,” another AMC mainstay; and “Damages,” which is launching its fourth season on DirecTV.
Although “Damages” continues to employ its device of flashing ahead to foreshadow events, the new episodes feel even more languid than before, perhaps in part due to logistics. Presented commercial-free in a manner closer to HBO’s model than former home FX, the season premiere — which runs about 56 minutes — takes its sweet time establishing and advancing the story.
“Breaking Bad” picks up following a nail-biting third-season cliffhanger by quickly updating those events, but then gradually explores their fallout and impact on the characters. One of the series’ main strengths, in fact, lies in its ability to create and sustain a sense of jeopardy — drug dealers tend to be ruthless and unpredictable — without telegraphing what’s going to happen next.
Pay TV, not surprisingly, is no stranger to this laid-back approach.
Another practitioner of snail-pace storytelling, “Treme,” will close its second season this weekend. The HBO drama not only draws its atmosphere from its New Orleans setting but almost covered Mardi Gras in real time. And while the lengthy musical numbers surely reward committed jazz aficionados, they test the patience of anyone else.
Similarly, HBO’s miniseries version of “Mildred Pierce” so lovingly indulged in small details as to at times feel like a video dissertation on how to bake pies or prepare fried chicken.
Tellingly, few of these programs would qualify as rating smashes, though the AMC series do just fine by basic-cable standards. Yet the fact such dramas are commercially viable at all indicates an appetite for programs prone to disgorging secrets at roughly the rate honey drips out of a jar.
Viewed together, these programs challenge assumptions about the audience’s perceived impatience. Yes, fans might have hungered to know “Lost” had an ending in mind, but those watching “Damages” or “Breaking Bad” appear perfectly willing to embrace their rhythms, however miserly the producers are in unleashing new twists.
Relatively few programs can operate at the same level of intricacy as “Damages” or “Breaking Bad,” but their endurance suggests not all of entertainment (and TV in particular) need be calibrated to those with the attention span of hyperactive hummingbirds. In a media environment seemingly informed by the Jim Steinman lyric, “There’s nothin’ wrong with goin’ nowhere, baby, but we should be goin’ nowhere fast,” that alone represents a modest breakthrough.
In those old Paul Masson “We will serve no wine before its time” ads, Orson Welles rumbles, “Some things can’t be rushed.” It’s a rare breed of dramas, though, which can adopt a variation on that slogan — namely, we will serve no plot advancement until it is time.