Brow Beat

The Upside of Splitting TV Seasons

Season 7 of Mad Men will be split in two. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Last week, AMC announced that the final season of Mad Men, like that of Breaking Bad before it, will be split in two, with the first seven episodes airing in the spring of 2014 and the final seven one year later. AMC president Charlie Collier said that the split makes sense “in an era where high-end content is savored and analyzed, and catch-up time is used well to drive back to live events.” But those not making money off of Mad Men mostly groaned—or accused the network of “desperation” and “greed.”

There are, of course, financial incentives for this practice—including some that have gone unnoticed. By splitting a season, networks can keep advertisers longer, drive additional DVD (and digital) sales, and introduce viewers to new series that run immediately before or after their hits.

But there are creative opportunities in these financial gambits. They allow the people who make TV to redefine—or at least reassert—what a TV season is.

Landon Palmer considered the definition of the season at Film School Rejects earlier this week. TV “has always been divided into seasons,” Palmer notes, but these discrete units were not, initially, “conceptual tools for an audience’s experience of a long-running program.” That, Palmer argues, is a more recent development—and a crucial one for the so-called golden age of post-Sopranos programming. Mad Men is a prime example of this, as the show has “overtly defined each of its seasons as characterized through changes in its characters’ associations, lives, relationships, locations, business affiliations, etc.”

Palmer, like other observers, is bearish about the Mad Men split, speculating that Season 7 might take place in two separate years, leading audiences to view and discuss it as two halves rather than as a whole. From that speculation Palmer jumps to the idea that the TV season may soon return “to its largely contractual definition and away from its use as an accessible, shared point of reference for engagement with and evaluation of the show.”

I see the opposite happening here. Six years after the end of The Sopranos—which, along with Sex and the City, helped pioneer the split season—we still talk about those final 21 episodes (“Part 1” aired in the spring of 2006, “Part 2” in 2007) as a single unit. Likewise, Season 5 of Breaking Bad, which began last year and concludes on Sunday, is one cohesive downward spiral: Episode 1 opened with Walt “celebrating” his 52nd birthday in a Denny’s, and most viewers no doubt expect to reach that scene again somehow in the finale (just as we eventually learned the meaning of that mysterious pink charred teddy bear seen at the opening of Season 2).

We don’t yet know what Mad Men will do, and given Matthew Weiner’s penchant for secrecy, we probably won’t for quite a while. But considering the show’s history—and the precedent set by other split seasons—it seems unlikely that the final season will be disjointed in the way Palmer imagines. Weiner has supposedly had a vision for the end of Mad Men since Season 3 (much as David Chase said he knew the polarizing fate of Tony Soprano four years ahead of Season 6).

What’s more, other shows have lately reinforced the idea of the TV season as a cohesive aesthetic unit in new and interesting ways. Take American Horror Story, which creates with each new season a self-contained miniseries: The characters, storylines, and themes change, but remain under the AHS franchise. HBO will soon launch the similarly-structured True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

It’s crucial to note, too, that AMC could have announced that Breaking Bad would be six seasons instead of five, or Mad Men eight seasons instead of seven. The situation would essentially be the same, business-wise: Networks would have advertisers for the same amount of time, anticipation would still be high, and they could sell the seasons individually, as they do now anyway with Parts 1 and Part 2.

(Though, as Apple has recently learned, packaging of digital sales needs to be consistent: The company initially advertised a one-time charge for a “Season Pass” of Breaking Bad’s Season 5, which would include “every episode in that season.” Yet when Part 2 began to air last month and became available on iTunes, those who had already purchased the season pass were informed they’d have to pay again for the newest episodes. One customer filed a lawsuit, and Apple has since offered refunds.)

It’s possible that producers are calling them Parts 1 and 2 in order to get around artists’ contracts—as one TV producer explained it to me, in some cases, writers and performers who stay on with a show may receive raises with each new season; branding and selling it as one season rather than two can be cost-effective for producers.

But it’s equally and perhaps more likely that the creators are responsible for designating these episodes a single season—because they are meant to be analyzed and appreciated as a unified story, with a sort of intermission in between. Split seasons have often come with more episodes than a “normal” season typically has—and this has, it appears, occasionally been a factor in the splitting. When the final season of The Sopranos was announced in 2003, creator David Chase said, “I’d planned out an arc for season five that would have ended the show. But as we’re getting into it, we’re finding there’s a lot more material. We could cram it into 13 episodes, but I don’t know that it’s the right thing to do.”

The concept of the season has evolved—and continues to evolve—in the direction of aesthetic unity. Increasingly, we think of TV seasons as thematic, cohesive miniseries within larger series. And for fans of ambitious, narratively complex television, that’s a good thing.