Brow Beat

Netflix’s New Mini-Seasons Steal an Old Trick From Broadcast TV

Kiernan Shipka's character looks googly-eyed at a boy sitting next to her.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

When Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix’s dramatic interpretation of Archie Comics’ teen witch, arrived just in time for Halloween last year, it quickly became an expected hit. Set in the same midcentury-but-now mashup era as Riverdale, the coming-of-age series, starring Kiernan Shipka as the title character, followed its initial 10 episodes with a Christmas special and is slated to return with another nine installments on April 5, less than six months after the series’ debut. It feels like not a moment too soon: I eagerly anticipate more of Sabrina’s Buffy-lite escapades, and as a TV binger, I’m tired of forgetting what happened in the previous season on some of my favorite shows in the 364 days between releases. Sabrina’s twice-a-year advents, like Nailed It’s and Queer Eye’s before it, suggest Netflix is rediscovering the wisdom of broadcast TV’s periodic dole outs.

Netflix first made headway by dutifully following the cable prestige formula: short seasons, premiering once a year. The brief production schedule helped attract auteurs and movie stars (like David Fincher and, uh, Kevin Spacey for House of Cards, Netflix’s first big show), which would in turn draw eyeballs. But the site has broadened its programming priorities considerably since, so it makes sense that Netflix would start experimenting with its scheduling practices, too. Its fall-then-spring plans for Sabrina, for example, seem to take inspiration from an old broadcast practice, where networks aired reruns of fall episodes in the winter before a batch of new spring installments. Given Sabrina’s first 10 installments wrapped up their main storyline, with the half-human, half-supernatural protagonist forging her own path between the mortal-populated suburbs where her friends reside and the magic-driven underworld that is her birthright to join, it seems more than likely that the upcoming chapters were initially meant to be the show’s second season. Netflix officially calls those episodes “Season 1, Part 2,” but Sabrina’s fast-tracked re-emergence suggests it’s rethinking a scheduling model that increasingly feels outdated.

Prestige cable networks like FX and HBO have been playing with the time between seasons for years, though usually in the opposite direction. The long breaks between seasons of Game of Thrones and auteur-driven comedies like Louie, Atlanta, and Curb Your Enthusiasm did make their returns feel like minor cultural events and may have even made us miss them more. But in an ever-more-crowded TV landscape, those breaks can allow a series’ strengths to fade from our memory. I loved the first season of Amazon’s serialized crime drama Sneaky Pete, but its sophomore year relied so heavily on specific details from the previous season, which aired two and a half years prior, that watching it felt a lot like navigating the world as an amnesiac.

Pivoting to multiple seasons in a year would not only be a boon to harried viewers who don’t have the mental bandwidth to keep track of the details of a TV show’s complicated setting or large cast of characters, but also a blessing to the people who make TV. A-listers like Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey have their reasons for wanting short seasons and long breaks between production, but those conditions have created instability for the people who work for them, like writers who have gone from steady employment at long-running shows with 22-episode seasons to sporadic gigs at six episodes a pop. (Networks have also employed legal shenanigans by scheduling “seasons” with yearlong breaks in the middle—à la The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men—to prevent employees from renegotiating their contracts, but that’s a different story.)

There is, of course, always the risk of running your show into the ground through oversaturation. The three seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race that aired last year—one regular season and two All Stars seasons—have certainly put a dent in the fandom’s enthusiasm for the series, if the lukewarm reception toward the latest iteration is any indication. But that doesn’t seem to be in the works for Sabrina, whose second season—a smaller commitment of 16 episodes—will also be divided into two manageable chunks. Six years after its first major disruption via offering all episodes of a season in one fell swoop, Netflix is due for another innovation. Luckily, the still experimenting company manages to be so eclectically sourced that it recognizes that some of the best new ideas come from old places.