Searching for the Seams
After I became obsessed with Cable Girls, Netflix suggested a show called High Seas ( Alta Mar) to me. It was by the same team, I came to discover, and I was quickly hooked. (Sisters solving murders on an ocean liner in the 1940s? Are you kidding me? Yes, please!) I got curious about the making of this show after watching the third season in which a deadly virus was brought on board — like, is this timely by accident or on purpose? When did this air and who made it? (Aired 2020 — made in 2019. What?! And the thing that stretches the bounds of credulity the most is not the ghost, no, it’s how quickly they make a vaccine.)
This all led me to another earlier show made by the same team — Gran Hotel. It features actors from both the other shows I watched and it has been a very nice distraction from this pandemic world. It takes place in the early 1900s and features various fun encounters with such new technology as electric lights! Film! Gramophones! Fingerprinting for criminal justice! It’s not as full of women being fabulous together as the teams’ other shows but it does feature the Gold Knife Killer and a satisfying forbidden romance.
Anyway — I’m not here to sell you on a show from 7–9 years ago. It’s actually highly possible, depending on where you live, that you’ve already seen it. It was HUGE, folks. Aired around the world and re-made in Egypt, Mexico, Italy and France. There was even one here in the USA just last year! Did you see it? Probably not. They canceled it already.
Gran Hotel was a global phenomenon that I entirely missed before. And I found out about its global hit-ness when I went searching for an answer to a question that I didn’t really know how to ask.
See, the show is finely crafted. The production values are high. Think Downton Abbey in Spain. The acting and writing are artful and yet the episodes seemed to finish in the weirdest places. They seemed to have been edited by someone who’d never seen episodic TV before. I was trying to understand how a show that was so high level could have such clumsy endings. I started to wonder if my sense of what makes an episode was cultural. Like, does my desire for a cliffhanger or a button or a conclusion make me particularly American? I thought — maybe in Spain they film their TV like one super long movie and then just chop it up wherever.
But none of that seemed right. After all, I’d just watched two OTHER Spanish shows that shaped their episodes just the way I’d expect them to be shaped. There was something UP with these episodes and it was starting to bug me.
You know, an episode would seem to end mid-conversation. Or there would be an enormous jump in time 15 minutes into the episode. I had to know, so I risked the possibility of stumbling on spoilers to research and find out.
Do you have a guess about why this was happening? I feel like I should have guessed it but it was so weird, I did not come close. Here it is.
When the show was MADE for Spanish TV, the episodes were 70 minutes long. When Netflix put the show on its platform, it cut those episodes into 41–44 minute episodes. This makes for some very weird episodes, story-wise.
And I cannot get over this choice. Netflix has gotten a reputation among film and TV people for being supportive of artists, for fostering artistic growth, for diversifying the field. At least that’s what my reading of the Hollywood Reporter would have me believe. Didn’t they have some ad campaign about stories being first a while back? But it’s clear here, in the case of this global hit, that the story didn’t matter nearly so much as their optimal episode length. (If I ever pitch a show to Netflix, I will be sure to pitch 42 min episodes.) They clearly have the data on the length of a show that people watch the most and so they hacked Gran Hotel into that length — endings, cliffhangers and dramatic tension be damned. It is really something.
Now, as I’m watching the show, I find myself trying to piece together what the makers meant to do. Instead of just watching the show, I’m trying to work out where the seams are, where the original endings and beginnings might have been. I’ve considered trying to watch it at the show’s act breaks — like — stopping the episode where it would have stopped and watching through the breaks Netflix has clumsily inserted. But that’s a lot of trouble. Instead I find I just sort of watch as much as I feel like and note the real changes when I see them. Some of the shifts are so big, I can’t believe I didn’t realize this was happening before. Each time it happens I become more shocked that Netflix decided to do this.
I keep thinking of the editors that Netflix hired to hack up this show. There they are, the business of beginnings and endings and arcs in the middle being their very bread and butter, and they are tasked to turn it into chunks. It just feels like a vet hired to carve up horses for dog food. I imagine Netflix paid them well — but their souls! Their little editing hearts!
This 41–44 length must be almost a religious number for Netflix for them to have chosen to undertake this work. I mean — it is so much more complex than just cutting a 70 minute episode in half. That might actually be a bit less destructive, in that at least episodes would end well every other time. But 41–44 must somehow be so much more optimized than 35.
I’m sure they have all the data — the way 41–44 may lead people to binge watch more than 35 or 70 would. I start to question my own watching. Am I more inclined to watch something that is 41–44 min than 35 or 70? I might be. It’s long enough to feel like you’re getting into a story but short enough that just going ahead and watching another episode might be okay. I hate that I might be as predictable as anyone for Netflix’s optimized algorithm.
And I think of Cable Girls and High Seas, the two subsequent Spanish shows made by this team, and realized that they were made WITH Netflix so their length is Netflix-optimized already. And I imagine their storytelling had to adjust to this change as well. There is a sprawling relaxed quality to Gran Hotel that is very different from the later shows.
It is a disquieting experience to realize that around the world (literally, as Netflix is having a profound influence internationally) our viewing options are being optimized for Netflix’s algorithms. This makes me nervous. Like, what if a country has an extraordinarily long attention span? What if people raised on Indonesian shadow puppet shows that last all day are suddenly expected to create work in 41–44 minute chunks? Does this effect balloon out? Do podcasts aim for the 41–44 minute mark? (Actually I know the answer to this. No. They don’t. They aim for 20–25 minutes as most podcasts are listened to in the car and that is the average commute time.)
I’m just so troubled by a giant corporate entity with so much global power cutting up well crafted artistic work. In a way, I’d understand it if it were a Broadcast channel. If ABC wants to air the original Gran Hotel, it doesn’t have 70 minute time blocks. It would have to trim it to fit into the structure that they have. Because the news is always at 11 and everything has to fit into their schedule’s model. It sucks for the work — but I get it somehow. But Netflix doesn’t have the evening news coming on at 11. People are literally watching whenever they want. There are no restrictions. And yet they have made some. It feels like a weird and scary amount of power — to collect the data of the length of show people are most likely to watch and then not only make their shows to exactly that length but to even edit previously made work to fit these specifications.
I love that they’re bringing me the world. While stuck in my apartment during this pandemic, I have been to Spain at the turn of the century, at the dawn of the telephonic age, and on a transatlantic ocean liner, as well as a few seasons in the Weimar Republic in Berlin and witch-hunting in Italy in some mythical medieval past. That is all an enormous gift. Each gift has been between 41–44 minutes.
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