When Carrie confronted Brody for being a terrorist on Homeland; when Quinn Perkins' identity was revealed on Scandal; when Lori died on The Walking Dead; when American Horror Story: Asylum revealed who Bloody Face was: All of these things happened within the first five episodes of each of these series this season. Suffice it to say, the fall TV season has been full-steam ahead, with series diving straight into some of their biggest mysteries at such a breakneck speed, it has left fans wondering — and anticipating — how the shows will top these events for the remainder of the season. Does this make speed the new suspense on television?
"Shows have sped up," says Edward Kitsis, co-showrunner of Once Upon a Time, which has spent the better half of Season 2 not only introducing a cadre of new fairy tale characters, but also simultaneously providing actual answers — Dr. Whale is Frankenstein?! Neal Cassady is Henry's father?! "You go back and look at shows 10 years ago and it's almost like the pacing is different."
So, what changed, forcing showrunners of serialized shows to dole out a plethora of answers each week? In a post-Lost era, audiences have grown impatient, decidedly tuning out at the first sign of having to wait to find out — metaphorically, at least — what the island really is. "I think if an audience feels like it's in good hands, then they can enjoy the tease," says American Horror Story's Tim Minear, whose past credits include short-lived series Firefly, Terriers and Wonderfalls. "But if they start to feel like there are no answers or that the writers don't know where they're going, then it's buh-bye." Unfortunately, that means audiences are possibly faced with never actually learning the truths behind their cult favorites because many series are canceled too quickly after failing to engage.
Those same viewers have also become a lot more savvy about uncovering shows' mysteries, whether that means using the pause function to catch a glimpse of a visual "Easter egg" or visiting the increasingly popular fans sites that dissect every detail of every episode. "Audiences have grown more sophisticated over the years," says Kitsis' partner in crime on Once, Adam Horowitz. "The more and more there have been serialized shows and shows with ongoing mysteries, there's been an exponential growth in the amount of scrutiny and thought that the audience puts into shows. Because of that, there is a need to speed things up on the front of providing satisfying answers, but it also needs to be balanced with continuing to ask questions that intrigue an audience to want to continue watching a show."
On the flip side, Scandal executive producer Shonda Rhimes, whose credits also include Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, doesn't think a series has to give answers just to get a reprieve from cancellation. "Shows like Downton Abbey survive fine moving slowly," she says. "To me, how a show is paced is dependent on what the show is about. Scandal is set in a high-stakes, fast-paced world and so the show needs to move quickly."
Horowitz agrees, adding: "I think the storytelling paradigms are dictated by what the show is itself. I love watching Homeland and love seeing how they set up mysteries and answer them and then move on at a breakneck speed to something else, but that's the vibe of that show and they do it brilliantly." And Homeland has done just that, with Carrie (Claire Danes) taking down Brody (Damian Lewis) in the fourth episode of the second season after they discovered his confession video — an event so momentous that it would have been fitting for the finale.
The fast pace seems to have paid off with viewers. In its second season, Homeland has seen record ratings, climbing as high as 2.07 million viewers. The Walking Dead has seen numbers unheard of on cable, with the most recent episode scoring 10.37 million viewers. Even broadcast series have fared well, with Scandal retaining its loyal audience and Once Upon a Time scoring well in both ratings and the 18 to 49 demo.
Sure, fans are sated once a week knowing they've learned the truth behind some new mystery, but each new answer slowly, yet surely brings us closer to the end of a series. Does this mean the faster a series reveals answers, the closer it gets to cancellation? The balancing act is exactly what these producers deal with daily in their respective writers' rooms. "One of the lessons we learned last season was not to hold these muscular plot twists too long," Homeland executive producer Alex Gansa says. "One of the things the audience knew at the end of the first season is that that tape is going to surface. Brody put it in the hiding place, and when he came back to look for it... he couldn't find it. So, if the audience is expecting it to come to light somehow ... and you postpone it for too long, the audience gets restless and gets upset at the storytelling."
For American Horror Story's writers' room, they have the luxury of being a miniseries, affording them a chance to reboot the brand every season — though fans were nonetheless shocked when Bloody Face, this year's big bad, was unmasked as the seemingly innocent Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) so early in the season. "We could burn through story, answer all the questions, and never feel like we were treading water," Minear says of their miniseries format. "Having said that, even with just 13 episodes to service, once we start making big reveals by Episodes 4 and 5, it's still a challenge to keep enough balls in the air to keep things humming to the end. But when in doubt, we don't hold back and trust that more story will generate itself."
Even new series are realizing they must provide answers, lest the viewers be left with another case of FlashForward or Alcatraz — a hot flame that quickly burned out. Revolution realized this early on and quickly corrected its course. "The first few episodes we shot, stuff wasn't revealed that quickly," says star Billy Burke, who plays a survivor of a worldwide blackout in the NBC series from Supernatural's Eric Kripke and Lost's J.J. Abrams. "They took a broader look at it, and we went back and did some reshoots to reveal stuff sooner, which I thought was brilliant, and now the story is just trucking along... and I can't see it slowing down from here."
Another reason for the quick pace, some of the producers say, is because fans don't even want to wait for next week's episode and seek answers online from sites willing to tease, if not outright spoil what's coming next (and yes, we realize TVGuide.com is one of those sites). "You've got to be really careful with withholding secrets throughout the season because the audience will absolutely get ahead of you," says Scott Buck, the showrunner on Dexter, which fell victim to that problem last season when theories that Edward James Olmos' character was just a dead vision his student Travis (Colin Hanks) was having turned out to be true. Adds Kitsis: "Audiences are so smart now, so you don't have the luxury to reveal a big mystery. They're usually onto you right away."
Social media has become a way to facilitate that, with fans being able to react in real time to episodes — compared to 10 years ago when producers would have to seek out fan pages for feedback. But it's difficult to change up plots in response to tweets or other such posts considering production is normally half a dozen episodes ahead of where the audience is. "Mostly it's fun to see the theories and how close the fans are to figuring out where we're going," Minear says. "On occasion you'll read something that never occurred to you and think, 'I wish we'd thought of that!'"
In that same vein, the new trend for accelerated storytelling isn't necessarily a reaction to the fans' comments either. Although the showrunners on The Walking Dead and Dexter are enjoying universally lauded seasons following seasons that were widely criticized, both shows took note of the criticism, but didn't necessarily change their game plans. "Last year we were criticized for taking our time and having a slow pace," Walking Dead's Glen Mazzara says of the year Rick (Andrew Lincoln) & Co. spent on the farm. "This year, we've accelerated it, and I have heard some feedback that we're blowing through story. Everybody seems to have an opinion on how fast or how slow The Walking Dead should go. As a showrunner, I just have to go with, 'What are the best stories? And what feels real?'"
Adds Walking Dead comic creator Robert Kirkman: "In a show like this, you can't really respond to criticism too directly in your work. I always worry that if we start listening to other people, you'll lose what it is that we're doing that's appealing to so many people."
"It is definitely helpful to hear what the fans are saying," Buck notes. "We care very much. These are the people we're making the show for, so you don't want to alienate your audience."
With that in mind, have the producers figured out the ultimate formula for revealing answers while simultaneously raising new questions? "There's no formula," says Rhimes. "I wish there was. Life would be simpler, and I would get more sleep. We go for broke and try not to worry about how much info we are giving away. Instead, we focus on making each episode the best episode possible and we think about what we're going to do in the next episode when we get to it. My one rule is that we have to leave the audience with at least one new question at the end each episode."
For the Once crew, Kitsis says it's a gut feeling. "We're audience members," he says. "We approach the show as fans. What would we want to watch? We just try to gauge our own patience level and our own curiosity and where we're going to be satisfied."
Are you satisfied with TV this season? Or do you think shows are moving too fast?