In the season 5 finale of Better Call Saul, antihero lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and his colleague turned wife Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) stress-ate room-service sundaes in an Albuquerque hotel as a conflict with profound implications for their future raged in Mexico. Season 6, back April 18 on AMC after a two-year hiatus, picks up just hours later, as the remnants of their dessert congeal on a rolling cart in the hallway. Maybe it sounds frustrating, having to wait so long for ice cream to melt that you forget about the anxiety it symbolizes. Yet refreshing your memory of a favorite series can also be a pleasure, like catching up with an old friend. It’s customary to gripe about long hiatuses between seasons, but the truth is: I like when a show gives me time to miss it.
Largely because of pandemic-related production shutdowns, the effects of which are still rippling through release schedules, this spring will see the return of many beloved shows that haven’t aired in years. Along with Saul, April will bring the first new episodes since 2019 of Netflix’s Russian Doll, a trippy love letter to New York City starring Natasha Lyonne, and HBO’s Emmy-winning Barry, which casts Bill Hader as a lonely hit man who catches the acting bug. Family sci-fi juggernaut Stranger Things will also have been absent for three years when the first half of its two-part fourth season drops over Memorial Day weekend. And Donald Glover’s Atlanta had been off the air for almost four years by the time its third season debuted in March.
Russian Doll. Natasha Lyonne as Nadia Vulvokov in episode 202 of Russian Doll. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
COURTESY OF NETFLIX—© 2022 Netflix, Inc.
But hiatus creep didn’t originate with COVID. Ever since premium cable and streaming decoupled American TV schedules from advertising calendars, those platforms have had the freedom to function more like publicly funded overseas networks such as the BBC—where cult-classic sitcom Absolutely Fabulous could run for three seasons in the early ’90s, take five years off, return for two more seasons, and then resurface again in 2011 for a trilogy of 20th-anniversary specials. Increasingly ambitious TV productions, shot in multiple countries and with elaborate special effects (like Apple’s Foundation), can also increase the time required to create a season.
Such elasticity in scheduling can be great for creators, the most distinguished of whom might now make a new season of their show whenever—and no sooner than—inspiration strikes. Larry David let six years pass between Seasons 8 and 9 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. This kind of leeway is essential for high-concept series like Atlanta and Russian Doll, which swerve between reality and surrealism, propelled by heady ideas about identity, history, and time, and would be doomed by an imperative to churn.
“ATLANTA” — “Sinterklaas is Coming to Town” — Season 3, Episode 2 (Airs March 24) Pictured (L-R): Donald Glover as Earn Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles. CR: Coco Olakunle/FX
Copyright 2022, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.
The first instinct of many fans in this age of constant content might be to demand more of the shows they love, soon enough to keep them immersed in their televisual universe of choice. But it’s not like we’re in danger of running out of things to watch, now that TV produces some 500 scripted series annually. If our favorite shows never took a year off, we’d have that much less time to explore the dozens of new ones that pop up each week. Awards might become as predictable as they were when broadcast networks dominated the nominees; Modern Family took top comedy honors at the Emmys five years in a row.
What’s good for creators is also good for viewers, at least when it comes to auteurist shows like the ones returning this spring. Instead of racing from one plot point to the next, we get to savor season-long arcs. What’s more satisfying than an endless stream of mediocre entertainment is a story that holds our attention even when it’s off the air. Ice cream expires. Our investment in Saul and Kim? Not so much.
This appears in the April 25, 2022 issue of INM.