The Bear is the best new series of autumn. It doesn’t waste a second of your time

Donald Clarke: The season’s best new drama questions assumptions of how long a TV drama should be

How long is a TV episode? There used to be an answer to that question. As we shall see, there used to be a weirdly particular answer to that question. That may no longer be the case.

The Bear is the best new series to land on streaming services this autumn. Telling the story of a top-flight chef who inherits what we would call a greasy spoon from his brother, the galloping Disney+ drama is edited in the sort of controlled frenzy you expect from the best action cinema. Set in Chicago, it has a singular sense of place. The acting is consistently salty.

More important than all of that, Christopher Storer’s series doesn’t waste a second of your time. One can imagine Carmy Berzatto, the busy protagonist, yelling exasperatedly at the sluggish shows surrounding him in the current TV universe. “Move your f**king ass, Rings of Power! We got a party of five waiting! ... Chef Stranger Things, you sh**tin’ me with this two-and-a-half-hour finale? Chop faster!” (They swear a lot in The Bear.)

Until recently, the Emmys essentially defined a comedy show as something that ran for half an hour or less

Over the last decade or two, we have become used to TV series spreading out like the great American novel. And not a slim American novel such as The Great Gatsby or Catcher in The Rye. TV series now long for the meandering comprehensiveness of Moby Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow.


The sort of thing that could stop a whole magazine of bullets. The era of discrete episodes has almost completely vanished. Even sitcoms connect their instalments and seasons into long arcs that stretch over years.

It looks as if The Bear may also tell its story over multiple series, but on the macro-level it is a model of economy. Whereas Better Call Saul is happy to leave the reader treading water for the odd vague, exploratory episode, The Bear is powering forward at all times.

Whereas Game of Thrones investigated every corner of every plotline, The Bear invites its viewer to fill in strategically positioned gaps. Have I missed something? Well, yes. You were meant to. Now work out what that was.

The crucial distinction between the series and virtually every other American drama is, however, that most episodes last around only 30 minutes. To get some sense of how odd this is in US television, be aware that until recently, the Emmys essentially defined a comedy show as something that ran for half an hour or less. Anything longer was a drama.

Confirming the Television Academy’s decision last year, Entertainment Weekly noted that “more serious half-hour shows like Atlanta and Barry have snatched up comedy noms and wins with nary a punchline in sight”. The magazine went on to note that more jocular series such as The Marvellous Mrs Maisel and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, playing out through longer episodes, had to be considered in the drama section.

All is chaos? It’s free jazz? It’s blank verse? Well, not quite

This particular case highlights the weird American obsession with form and genre. This year Amanda Seyfried, impressively bizarre in The Dropout, won the Emmy for “outstanding lead actress in a limited or anthology series or movie”. Over at the Grammys they are producing calipers to distinguish between “traditional R&B” and “progressive R&B”. US awards juries just love stuff to fit into neat categories. Arbitrary rules about what the length of a show signifies helps.

The move towards streaming changed everything. When television episodes emerged weekly at a regular time, sandwiched between two other shows that also landed (as we then didn’t say) at the same hour, there was an obvious need to regulate running times. Aberrations occurred. There is a distinct variation of lengths in Fawlty Towers episodes. The longest runs to a full 36 minutes.

The rest come close to the industry-standard half-hour. For the most part, however, programme-makers had to keep to a strict schedule. Glenroe fans or Miami Vice enthusiasts couldn’t be kept waiting on an overindulgent episode of Falcon Crest.

That restriction became as much a part of the form as rhyme schemes were to the writers of sonnets. A film could, without generating much complaint, last between 85 minutes and 150 minutes. TV had no such freedom. Those conventions have been slowly breaking down since the emergence of Netflix.

The episodes on, say, David Fincher’s grim Mindhunter run from 34 minutes (a knockabout comedy according to the old Emmy Rules) to a near-feature-sized 73 minutes.

All is chaos? It’s free jazz? It’s blank verse? Well, not quite. New conventions build on the old. On both The Bear and recent Korean smash Squid Game, a shorter than usual penultimate episode clears the throat for a spectacular denouement. Feature episodes are now commonplace for finales. Even The Bear stretched out to a relatively lengthy 40 minutes for its last part. Humans have a way of reining in any art form that threatens to fully break the shackles. We are devils for order.