Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has just been broken.
Netflix announced earlier this week that the upcoming fourth season of its acclaimed sitcom will be split into two halves. The first six episodes will debut May 30th, while the latter six will air sometime later this year.
Kimmy not the first Netflix sitcom to endure this treatment – shows like Fuller House and The Ranch have previously had their individual seasons divided over two release dates. But the Kimmy announcement gave me pause. (Although given how Kimmy herself would probably interpret that last sentence, I should stress that it did not give me that kind of paws.)
The timing for the next Kimmy Schmidt season is perfect – too perfect
It’s no secret that Kimmy Schmidt is one of Netflix’s most critically successful shows – it’s been collecting accolades since its 2015 debut. The show was the first live-action sitcom to debut exclusively on the streaming service (it was originally produced for NBC, who sold the rights when they were trying to dismantle their comedy block). And it’s scooped up plenty of Emmy nominations in the last three years.
It’s that final point that’s crucial to understanding why Netflix is making the split. Though the show releases new episodes on an annual basis, each season is a month staggered from the previous one. The first season debuted in March 2015; the second in April 2016; the third in May 2017. (Presumably, the extended intervals are to allow the cast and crew to pursue other projects, like letting Ellie Kemper play a talking brick in The Lego Batman Movie.)
In each of its past three seasons, Kimmy has snagged a Best Comedy nomination at the Emmys. And though it’s lost to Veep on each one of those occasions, the awards attention it receives has certainly helped it keep its head above the Peak TV waters. But the Emmy has strict rules regarding the shows it nominates, and Kimmy seemed poised to break them in Season Four.
Emmy rules stipulate that, in order to qualify for a certain year’s ceremony, a show must have aired the bulk of a season’s episodes (either on TV or online) within the 12-month period of the prior season. Said period stretches from June of one calendar year through May of the next. This means that seasons which air episodes during the summertime will not be able to qualify for Emmys until the following fall. (Twin Peaks: The Return, for example, aired the bulk of its episodes during the summer of 2017, and will thus only be eligible for the Emmys that will air in late 2018.)
It also means that shows which go on extended break run the risk of losing a year in awards season. That was the risk that Kimmy was headed for. Airing a fourth season 13 months after the third (in June 2018) would effectively disqualify it from this year’s Emmys.
So Netflix, presumably insistent on maintaining the show’s momentum, has decided to split the season, taking six completed episodes (the minimum number needed to qualify for the non-miniseries category) and airing them just in time for this year’s eligibility window. This gets their foot in the door for the 2018 ceremony, while also letting the back half of the season secure them a spot in 2019 (and presumably allowing the potential Season Five to be postponed till 2020).
In short, it’s a business-driven decision, made by a studio that has built itself a reputation for creative freedom in quality programming.
And it doesn’t bode well.
Season-splitting turns great TV shows into corporate products
When was the last time a show benefited creatively from having a season cut in two? Series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have all had their final years halved, often to qualitative detriment. Writers envisioning one arc and climax must now craft two, and the first one tends to suffer from contrived prolongation as a result. (Though thankfully, in each of the above examples, the second half of the season more than compensated.)
Kimmy Schmidt is not a drama by trade, but it still works within dramatic parameters, with serialized stories and arcs that build across each season. Lengthy comedic buildups result in satisfying dramatic payoffs. Whittling a season down to two quasi-installments will presumably force the writers to change the seasonal structure of the first half, to better tempt viewers to stick around for the second.
But even if Robert Carlock and his team manage to overcome the season shift (and, given their track record, I wouldn’t be too surprised), Netflix’s maneuver is indicative of a disturbing TV trend.
The “drop all episodes at once” method was revolutionary when the streaming giant introduced it a few years ago, allowing viewers to watch their favorite shows at their own pace and leisure. But as seasons grow shorter, and series quantity grows ever greater, it’s become more and more tempting for streaming outlets, as well as networks, to treat their best shows like easily disposable commodities.
As I’m writing this, we’re currently in a television dry spell – hardly anything of interest is premiering this month. Part of this is due to the Olympics, which funnel away valuable attention from any network that isn’t NBC. But another issue is the increasing tendency of networks to hold off their best shows as late as possible in the awards-season period – hence why many of TV’s greatest offerings premiere around April.
It’s easy for a studio to wait until a few weeks before deadline and squeeze a six/eight/ten-episode season in just in time to catch voters’ eyes. But the more networks and streaming platforms futz around with airdates, the more the process shows its hand. And prioritizing the process over the product is a surefire way to drain the Golden Age of TV of its luster.
With so many shows available these days, it can be difficult to stand out in the pack. A well-timed release can help a series garner a few minutes of attention. But it may not always be helpful to the series in the long haul.