When is Slow Burn Television Worth It?

Weighing the pros and cons of the summer of the "slow-burn."

Sharp Objects

Over the next few weeks, dozens of new TV shows will fill the airwaves, vying for your eyes by whatever means necessary. Plenty of these series won’t have a second season, and some will be axed after just a few episodes. Come September, network pilot season will do what it’s always done, going big with premieres meant to captivate from start to finish via nostalgia-baiting reboots (Murphy Brown), high-budget stunts (Manifest, already ordered to series), and other tried and true tactics to earn viewership. The most successful of these shows will get full-season orders, which means they’ll inevitably try to sustain that initial energy for as many as 21 more episodes.

Meanwhile, on cable and streaming, a different approach rules the land: shows with more creative liberty are running for six to 13 episodes and still manage to feel long. This summer alone, Castle Rock, Sharp Objects, The Sinner, Atlanta, The Handmaid’s Tale, GLOW, and even tachycardia-inducing movies like Hereditary have — accurately or not — been labeled as “slow burns” by viewers and critics alike. Outside of this season, The Deuce, Better Call Saul, Mindhunter, and dozens of other shows of varying quality have gained this moniker. At this point, the descriptor is offered up so frequently that it’s dangerously close to losing all meaning. A spectrum of pacing and plot factors fall under the umbrella of a “slow burn,” a method of storytelling which can either be boring or subtle, deliberate or floundering, but which more often than not has been compressed into a generic term of ambivalence at a series’ perceived lack of action.

Although some of the best series ever to grace our screens fall into the slow burn category (Mad Men, The Americans, and early seasons of Breaking Bad among them), I get the feeling that audiences are on the edge of slow burn fatigue. HBO and Jean-Marc Vallée’s miniseries adaptation Sharp Objects had the same unhurried grim energy that the much-lauded limited series True Detective had four years ago, but judging by social media and critical responses alike, several of its later episodes left viewers feeling less engrossed than exhausted. This isn’t to say that the series is actually bad; at its best, the show makes brutally revelatory statements about performed womanhood, and in our opinion, stuck its tricky landing. However, by last week’s finale, the show had lost some initial buzz as many viewers lost steam after sitting through its impressionistic narrative.

Those who use “slow burn” to denote a perceived lack of payoff feel rightfully slighted by a time investment that isn’t returned by a series’ sluggish pace or lackluster story, although each viewer’s internal scale weighs differently, and pacing is a tough element to evaluate. One person’s “I just couldn’t get into it” is another person’s worthy investment. In this sense, so-called prestige television is TV that takes work; viewers must judge each stylistic or narrative choice as either boring or building, the latter giving showrunners the benefit of the doubt and assuming these moments are stacking up to an impressive climax.

Castle Rock

Where plenty of shows (specifically the big network type that populate pilot season) offer tidy and familiar story beats that lead to expected revelations, the prestige, slow-burn dramas often purposefully sidestep these story tracks. The issue is that these alternative forms of pacing have lost novelty, leaving savvy viewers demanding the shows provide a good reason for, say, showing Andre Holland staring in confusion at things for a long time.

Often in stories such as these, the plot takes a backseat to the atmosphere. Narrative payoff has to be significant enough to make up for hours of disparate moody elements. In Sharp Objects, for example, Camille discovers the killer’s identity, and Detective Willis finally sees Camille’s scars. Although it does offer payoff, Sharp Objects leaves us with an uneasy, what-does-it-all-mean feeling, enhanced by the chunks of its story — Camille’s full childhood flashbacks, the fallout of Amma’s actions — that are withheld from us. This withholding, as with the narrative withholding that takes place in The Americans, or Mad Men, or any number of worthwhile series’, only works if it serves a purpose that’s visible not just to creators, but to invested viewers as well.

Peggy Olson

Perhaps this is the real problem facing viewers who are trying to find the middle ground between slow-building dramas and fast-paced yet predictable prime time TV. Not every story has a purpose worth investing time in, and if you doubt the cast or crew’s confidence in their ability to convince you of a story’s purpose, everything is going to feel like a waste of time. Half-baked dramas sneak onto our radars, disguised as relatives to better shows we already love, then fail to come together in any significant way, following the patterns of successful slow-burns but leaving us hollow. This issue has long-since plagued crime dramas, which often try to replicate the detailed mysteries of shows like Broadchurch to little effect. More recently, it’s plagued some of the lesser Netflix dramas that fill the platform’s ever-crowded schedule.

Let’s not give up on slow burns completely, but rather concede that they aren’t all created equally. For viewers who choose to treat television like a text worth studying, the well-built narrative slow burn can still be as rewarding as it is daunting. When viewed through the lens of curiosity and attention to form, there’s something to be gleaned from every moment of a worthwhile series. In Mad Men, a minor gesture or single frame was often symbolically loaded, able to convey a complex parallel or emotional undertone that was often subtle but never boring. When Peggy Olson walked down the hallway in a pair of sunglasses with a cigarette quirked in her mouth in “Lost Horizon,” it wasn’t a particularly flashy moment in the grand scheme of television scenes, but it was a culmination of seven seasons of slowly building character development paying off in a deeply fulfilling way. Of course, most shows aren’t Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or The Americans.

This leads us to one final, insidious problem with bad slow-burn TV: while the clumsier network pilots have a go-big-or-go-home mentality that often grants viewers the opportunity to form an opinion rather quickly, wannabe prestige TV offers no such easy out. Resentment grows when we’re left to determine whether or not we’re watching the next great American TV show, and are unable to figure it out for a dozen or more hours. Just like the slow to ignite fires after which they’re named, these stories hold our eyes in the captivating lull of their minor glow for a long time, until they either flicker to life or, disappointingly, extinguish completely.

Bay Area freelance writer, podcast producer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast.