I Think You Should Leave: the shortform sketch show breaking the rules of TV
TV has always been bound by rules, writes Isobel Lewis. But given our apparently decreasing attention spans, why has shortform not become the nrom?
Forget Stranger Things. Never mind The Crown. The best TV show Netflix has made in recent years is I Think You Should Leave. In a time when comedy is usually infused with drama or sadness (Fleabag, Bojack Horseman, Flowers), here is a shortform sketch show that revels in its simple and glorious silliness, toilet humour and all. Created by Saturday Night Live alumnus Tim Robinson, and with episodes no longer than 18 minutes, it follows a simple formula: one person does something a bit weird, then to avoid admitting that they’re embarrassed, doubles down on their stance until chaos descends.
There’s the woman who sees her friends caption their Instagram pictures with cutesy, self-deprecating insults, so assumes that calling them “sacks of s***” and “pig d***s” is the natural progression. There’s the country music singer who won’t stop singing about skeletons, bones and money. And who could forget the (now infamous) focus group meƒif mber who keeps suggesting that his dream car would be “too small”, “stinky” and have a steering wheel that doesn’t fly out of the window when you’re driving?
With an excellent ensemble cast (Cecily Strong, Will Forte, Andy Samberg) and Robinson’s weird, internet-cum-stoner, Adult Swim-inspired sense of humour, there is barely a dud sketch among the 29. When it premiered last year, the show managed to gain both a cult following and critical acclaim, and was quickly renewed for a second season. All with just six, 17-minute episodes.
But when it comes to shortform content, I Think You Should Leave seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Netflix’s other series whose episodes are sub-20 minutes – such as David Fincher’s Love, Death and Robots, cartoon Aggretsuko, and dark comedy Bonding – have mostly slipped under the radar, gaining mixed reviews and failing to generate the same buzz as similar but longer content.
And then there’s Quibi. Last week saw the US launch of the streaming service, which is dedicated to original scripted and unscripted content told through “quick bite” episodes of 10 minutes or less. But a big ol’ dose of bad luck and poor timing meant the launch was less bang, more fizzle. For a platform whose mission statement is essentially, “We’re all so busy that we have no time to watch TV except for when we’re out and about or commuting”, a national pandemic bringing the world to a standstill and leaving us all with a lot of time on our hands wasn’t ideal.
Quibi amassed 1.7 million downloads in its first week, but has since dropped out of the top 40 free apps on US iTunes altogether, with Variety calling the launch “tepid” compared to the company’s projections. The only Quibi content that has made its way into my line of view is horror anthology series 50 States of Fright, which sees Marvellous Mrs Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan play a woman who is obsessed with her golden arm (yes, really). A viral clip from that show has baffled the internet – and not in a good way. That’s about it, though. Despite big names such as Steven Spielberg, Chrissy Teigen and Reese Witherspoon signing up to create everything from comedy to reality TV, no show seems to have generated the buzz they were so clearly trying for.
It’s surprising, given that we’re all constantly being told that our attention spans have gone out the window, that shortform shows haven’t become the norm. Then again, TV has always been bound by rules. Light-hearted comedies last 30 minutes, dramas 60. If a show is on a commercial channel, its entire structure will be built around the ad breaks. Despite the fact that in an age of streaming, people can watch whatever they want, whenever they want, it seems that old habits die hard, and digital TV platforms have generally stuck with standard show lengths. Part of this is surely an unwillingness to take risks. People know what to expect from 30 and 60-minute shows. But 17? Not so much.
If I Think You Should Leave is anything to go by, the key to creating a successful shortform show is to work with the show’s length, rather than to condense what could have been a much longer show into bite-sized chunks. Anyone choosing to watch shortform content is already accepting something different to the mainstream, so why not use this format to try out newer ideas that might not fit the normal schedule? I Think You Should Leave‘s brevity is part of its genius. Each new story is cut down so expertly, there’s hardly any fat left. And given the wacky style of comedy and the fact that each sketch goes from 0-100 in mere seconds, a 15-minute episode can be sensory overload enough.
“[The episodes] were supposed to be originally like 22 minutes,” Robinson told BUILD Series last year, “but once we started putting them together, we realised they just were so much easier to take in if they were shorter and had that shorter run time. Also, it’s easier to watch the next one once you’ve seen a shorter version.”
He’s got a point. The show can easily be broken down into sketches or episodes, but when watched all together, is no longer than your average feature film. And being able to dip in and out non-chronologically makes ITYSL easy to rewatch.
Streaming services not bound by normal TV rules have the potential to do genuinely groundbreaking things with TV. And as I Think You Should Leave demonstrates, sometimes short but sweet is the way to go.