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The Acolyte shows the limits of TV in the streaming era

Not to be like "remember the good ole days" but...

The Acolyte stands looking over a sandy sea, with the background in black and white and the foreground in colour.
Image credit: VG247

Once upon a time, there was this little thing called cable. It let you watch many different shows, most of them kind of awful, for an amount of money that didn't really seem all that fair, but hey, what else are you gonna do, read a book? A lot of TV channels' output was mostly just something to have on in the background while you have a cuppa with your nan, but at the very least you had a lot of choice, and a lot to watch too. Seasons would last up to 24 episodes sometimes, and even if a show wasn't perfect, it at least had time to grow, particularly from season to season. Then Netflix happened.

I'm sure you generally know the rest: it was a cheaper alternative to cable that had all your favourite shows, eventually introducing original content you could only get there. One of the issues, however, was that there just wasn't as much of it. Seasons gradually got shorter and shorter, to the point that most of the subscription selling hits run from around 8-10 hour long episodes a pop. And it has hurt television quite broadly, with the most recent victim being the latest addition to the Star Wars universe, The Acolyte (major spoilers ahead for the first five episodes).

Watch on YouTube

Set around 100 years before the events of the original Star Wars films, The Acolyte is set during the High Republic era, a time of general peace, with something sinister going on behind the scenes. Some guy who certainly looks like a Sith (whose identity I won't spoil for you) has been manipulating a young, Force sensitive woman to go around killing Jedi. This is of course complicated by the fact that said young woman has a twin sister, who she was separated from, also Force sensitive and a former Jedi-in-training. There are also a couple of side characters, Yord, a slightly incompetent Jedi Knight, and Jecki, a smart and confident Padawan.

They're both enjoyable enough characters, their performances both generally being enjoyable to watch, with room for some interesting development, if the series allows it. Except, in episode five, they both get killed off by the show's big bad. Both of their deaths are quite brutal, purposely so, as it's obvious they're meant to shock you. They're definitely surprising, but annoyingly, they're also frustrating.

The thing is, across their five episodes of screentime, you never really get to know them. Neither of them have an in-depth backstory, there's just not the time for it, so I just didn't feel all that sad when they're killed off. I just can't help but wonder whether or not a full length season would have left me feeling different. Despite all of the review bombing that's taken place (you can ignore most of it), there is some strong writing happening in the show; questions over who gets to use the Force, different cultural interpretations of it, and twins each with their own roles to figure out is kind of a Star Wars staple, no?

The thing that really makes a show great,though, are those episodes that are mostly inconsequential, but have time to develop its side characters that there might not be the opportunity for in the main plot beats. With The Acolyte only running for eight episodes total, even if Yord and Jecki come back (I doubt it, those deaths were pretty definitive), it just means they were there for the sake of convenience rather than telling an interesting story with them.

Streaming just isn't all that interested in long running shows these days though. They're expensive, and we all know how streamers feel about paying the people that make them as successful as they are. So we're now left with shows that will probably run for one season, that we'll ultimately forget about until one day someone on Twitter says "man, remember that one show that deserved seven seasons? Why didn't any of you watch it?" And we say in response, "we did watch it, but in an age where streamers refuse to share their watch numbers and can't be held accountable in any meaningful way, what are we meant to do?" And nothing changes. Like I said, I feel frustrated.

Television can do so much that film just can't, but it's clear that streamers don't really want that to be the case - Maya Hawke's recent comments about the final season of Stranger Things being like eight movies really tells you where we're at with TV now. That's ok when it's an occasional thing, but it just feels like the standard now, and honestly, part of why I enjoy anime so much is because seasons are generally lengthy, and if I just want to watch one 20-something minute-long episode and be done, I can.

I know that the likelihood is that things are just going to stay this way, but even still I can't help but miss the old days of TV. The 2010s were thought of as this perfect period of television, but over the past decade it feels like all of that has been degraded to simple content, always there as something to watch, but never really there as something to engage in. I like The Acolyte, it's pretty good TV. But it could have been a lot more.

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