I don’t know if it’s Marvel or Netflix who misread the trend of binge viewing, and decided that what people really wanted from a streaming service was 13-hour-long movies. All I know is that every single Marvel series has had the exact same problems: a throwaway first episode (you can skip all of them, and miss nothing), numerous lengthy conversations that are, ultimately, meaningless (advancing neither characterization nor the plot), and meandering plotlines that always bog down in the middle of the series. Now, The Punisher is better than all the previous series—it doesn’t hit the bog until episode six or seven, and it’s mostly out of the bog by episode ten—but it still falls prey to every single one of those sins.
It’s like nobody was paying attention to the lessons of Breaking Bad and Justified. Those two shows—critical and commercial hits—showed that 13 episodes is the perfect length for television dramas. Any more, and filler or rehashing proliferates as writers run out of ideas; any less, and the audience doesn’t get enough show to feel satisfied.
13 episodes, each with their own beginning, middle, and end, episodes that followed after the last and lead into the next, but episodes that could be viewed all by themselves and still tell a satisfying story. Taut episodes, episodes filled with events and conversations that mattered, episodes that held your attention—BY NECESSITY. This was the formula for great serialized television drama, and it worked.
Breaking Bad did this brilliantly. They had an entire episode devoted to Walter and Jesse chasing a fly around their meth lab, and it was RIVETING. They knew how to make each episode different, so that they stood out, so that each was different from the rest (in big ways or small ways).
The “13-hour-movie” approach ensures that each and every episode is stylistically identical, by deliberate design. 13 stylistically identical episodes is BORING. It’s exactly what you don’t want when you’re binge viewing. Variety is the spice of life, and Marvel’s approach ensures that variety is minimized.
Marvel’s approach does not work. Sure, The Punisher actually had some kind of action at the end of the first episode, defying the previous trend in these shows, and yes, they tried to keep things moving (whereas Luke Cage didn’t even try.) Maybe this means Marvel has started to realize its mistakes, and back off from them. Maybe. This series is an improvement.
Even so, Marvel’s refusal to embrace the hard-won lessons of the last decade of serialized dramas means that, despite moments of brilliance, each series (when taken as a whole) is never more than mediocre.