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Hiatus brain: When your favorite show returns, but you can't remember a thing

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in a still from Season 6 of <em>Better Call Saul. </em>
Greg Lewis
AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill in a still from Season 6 of Better Call Saul.

Last week the premiere date for the final season of Better Call Saul was announced: The first half is set to air on AMC starting in April, and the second half will premiere in August. At first, I was elated; this has been one of my absolute favorite shows of the past several years, the rare exercise in capitalizing on a pre-existing franchise that's actually managed to distinguish itself as a great endeavor in its own right.

But quickly, a realization set in. I have zero recollection of where the show last left off. Honestly, I'm not certain I'd be able to tell you anything plot-related that occurred throughout Season 5. That season concluded April 20, 2020 – exactly two years minus two days from the upcoming launch of Season 6.

Two years might as well be an eternity for a show like Better Call Saul, where significant details tend to be doled out piecemeal via deliberately paced plotlines. All I have are fuzzy memories of long scenes spent with Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler combing through legal documents, Kim joining in on Jimmy's elaborate scams but eventually becoming exasperated by them, and Nacho Varga partaking in a nighttime home invasion that I think might have involved some tunneling? Maybe? Also, Gus Fring did some things, and so did Mike Ehrmantraut. I'm 99 percent certain Walter White and Jesse Pinkman still haven't entered the picture yet, though.

I could totally be imagining all or some or most of these things. Like I said, I'm fuzzy on the details. I think I've got what I'll call "hiatus brain."

Hiatus brain is exactly what it sounds like – it's what happens when a narrative show leaves its viewers alone for too long before returning to continue the narrative. Once the lag between seasons begins to surpass, say, 10-12 months, the mind has a significantly harder time picking up where the show last left off. Plotlines are lost to the sands of time, established character arcs exist as little more than blemishes barely imprinted on the surface of the mind.

Plotlines are lost to the sands of time, established character arcs exist as little more than blemishes barely imprinted on the surface of the mind.

You then have to scour the internet for decent recaps or season finale reviews in order to feel up to speed – and yet even then, you may worry some important details have been left out and you're going into the new installments woefully unprepared. Wait, who formed an alliance with who and why? And does so-and-so know so-and-so betrayed them yet, or are they still in the dark?

The pandemic is, of course, partially to blame for hiatuses of some of your favorite shows. And in the case of Saul, we're lucky to even be getting a final season considering star Bob Odenkirk's on-set health scare last year. But even before COVID, this was becoming A Thing in the realm of episodic television, as the concept of time has collapsed into a flat circle where cable and streaming productions are no longer beholden to a strict primetime schedule. A little under 18 months elapsed between the Season 4 finale and Season 5 premiere of Saul, and I had the exact same problem I have now.

There was also about a year and a half between the end of season three and beginning of season four of Insecure, which filmed before the pandemic. And it's hard to believe the perfect first season of Russian Doll dropped more than three years ago, but here comes Season 2 this spring. (I loved Season 1 so much I watched the whole thing again right away, which is something I never do. Still, I feel like I'm going to need a refresher before I dive into the new episodes.)

Atlanta is probably the most egregious recent example of this trend, though: When it finally comes back for its third season next month, it will have been four full years since Season 2 premiered. That is an incredible amount of time for a show that isn't Curb Your Enthusiasm and isn't a reboot of something that was previously canceled! Within that period, Donald Glover dropped "This Is America"; all four of its leads starred in huge blockbusters (good for them!); Kanye called slavery "a choice;" Meghan and Harry got hitched and absconded from the royal family (good for them, too!); two seasons of Tiger King were released; Trump left the White House kicking and screaming while insurrectionists descended upon the Capitol. Not to mention we're now two years into this pandemic. (Of course, in the midst of my writing this lament it was announced Atlanta's fourth and final season will premiere this fall, just a few months after Season 3. A respite!)

Atlanta is much more vibes than it is plot, unlike Better Call Saul, but there's still a loose narrative arc built around the central characters, which, I think, warrants a re-watch of some of its previous episodes. I'm absolutely not going to dissuade anyone from revisiting Atlanta if they have the time, but who among us really has the time to watch every show again before the newest season airs years later?

And if you're anything like me, a person who watches TV for a living, perhaps you've watched hundreds of hours of TV and other content since the last time your favorite thing was on the air. After a while themes and scenes and characters start to blend together until it becomes a game of Clue, where Kim Wexler probably did the murder in the bathroom at a house party in Atlanta during Nadia Vulvokov's 36th "sweet birthday baby."

Aside from the pandemic restrictions, the looseness of TV seasons seems to have been spurred on by a combination of factors, only some of which are visible to us normies, like creators and performers wanting to work on other projects, and complex production demands, in the case of something like the final season of Game of Thrones. The morally sound core of my being wants to be happy for filmmakers who get to be liberated from the tyranny of network TV's rigid release schedule, especially in this COVID-era.

But the selfish part of me misses the days when more shows were like Grey's Anatomy, where you can count on Meredith and co. to get back to doing their sexy doctor stuff at the same time year after year.

My hiatus brain hurts.

If you liked this excerpt from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, subscribe to our newsletter to get recommendations on what's making us happy every week.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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