We’ve recently begun the grieving process for Pawnee, IN, we’re a few months away from bidding farewell to Sterling Cooper & Partners, and all the parents in the ‘hood aren’t long for this world either. A lot of people will feel sad or wistful when these fictional worlds come to a close, and that’s entirely the point. A TV show should make you feel that way when it ends if it’s doing its job right. If it was a part of your life and the characters were friends of yours, or at least companions one night a week, then of course you should be a bit down when they leave you. But it’s the saying goodbye that makes the show worth watching in the first place. TV when its done properly exists in a finite space and like any relationship or bond, at some point, there’s going to be a parting of the ways. In the immortally silly words of Guns and/or Roses, “Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.”
It seems almost antithetical, certainly in the ratings-craving corporate part of television, to want to see a popular and beloved show pack it in. I mean, if people still like the show, it still does well (enough) in the ratings, and everybody’s getting paid, then why call it quits? Well, the biggest reason for this is arcs. When a show gets to the pilot stage and miraculously gets a chance to get made into a full season, the creator/writers have to have some kind of narrative arc in mind such that if the show doesn’t get picked up, as we saw with a lot of shows during Fall of ’14, there’s at least SOME kind of closure. There’s no guarantee a show will get picked up. BUT, if it does get picked up and proves to be popular enough that it continues and doesn’t seem like it’s going to get the ax any time soon, any good writer will start thinking about how it’ll all wrap up.
It’s much easier for cable or genre shows to dictate their own endings, mostly due to them being more contingent on plot or mystery. Something like LOST said at a certain point that they’d do 6 seasons and no more, and for all the faults of that final season, it made sense that they did when they did. Breaking Bad was the same way; these characters in the world they inhabited couldn’t continue the way they were going, and hence there had to be a resolution. Mad Men is less about plot and more about characters, but it’s also resting squarely in this framework of the 1960s and so when the ’60s ends, so should Mad Men. These are shows that have an idea of a greater story arc that did eventually need to be resolved for the complete work to be considered art.
We’ve all seen examples of this type of show going on longer than it should have. The X-Files is one that stands out immediately to me, having been a huge fan of it at the time. That’s a show that by creator Chris Carter’s very admission should have ended after its fifth season, with the feature film The X-Files: Fight the Future acting as a denouement. The finale of Season 5 was even called “The End,” and yet it kept going, limping on for another four seasons, only one and a half of which were of a quality similar to the good old days. David Duchovny only participated in two of those four extra years regularly and the show suffered for it. There’s also the danger with a show like this, or like Battlestar Galactica which DID have a definite end date, that there really is no way to end it satisfactorily and so the last season or so is either a huge departure, a complete bonkers stab at something, or both.
It might seem like sitcoms could get away with lasting a long time given that, generally, things reset back to relative normalcy at the end of any one episode. But, this is where we get the infamous “jumping the shark” moment. If a show lasts too long, it runs the risk of doing this, a reference to a late-era Happy Days episode where Fonzie literally jumps over a shark while water skiing. It can be argued that a show like Friends never jumped the shark, but I would argue that happened some time between when Ross and Rachel first broke up to when Monica and Chandler got together. Current shows like New Girl, only in its fourth season, have already jumped that particular shark by getting Jess and Nick together too soon and breaking them up just as quickly, and now, for as charming as the cast is, there’s nothing. There’s no tension anywhere, and way too many characters.
Parks and Recreation could have ended at the finale of Season 6. And, in fact, it did. The story was done. Over. We flashed forward to 2017 to see where Leslie Knope ended up, working from Pawnee but for the National Parks Service. A shorted 13 episode 7th season seemed unnecessary, but so far at least, it’s making use of its new premise and making lots of joke references to the years we didn’t get to see. That, to me, works great. It’s doing something The Office didn’t do. Steve Carell wanted to leave and did so at the fourth-to-last episode of the seventh season. But, like X-Files before it, the show limped along for a further two seasons attempting to maintain some of the magic of the best Carell years.
Obviously, there are huge hit television shows that have been on for a billion years and don’t seem to be going anywhere. Maybe they stick around because they’re familiar to audiences, people enjoy the characters for what they are, and the premise isn’t too ambitious. I’m looking at a LOT of CBS shows, and specifically procedural dramas. ER was on for 15 seasons, Law & Order made it 20 seasons, Special Victims Unit is on its 16th season, CSI is on 15, and NCIS, the current number one show on TV for a few years, has been going for 12. These shows go on forever because, mostly, the casts and characters are immaterial. People like the consistency of a crime being solved every week, and since only about 20% of any season actually involves character development, they don’t blow their wad too soon. But also, who cares? You can plug in any actor or character into that formula and it’d work, and the audience can watch any one episode in isolation and know what’s going on and then forget it immediately. This is why Sherlock will always be a better show than Elementary.
Now I’m sure people are going to bring up Doctor Who as a super long-running show that doesn’t really succumb to the same problems as procedurals or serials. Well, that’s simply because it’s both. Ever since the old days, the show has reinvented itself depending on who was playing the Doctor and who was writing/producing the show. You can look at William Hartnell’s first few seasons and not see any resemblance to Colin Baker’s two seasons save the name, general premise, and blue police box. The show changed dramatically when Russell T. Davies and David Tennant left, and it changed again when Matt Smith left even though Steven Moffat stayed on. This is the only show that can get away with this kind of rampant overhauling every few years.
So what’s the point of all this? When it comes to TV, if you love something you have to set it free. Clinging to a show for too long is bad for the show. What if you kept reading a book that just never concluded? At a certain point, a storyline needs to have a finish. It’s like listening to a piece of music that never resolves the chord at the end, or keeps fading out endlessly and then coming back up, and then fading out again ad infinitum. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, have a good cry and say your goodbyes, and then find a new show. It’s better for everyone involved this way. You can always watch it all again on Netflix anyway.