Calling it Quits: When Should TV Shows End?

After four years with HBO, Terence Winter's Boardwalk Empire is ending.
After four years with HBO, Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire is ending it’s run this year.

After enjoying a comfortable four years on HBO, Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter’s ode to 1920s gangsterism, is ending after a five season run. With names like Martin Scorsese, Mark Wahlberg, and Steve Buscemi attached, the program was destined to become a TV watcher’s delight, and indeed it has proven to be so. But there’s also been a very notable fall in viewership that has occurred between the first and fourth seasons. When the first season finale aired back in December of 2010, there were an estimated 3.29 million same night-viewers, while the most recent season finale drew only 2.73 million. Some have claimed the most recent season to be the best while others have dismissed it as being the most boring of the bunch (such polarizing opinions can be seen on countless message boards on IMDb). What’s interesting to note is that while there are some nitpicks concerning the acting and set-pieces, there is very little criticism directed at the show’s trade-craft. What most people were critical of is the way that the show slowed down after it’s third season, to the point where there just didn’t seem like there was any reason to watch it anymore.

Steve Buscemi, the star of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, seemed to be very distant in the most recent season of the hit program.
Steve Buscemi, the star of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, seemed to be very distant in the most recent season of the hit program.

At the end of season three, every viewer was drowned in an ocean of blood. Between Gyp Rosetti’s war with Nucky Thomspon and Richard Harrow’s one man onslaught to save Tommy, it felt as though my TV screen was covered in a thick layer of gore, which is a sentiment that I’d imagine most would echo. And by the time the credits began to roll, there remained only one question; Where the hell do we go from here? Truth be told it wasn’t a question asked in an excited matter, but rather in a nervous one. After everything that we saw, where could the show possibly go? What other stories could be told? The season ended with Buscemi’s disillusioned Thompson leaving Atlantic City in self-exile. That seemed to be about as good an ending as any. When season four finally came around, it was good to see that the show-runners decided to provide the audience with a much needed respite instead of foolishly trying to outdo the mayhem of the third season with even more gun-play. Even still, the show just wasn’t providing the same chutzpah that had been on display in the first three seasons. While the story-lines were fairly interesting (in particular Harrow’s, Eli’s, and Chalky’s), we didn’t get to see much of the main character. Nucky seemed to be in a stupor the entire season and while he did appear often, it was only in reaction to the drama that was occurring with other characters. In essence, while he was once the front runner of the show, Nucky had undeniably been tossed into the rear as a reactionary character and nothing more.

Now, if HBO had released a report that Boardwalk Empire was to run for two or even three more seasons, there would be no doubt amongst viewers that the program was completely over-stepping its limits and was set to be crushed under the weight of its own ambition. Needless to say that didn’t happen; in fact the complete opposite did. On January 9th, it was announced that the show would be coming to a close after it’s fifth season. And in that moment, Winter and co. ensured that their program would retain its narrative integrity (spoilers follow, so read at your own discretion). As any follower of the show will remember, Jimmy Darmody prophesied a dark and lonely future for Nucky Thompson right before he was murdered by him. “All you gotta worry about is when you run out of booze, and you run out of company, and the only person left to judge you is your–” was what Jimmy managed to say before Nucky killed him (the final word undoubtedly being “yourself”).

With these words in mind, every season of Boardwalk Empire becomes interlinked with the others and forms a classical five act structure. Season one served to introduce us to the world, the characters, and Nucky’s ceaseless quest to conquer everything. Season two tested Nucky’s loyalties and made him choose who he’d allow to remain close and who he’d push away. Season three saw the first part of Jimmy’s prediction come true as Nucky lost his bootlegging business after his gang war with Rosetti. Season four saw the second part fulfilled as Nucky lost Eddie, Harrow, Chalky, and his own brother Eli in his attempt to reestablish his position as a bootlegger, so if anything, it made sense that he wasn’t as active as he was in the other seasons. And now, season five (which is set seven years after the fourth season) could see us witness Nucky’s descent into lonely decrepitude, having lost his humanity to his endless pursuits.

Whether this was a creative decision all along or merely a response to audience backlash, there is no doubt that Winter’s decision to be conservative and end the show after a modest five seasons will be in the show’s favor. What once was a program that seemed to think it could last forever has now become a tight, thoroughly compelling drama about a man who destroyed himself and those around him through his violent ambitions. This is the part where we reach the obvious lament; why can’t more shows be like this?

The easy, and probably most honest answer, is that TV programming is a business, and if people like a show enough they’ll pay to watch it. It’s the same reason that if a film is successful it will (usually) warrant a sequel. This is a point of bother for many critics who believe that a film or TV program should know full well that it can’t possibly go on forever and should try to keep a realistic grasp on it’s own length. Moreover, the desire to make a profit, while reasonable, shouldn’t take precedence over the creative process lest the show-runners want their show to feel like a bloated mess by the time it ends. This is something that serials like Star Trek and M*A*S*H can get away with because there’s little to no link between the episodes, but if you’re seeking to make a program with an overarching storyline, it’s probably best to keep a tight leash on the production.

Though they were a funny group of guys, Johnny, Turtle, Vince, Eric and Ari undoubtedly overstayed their welcome.
Though they were a funny group of guys, Johnny, Turtle, Vince, Eric and Ari overstayed their welcome by about three seasons.

Case and point is HBO’s dramedy Entourage which ended back in 2011. Though many enjoyed the program, it is hard to defend it from the accusation that it didn’t know when to stop and was just adding pointless storyline after pointless storyline for the sake of longevity. Many have said that they would’ve been quite content if the show had ended at season five, but instead we were given three more. Worse still, there’s a movie adaptation set to be released next year which only adds to a storyline that we weren’t even invested in while the show was still airing, that storyline being the horribly rushed courting and marriage of Vince to Sophia the journalist. As funny as it was, there’s no denying that Entourage was (and apparently is still) jumping the shark.

Some have expressed similar worries for HBO’s current flagship program Game of Thrones which was renewed for two more seasons back in April of this year. While these worries do have some merit, one should remember that this program is an adaptation, and is being made in conjunction with George R.R. Martin’s own A Song of Ice and Fire, so there shouldn’t be that much worry in the long run. But this is a luxury that few shows are granted; more often than not, show-runners create an original program and have to decide for themselves how long it should go on for.

HBO's True Detective told a taut, intense story in only eight episodes.
HBO’s True Detective told a taut, intense story in only eight episodes.

This is a problem that a number of producers are curtailing by making their programs into anthology series (in essence, a show that has an overarching storyline in a single season, but has no or very few links to future seasons). FX’s Fargo and HBO’s True Detective have enjoyed enormous success and have been the subject of much critical praise and it looks like they are set to receive even more because they are free in a way that shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire are not. Instead of having to worry about keeping a consistent narrative through 5+ seasons, the show-runners of anthology series have to come up with a narrative that will only run for one season. After that, they can move on to a different story, and perhaps even a different setting the next season. Such programs really do enjoy the best of both worlds; they manage to create thoroughly engrossing stories while avoiding the pitfalls of becoming too stale or too different. It will be interesting to see if more of these shows don’t arise in the coming years.

Usually the more artistically inclined will find a way to wrap up their story in a satisfying manner that requires only a couple of seasons (AMC’s Breaking Bad and Starz’s Spartacus), while those who find popularity more fulfilling than telling a straight narrative will try to last as long as possible (Comedy Central’s South Park and Fox’s The Simpsons). In the end this is a ‘to each his own’ matter, and it is perfectly fine to enjoy programs of both varieties, but if I had to argue in favor of one, it’d undoubtedly be for the former kind of program. Everyone wants a TV show that they can love and talk about, and wishing that it would go on forever is a very natural impulse. But that impulse is very much an adult version of the child’s wish that Christmas was everyday, or that candy and pizza could be served for breakfast. It sounds fun at first, but once the novelty wears off you are stuck wishing for something different. It’s sad to see a great show end, but that’s how you know it was a great show; it respected itself enough to know when its run was over and more importantly, it respected its audience’s capacity to enjoy a well thought-out production that put more stock in storytelling than in financial or popular gain.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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51 Comments

  1. These days i’m fine with a three season show, i’ve seen too many great shows or shows that i used to love just fall to pieces as networks keep pushing for more and more seasons.

    Dexter was great in the first two seasons and then it started going downhill and when they announced that they still had three seasons to make i just gave up. Lots of comedy’s also lose their shine after a few seasons, i like 30 Rock but it’s all gotten samey and repetitive especially since the cast is almost the same thatevery episode is Tracey going crazy or Jenna causing a scene.

    • August Merz

      I heard a lot of people voice the same opinion concerning Dexter, except they may have lasted a couple more seasons. Some of my friends watched the whole thing in hopes that it’d get better, but not many of them said to many good things about it by the time it was over. As for sitcoms like 30 Rock, I personally don’t go in for them all that much, but the people that enjoy them really seem to enjoy them, to the point where they just keep going back for more. One thing that I didn’t include in the article is the passion of fanbases and how a show may go on simply for the sake of a group of people. Thanks for your comment Burrow.

    • mlopez55

      I agree that Dexter would have benefited by cutting down unnecessary baggage: season 5, 6, and the big let down of an 8th season. Dexter had so much potential for season 8 to explore the relationships with Astor and Cody rather than add new characters that I did not care for–Masuka’s daughter, among other things. Rather than have ended the show in season 8, I felt that the writers could have split the season in two -GASP- and explore more of what Dexter really wanted from everyone in his life rather than just make stupid decisions that were uncalled for, given his careful nature and appreciation for the people in his life. I’m specifically talking about leaving his kid with Hannah?!?

  2. England
    0

    I’m in favour of a show bowing out gracefully and leaving everyone wanting more.

    The big exception is Firefly, which clearly ended way too soon. I don’t just mean there wasn’t enough of it, I mean the plot threads and themes the show was building never got a chance to pay off properly–the movie cleared up the biggest ones, but it’s pretty obvious that there would have been a LOT more cool shit to come if it had continued, and it really needed the space of an ongoing TV show to breathe. Even a single season would have provided more closure. As it is it’s a a good show that never really gets to dig into the thematic meat or the dramatic potential that it sets up.

    • August Merz

      While it’s true that Firefly was cancelled before it’s prime, I wonder if somehow it wasn’t a blessing in disguise, simply because while I really enjoy it as it is, I doubt I would’ve liked it had it been longer. Then again, it was a reasonably episodic series so I may have stuck through with it. In the end, it would’ve been nice to see some more breathing room as you called it, just so the show didn’t feel so constrained. Thanks for your comment England.

  3. I have a tendency to watch shows in marathon viewing sessions after they’ve been on for a while or have completed their run. I sometimes notice a decline in quality over the seasons (I’ve watched Lost, Heroes, 24, Scrubs, The Office and many other either on DVD or Streaming) but it doesn’t seem to stike me as egregious as it does to some others.

    I was I’ve always kind of thought that it was because I was never invested in these shows over a long period of time. Instead of watching them evolve over the years I just shotgun them over a couple of weeks. So even when things do go south it feels more like I watched a movie with a disappointing ending.

    Can anyone relate to this?

    • August Merz

      Not a whole lot because I don’t enjoy marathoning shows. If it’s a great show I will have a tendency to watch more episodes of it in any given day, but I also like to put a limit on it if only to ensure that I don’t spend the whole day in front of the TV. With that said though, I think I can understand what you mean when you say that by watching the show quickly, the sting of disappointment will be lessened because you watched it in a small period of time instead of building up expectations over a longer period. I think? Please tell me if I need to correct myself or if you’d like to add anything. Thanks for the comment Veeta.

    • Definitely. I watched all 4 seasons of Lost just before the 5th started, and when I started watching the show live the quality just completely dropped for me. It doesn’t help when you get involved with the online communities for the shows either; you build up ridiculously high expectations between episodes, start overanalyzing everything, and notice all kinds of flaws that are pointed out by others.

      Having said that, I watched all the seasons of Scrubs in a row after it ended and it was glaringly obvious when that show got bad.

  4. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I think American television should work the way it does in the U.K. Shows are intended to only last 1 or 2 series (seasons) and that is it. They basically start the show knowing that it will end in a set number of episodes. It forces you to think of TV the way you do a movie; you know it will only last so long so you have a finite amount of time to tell your story. If you choose to end it in an open-ended fashion, so be it, but there isn’t this guessing game every year as to whether or not a show will be back. I think it would make TV much more satisfying in many ways.

    • August Merz

      I’m with you all the way. I’ve noticed that a number of BBC programs (with the notable exception of Doctor Who) usually run for a short amount of time. The Thick of It which was only four series long, and even then each episode (minus the specials) were only about 25 minutes long and yet it was a terrifically funny show. Moreover, it seems that the BBC is much more comfortable with the idea of miniseries than American programmers are. Some of the ones that come to mind are the House of Cards Trilogy, State of Play, I Claudius, and Edge of Darkness. Nowadays, I don’t see many miniseries; the closest thing I can think of would be shows like Fargo and True Detective, but even they’re set to continue. Anyway, I agree that a show should opt for a shorter, tighter story that can leave audiences wanting more instead of one that never ends and just leaves the audience wanting less. Thanks for your comment Hyman.

  5. Estefana Paz
    0

    Moral of the story: Enjoy the spotlight while it lasts and know when to make your exit.

  6. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    Very insightful article! Although I was sad when I heard that Breaking Bad would be ending after its 5th season, I enjoyed the finale because it closed all loose ends. Other shows like How I Met Your Mother and Dexter left viewers extremely unsatisfied, often adding “filler” episodes that did not serve the purpose of the plot. Nice work!

    • August Merz

      Thanks for your kind words Amanda. I never tried Dexter because while I thought the story sounded cool, it felt like one that could get old really quick. While I’ve seen some episodes of How I Met Your Mother, and thought they were funny, I’m not particularly into episodic shows(with a few exceptions of course). Anyway, while I heard that Dexter was disappointing, I always thought that HIMYM always enjoyed critical success. How did it leave viewers unsatisfied? Thanks again for your comment Amanda, I hope to hear from you soon.

  7. If I’m not mistaken, most Korean dramas operate in a similar way to what you have described in your article: for example, the one I’m watching with my friends right now (I Really, Really Like You), has an overarching story line progressing little by little through each episode and the series only lasts for a set amount of time (say, two seasons). An individual episode doesn’t make sense; you must watch the series in order. I think a comedy can get away with being more episodic, but a drama benefits far more if there is a ‘goal,’ so to speak, to which the series oriented. Indeed, the problem you have so excellently described in the reason I dislike most TV.

    • August Merz

      Thanks for the kind words Luthien. I too tend to stay away from episodic shows because they can seem quite daunting if they run for a long time and boring if they don’t have overarching story-lines. The only exceptions are Doctor Who (and I mean the re-boot series that started back in 2005) and The Twilight Zone (classic). Doctor Who is fairly episodic but it does also have narrative strands that reach through the seasons while The Twilight Zone is so brilliantly written (most of the time) that I can easily dismiss some of the lesser episodes. Aside from those, I can’t think of any show that I’d want to watch that is an episodic format. They just don’t seem like things that I’d like to devote my time to. Thanks again for the comment Luthien.

  8. Danny Cox

    Great read, August. I need to get on the True Detective bandwagon, as I’ve caught a glimpse here and there and it looks pretty excellent. And I completely agree with your mentioning of Entourage. The ending dragged on a bit too much for my taste as well.

    • August Merz

      You definitely should Danny, True Detective is a great show. Come October I plan on buying Fargo as well since it was so well received. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  9. Lili Wingate
    0

    Whilst I agree with the general gist of the article, and that way too many shows go for too long, I can’t believe it didn’t mention King of the Hill as one of the shows that made it over the 200 mark (with 259 in total) and which was still beautiful stuff to the very end. I really believe it’s one of the finest sitcoms ever made, and it never lost that great mix of heartfelt emotion and very very funny characters. And despite running for so long, the characters never became outlandish or ridiculous (ala The Simpsons) and the plot lines never felt stretched or forced (Erm, The Simpsons again).

    • August Merz

      There are a number of shows that last a good long while and I briefly touched down upon them by mentioning Star Trek (which has upwards of 200 episodes as well) and M*A*S*H (11 seasons total). While I’m not a particular fan of either of these, it’s clear that those who are enjoy these shows very much. I take your word for it when you say King of the Hill was great, but it’s simply my preference to stick with shorter shows. Thanks a bunch for your comment Lili, it’s good to have an example of a show that lasted a while that people thought was consistently good.

  10. One factor to be considered when talking about whether a series is past its prime or not, is just when that series becomes popular. Seinfeld had the benefit, or curse, of not reaching peak popularity until well into its third season. Those of us who got into the show earlier, probably realized it was falling off before the latecomers did, and thus were happy, or at least relieved, when those lesser latter seasons finally ended.

    • August Merz

      I think that kind of happened with Boardwalk Empire, only in reverse. It started great then slowly lost a lot of it’s energy. As I argued, I’d say that the show-runners’ decision to end the show this year is in it’s benefit as it give the story a steadier structure. Thanks for the comment Jerry.

  11. I’ve always thought that sitcoms in particular should be limited to no more than five seasons.

    • August Merz

      I’ve never been one for sitcoms myself, and I always figured that maybe they could get away with being longer because they’re serial in nature. But perhaps they too should be short in order to keep them from losing their creativity. I attempted to watch South Park and while I enjoyed episodes here and there (and have enjoyed some episodes since) it became clear within the first season that the humor was simply satirical in nature. While it can be funny, it just got old, and South Park is now in it’s 18th season. The standard formula must be, “Whatever’s popular, let’s make fun of it.” Again, it can get some laughs, but boy did it get old quick. Thanks for the comment mUll.

  12. Denny Overby
    0

    I’m reminded of a comment by the showrunner for Miracles, a great one-half season show on ABC that aired about three years too soon…on the DVD, he talks about cancellation and says basically that in a way, it was good thing ‘because then we didn’t end up doing a motorcycle chase in Season Three.’

    • August Merz

      Sounds like the creator was quite graceful in spite of the show coming to an end. And you’re right Denny, because a lot of the times shows do end up doing ridiculous things to try to keep their audience. While it still worked within the storyline, there were moments when I thought that Season Three of Boardwalk Empire was grasping for viewers with its gang war storyline. Again, it worked, but for a time it felt like the show-runners were trying to do too much too soon. Thanks for the comment Denny, it was pretty insightful.

  13. FredMcNamara
    0

    Would the end of a TV show depend on the show itself? I agree with what you say about Breaking Bad vs The Simpsons, and I personally find that the longevity of a fiction show can depend on how far/little the characters are developed. If you take a character as far as they can go, then finish the show, in my opinion. But then again, I enjoy shows like The Simpsons/Family Guy/American Dad who offer barely any of that sort of development, and I enjoy them for what they are.
    I suppose if you have a show deliberately focused on its characters and they’re development, a lack of development after a while points to why that show should finish.

    • August Merz

      That’s a good point concerning the differences between serials and episodic narratives. I wonder to some degree if Entourage went on for as long as it did because it tried too hard to mix elements of both. On the one hand, you did have a straight story concerning Vincent and his rise, fall, and re-birth as a movie star. But on the other hand all of the supporting characters like Johnny, Ari, and especially Turtle didn’t have much development until around Season 5, so in order to give them more to do and try to flush out their characters the show-runners may have decided to make the show longer in order to do that. Perhaps in that case it was a matter of trying to please too many people. Thanks for the comment Fred.

  14. Preston
    0

    Economics means there will never be a happy solution to this. If a show makes money, networks will churn in out until it stops. If it loses money, then it goes away. It is rarely in the artist’s hands. And hell, what if the artist sucks? Are we going to blame an overlong run on Heroes’ demise?

    The TV landscape is changing though with more shows using the cable model.

    • August Merz

      I don’t think I buy that, not entirely anyway. It’s true that networks will try to churn out more and more of the same show if it’s good and there are some shows that are flat out bad. But there’s still a decent amount of shows that were popular and ended. Band of Brothers, Six Feet Under, The Wire, and The Sopranos were all highly praised, made money, and ended. But perhaps these are just exceptions to the rule. Thanks for the comment Preston.

  15. It’s hard for me to really get into a discussion on this sort of thing because I guess I’m thinking idealistically – in a perfect world the creative forces behind the show would tell the story for as long as it was needed, be it a single 5-episode season or a 200 episode run. Would that every show were like Spaced – I love that when they were offered the chance at a third series, Wright, Pegg & Co declined (or “postponed” or however one chooses to see it) because they felt they’d taken the characters as far as they needed to go.

    But that’s not reality – certainly not in US television. And while I agree a number of shows would have done well to end/have ended a few seasons earlier, I’m not convinced I’m better off with only a single season of Terriers and two of Pushing Daisies.

    • August Merz

      Cancelled shows are always a bummer, and that’s something that I neglected to talk about in the article. As you can probably tell I have a distinct love for HBO programming, and so the three shows that come to mind when talking about premature endings are Rome, Deadwood, and Carnivale. While the first two had fairly decent endings in spite of their cancellations, it is Carnivale that has always hurt the most precisely because it ended with a cliffhanger. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I had to choose one of these three to have even one more season, it’d be Carnivale. Sadly, it hasn’t turned out that way and there’s little assurance that it ever will. But this is a very good point that you brought up; there’s a great difference between a show that is ended by the show-runners and a show that is forced to be ended by the network. Thanks for the comment Croft.

      • Matthew Sims

        In the same boat is Twin Peaks, which is somewhat similar to Carnivale (both starring Michael J. Anderson). While it definitely lost considerable pace in the latter half of its second season, it ended on several open-ended cliffhangers, leaving the wellbeings of most characters in question. I would love to know how it would have ended, but I guess we’ll never know, and that makes it more of a unique text.

  16. August, thanks for the article, I love the way you identify the sense of investment one has in a show one grows to love, the desire for it to keep going, the realisation that it can’t and the fear that that the producers are going to ruin the love by milking it to death. Much better to finish on a high than try to get an extra season out of an drained premise- Watching Utopia’s second season finale put the characters back in jeopardy as a set up the for the next season felt almost like watching a wayward child put their hand in the fire. Again.

    • August Merz

      You’re very welcome Lloyd; I appreciate your kind words. The example that you give of a show constantly using the same plot threads to get the viewers attention is probably the reason that I don’t care for shows like 24 and Law and Order, because while they may be exciting it also seems as though they can get repetitive. Needless to say I’ve heard many good things about both of these shows, but there’s no endearing quality to them. I know I’ve watched about a dozen episodes of the 100+ in Law and Orders run, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Conversely, Band of Brothers, which only had ten episodes, is remarkably memorably and stays with you for years after you’ve watched it. That’s another important difference between these two kind of shows (that I yet again didn’t think of when writing this piece): serials don’t have to worry about being memorable because they will always be there and their fans can always have it when they want it. On the other hand, episodic narratives will end someday, but the end will usually be fulfilling and will stay with the audience long after the credits roll. Thanks again for your comment Lloyd.

  17. The only show I really ever wanted to see cancelled was The West Wing, a few episodes after Sorkin left. It was incredible just how quickly it turned awful. The first two episodes back in season five weren’t horrible, but the show pretty quickly transitioned into a much shoutier, more conventional, sort of show. Those episodes showed that Sorkin’s replacements simply couldn’t find out where the drama was in the story they were telling, and then all of a sudden Zoe is just randomly found somewhere! No build, no investigative trail. And sadly things went downhill from there, bottoming out with one called “The Benign Prerogative”, which so desperately wanted to channel the pathos of earlier, better TWW stories of tragic, devastating offscreen stories, but really just reminded us how close to silliness something like Bartlet talking to a seaman on the radio in a squall was, and that without Sorkin to write it right, it would have just been silly. As it so often was, after he left.

    Yeah, yeah, I know. It became watchable again at some point in the sixth season. And in some respects it even got better than ever near its end, wrapping up with an absorbing (and predictive) presidential race and a satisfying conclusion. But as a different show, with different themes, different subject matter, and where the sorts of stories that the show started out telling were marginalized at best. And that live debate episode…the concept of the series to me was that we’d always see the few minutes before or after something like that. Not the thing itself. And that episode proved why that was.

    • August Merz

      I’ve never had that happen to a show that I liked, and I appreciate you throwing this in the discussion Greg. It’d be one thing if a show goes on for a long time, but is still maintained by the same cast and crew, but a change in the writing could be just as bad and hindering to a show as going on for too long. Moreover, it’s the kind of problem that could befall any program at any time. The show wouldn’t have to be 5+ seasons into it’s run to have a problem like that, it could be in only it’s second or third season. Thanks for the comment Greg.

  18. Jane Harkness

    I find that most of the shows I enjoy typically don’t need more than five or six seasons to tell a good story without throwing in pointless plot twists. Once it gets past six seasons, some TV shows tend to lose the qualities that made them unique and entertaining.

    • August Merz

      I agree. The notable exceptions for me are Doctor Who and The Twilight Zone (which work because they’re great serials), Entourage (which has it’s faults but I still think is good all around) and Sons of Anarchy. But to reiterate, these are shows which I think are more exceptions than pioneers of longer programming. Thanks for the comment Jane.

  19. Amena Banu

    Oftentimes a great story can be spoiled by trying to stretch it too much. Shows really need to end at an appropriate point.
    Great article! It was an interesting read.

  20. Ok the thing, all tv shows are different in terms of plot and pacing. One cannot definitely say when they should end. Some shows are based on a certain episode patter like how Game of Thrones has 10 episodes per season.

    • August Merz

      It’s true that shows are all built on a set amount of episodes per season, and I’d imagine it has something to do with the contract between the network and the show-runners. But I disagree that a person can’t tell when a show should end. When it comes to the point where they feel like there isn’t point in investing in the show anymore, it’s more than likely because the show has gone on too long. To use the Entourage example, there were a number of story-lines (Turtle’s limo company, Ari and his wife’s divorce, Johnny trying to find a job) that didn’t feel like they were flushed out because they were never meant to be the focus, they were just tacked on. While other story-lines like Vince’s drug problem or Eric trying to win back Sloan made sense and were decently told, they too felt a bit rushed because they should’ve happened much earlier and should’ve had more time devoted to them.

      Now if a show’s writers and directors can find a way to make a long show work (e.g. Sons of Anarchy or Mad Men), then by all means they should do it. But that makes it seem clear that they took the time to think the entire story out and while they may have allowed some room for organic flow in the story – which is to say they let some things happen that the didn’t originally plan – it’s still a smooth show that doesn’t feel bloated. All too often though, show-runners rely on their past success to ensure future success.

      In essence, I argued that while serials are fun and can be very good in their own way, they are more like snacks than an actual dish. You can miss an episode of The Twilight Zone and not worry about what happens in the next. But if you miss an episode of an episodic program, like Game of Thrones, then you are very likely to be lost in the story. In that sense, episodic narratives are much more powerful and fulfilling in terms of their storytelling.

      Thanks for the comment Anshuman.

  21. Giovanni Insignares

    I’ve always felt that showrunners should at least have an idea as to how they are going to end their show, as well as an understanding of outside circumstances. A clear beginning and ending at least allows for flexibility with how to tell the middle of a story, as long as it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Endings are so difficult because you cannot possibly please everyone. Also, how a show ends can sometimes cloud judgment on the program as a whole. Dexter, while having a terrible final season, was exceptional during its first four, but a lot focus on the ending. How I Met Your Mother is another show whose ending was significantly criticized, but is incredibly good in earlier seasons.

    • August Merz

      You make two great points Giovanni; the first that endings are probably the hardest things to write. There really is no way to please anyone so the harder that show-runners try to do so, the more muddled it will seem. It’s probably best that they write the natural ending to their story and accept both the praise and criticism they receive. Doing that certainly has more integrity than trying to make everyone happy.

      Your second point is also very valid and I agree with it whole-heartedly. In spite of it’s flaws, a TV show can still be great; for example, even though I used it as an example of a show that went on for too long, I still enjoy Entourage. I grew up with it and now anytime I watch it, it feels like a fun nostalgic trip for me. And I don’t mean it’s a guilty pleasure, it’s a show that I genuinely like. So, as you say, we shouldn’t let some minor, or for that matter major, flaws preclude our liking a show that still has a lot of good things going for it.

      Thanks for the comment Giovanni.

  22. Cyr Ali
    0

    Wouldn’t be a proper discussion of the subject without including Twin Peaks. Which actually throws a bit of a wrinkle into the matter. One could say that Twin Peaks shouldn’t have lasted a second after James Hurley hit the road, but by the end of the second season it had really refound its mojo. I really wish we’d had a third season of Black Lodge stuff.

    • August Merz

      I haven’t watched Twin Peaks, though I’ve heard many viewers lament it’s premature end. I’m curious if the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me helped to provide a satisfactory ending?

      • Matthew Sims

        Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, while providing snippets of extra material after Season 2, I would argue, does not provide a satisfactory ending. I still do not think that it makes the show in itself any less of a great show.

    • The second season loses its way for a while after the reveal of the killer, but as it gets close to the end of the season it really starts to pick up again. I agree that more stuff about the Black Lodge and following up on the events of the season two finale would have been great.

  23. Jemarc Axinto

    I think HIMYM suits your articles purpose perfectly. While I love that show with all my heart, another season would have ruined it for me, and the last season was already a but of a stretch.

  24. Liz Watkins

    I enjoy shows such as True Detective that have one shot seasons. I enjoyed Harper’s Island and knowing that it would have a conclusion at the end of the summer. It’s one reason a like Masterpiece Theater; you watch something different week to week, knowing you will have a conclusion instead of waiting a whole year or several seasons. There are some exceptions, though, like Sherlock!

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