Calling it Quits: When Should TV Shows End?
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.
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.
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.
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.