British TV is by no means perfect, but they seem to do one thing really well: they know when to stop. Probably because they don’t have the industry surrounding television that we have here in the States, programming from the UK seems to focus on quality over quantity. Not every episode is a success, of course, but particularly when it comes to a show with a very specific premise, British TV execs allow the show to tell the story and get out. Sometimes people beg for more, often the plotlines are wrapped and viewers are satisfied. Even shows that go on for years and years will have fewer episodes to fill than their American counterparts because a series over there is rarely longer than 13 episodes.
Take, for example, Britain’s Life on Mars. The show about a modern cop who wakes up in the 70s ran for two series, eighteen episodes total, and that was it. The plot couldn’t sustain anymore because the premise was centered on whether or not Sam really had traveled in time, whether he was in a coma, or even if he was dead, and there was only so long that story could be stretched – it was starting to get thin after only eight episodes. Which was why the American adaptation on ABC starring Jason O’Mara was so bewildering to me. It was doomed from the moment it was announced. The first season would have been longer than the entire original series, and where would it have gone from there?
Because it would have had to go somewhere – we don’t do single-season shows on purpose.
Working from the model of shorter seasons is what has given U.S. cable programs so much success, I think. Thirteen episode seasons means less filler, and the budget doesn’t have to stretch as far. The syndrome of forcing a show to live beyond its lifespan does not usually strike HBO or Showtime. The sickness has infected the basic networks, and the sad fact is that there is nothing the viewing public can do to affect it. It is what it is. It’s the Hollywood Television Machine. It’s all about the Money.
Now that the Machine exists (and I feel like I’m writing about Person of Interest), it has a life of its own. There’s really no stopping it. And unfortunately this means that the shows that are bringing in the money are forced to live on until the revenue stops, even if they’ve exhausted every aspect of their initial premise. No genre suffers this more than the sitcom.
Developing a hit sitcom in this decade has proven difficult, so when one of the networks finds one, they squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze until one of the stars drops out, and sometimes even that doesn’t stop them. Two and a Half Men should have died with Charlie Sheen’s character. It wasn’t a particularly novel concept in the first place, but people watched it, so, fine. But when one of the men goes nuts and becomes unemployable, you should just let it go. But CBS can’t let a wage-earner retire – look at How I Met Your Mother. I like this show, most of the time, but everyone comments on the fact that we’re eight years in and Ted still hasn’t told us how he met the goddamned mother of his kids. If that wasn’t the gimmick of the show, it would be less of a problem. The show could go on as a tale of five friends in NYC. But every week the title reminds us of a promise unfulfilled, and how much longer can it go on?
If Fox is the Television Hangman, CBS is, by far, the worst offender at dragging out shows. (I’m looking at you, NCIS.) That doesn’t mean that every episode of every show past its due date is terrible, it just means that the writers have to struggle to fill the airtime with story lines that barely relate to what the show once was. All the procedurals have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to find some angle on murder that they haven’t covered before, and I imagine that’s exhausting. And watching NCIS and NCIS: LA work so hard every week to tie the crime du jour back to the Navy so they have the excuse to investigate would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.
All of this came up for me today after reading an article on Community and NBC’s decision to delay the premiere indefinitely. Community is a bit of an odd case in that NBC hasn’t kept it alive out of love or even for the money. By all accounts, the show is a financial drain. And with the ousting of Dan Harmon, the show’s peculiar voice, there was really no good reason to make a fourth season. I love Community. Absolutely adore it. Own it on DVD. But I would much rather have three great seasons of comedy than witness its slow demise. Because while I can’t judge a season that hasn’t aired on quality, it doesn’t matter. Just reading interviews with the new show runners tells me that whatever show they’re working on, it isn’t my Community.
These shows are stamped from inception with a particular lifespan, a particular arc, and when that comes to an end the Machine hooks them up to life support to keep them going, because we do still tune in to hang out with our favorite characters. It’s just a shame when they start looking tired and listless, or go crazy in an attempt to keep going. (coughSupernaturalcough)
It would be nice if show creators could go into a pitch meeting and say, “We have this story. We can tell it in 5 seasons. (Or 4, or 6.) Then we’d be done.” Additional details could be worked out at the contract stage (network can still cancel any time based on whatever parameters they use, negotiations for extra seasons can be entered if story takes longer to wrap up than initially believed), but there would be a way of pulling the plug when the time was right, before the all the good times are tainted by the bad.