The End of The Decade-Long TV Series?
Why The Era of Series Running Ten Years or More Possibly Ending Is A Good Thing For Television
Yesterday online, I saw an article saying that we may be coming to the end of the era of series lasting ten years or longer. There aren’t a lot of series still on the air that have been on for eight years, and not many of them are likely to last longer than a ninth season. Network television heads will no doubt be in agony at this fact, but I think there’s a good reason that anyone who appreciates TV at all should be glad that the era of series going on for ten years or more may finally be over.
First, a simple fact. There are very few shows in the era of classic TV, the network heyday and the New Golden Age that were successful for ten seasons. Yes, I know fans of a certain age will celebrate Gunsmoke and Bonanza, but even they would have to admit that very few people watched them for their entire run. Somehow I doubt the world would still have the love for The Honeymooners had it not just last a season and a bit. And for those who cheer All in the Family and MASH would have to admit they were not the same series they were when they began.
Then there are those would point at the success of Must-See TV and the era of Frasier, Friends and ER. Neither Frasier nor Friends was anything near the show they were at the beginning of their run as they were at the end, and ER may have still been number one in its time slot after eight years, but it sure as hell wasn’t nearly as well done in quality. I would argue, in fact, that by keeping these series on the air so long actually did more harm to NBC than good — they spent so much time relying on building hits around them that they barely tried to come up with the same level of creative energy. I actually think Jerry Seinfeld may have seen this reasoning when he chose to end Seinfeld after nine seasons. I’m sure NBC would have thrown as much money as they could at him if he’d stayed on even for one more year, but he could tell the creative energy was flagging in the last two years, and put his integrity before the money.
Now come those who will argue for Law and Order and its spinoffs. First of all, very few people were watching the flagship series when it was at its peak. It actually built its success more on syndication then anything else. The series didn’t become the popular hit it was until around Season Nine. At that point, it was well past its creative heights and the same mindset that kept ER on the air kept it on for even longer. Similarly, CSI was never truly a brilliant show but rather a flashy one and wasn’t nearly as creatively brilliant after its sixth season. None of the investigative series that have spun out, either from Jerry Bruckheimer or Donald Bellisario are the kind of series that mark the broadcast era — episodic rather than serial, plot driven rather than character.
Indeed, within in the last century I’ve found it hard to find a series that lasted ten years or more that was creatively brilliant the whole way through, even on the CW. Smallville was too slow in its early seasons to maintain its brilliance, and only managed to be interesting in its second half to a complete change in showrunners. The Big Bang Theory was hysterically funny for a long time, but lost its creative edge after Season 8. And I never saw the logic behind the success of Supernatural so I won’t comment.
This is actually one of the better things about the era of Peak TV — almost all of the great series that have come from that era, ended before they got stale. There’s no question that Tom Fontana could’ve kept Oz on the air for much longer — most of the prisoner were there for life, after all — but he saw the writing on the wall and ended it after six. Almost every other showrunner for HBO — from Six Feet Under and The Sopranos to Veep and Big Love — have kept their vision on a strict timetable. And say what you will about the people behind Game of Thrones — I’m certain HBO would’ve given an Iron Throne made of Gold had they kept it going past the timetable Martin had set. But they stuck to it.
Every other success story from this era — The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men and Breaking Bad — believed on an end time. Showtime has been fairly meticulous at letting even its greatest success only get eight years — with the notable exception of Shameless which ended this year, and even then, it did on the right note. For all the content streaming services are willing to provide, if anything, the creators on any format are stricter with their timetables. Orange is the New Black and Grace and Frankie will probably be Netflix’s longest running series at seven seasons; many more are ending at three or four. It’s still too early to tell with Amazon or Hulu, but they seem to be bound by similar structures given how series like Shrill came to an end after just three years.
The ripple effect seems to have been felt throughout many of the more successful network series. Say what you will about Lost (I’ve said a lot) but they stuck with the plan they had. Shonda Rhimes seemed to be willing to go along with this for Scandal and How to get Away with Murder (but she seem to kill Grey’s Anatomy.) And this seems to be felt by some of the best comedy series on the air — The Good Place and Jane the Virgin ended on just the right notes.
This may not seem like the best business model for network TV where you keep a successful property on the air as long as you can. It is, however, a great model for television as an art form. No longer to we have to keep propping up a weak series for years at a time just because a certain number of people are watching it. It inspires more creative forces to come out with better products rather than trying to come up with something that’ll go after a hit. Sure Law and Order: SVU has been on for twenty seasons, but does anybody really thing there’s anything creative about it anymore? And The Simpsons has been out of energy longer than a lot of the people watching it have been alive. Series need to follow the patterns of The Americans and Dead to Me, not another installment of Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise. And for those who argue that’s not a sustainable business model, I’d say neither is bringing back The Conners.
When Scrubs came to an end after eight seasons, I was sad but a little relieved. I was glad it had lasted that long, but it was really running out of energy in year 8. I’m not sure bringing it back for Season 9 did anything for ABC. Am I thrilled that Bill Lawrence and company are saying that Ted Lasso will be on for just three years? No. But I trust that he and his crew have learned from their mistakes and know that despite the acclaim and the awards, they have a plan. I’d rather have three great seasons then nine mediocre ones.