Embracing the end of a series and denying infinity
One of the bits of television news making the rounds in the last couple of days is that Gilmore Girls will be ending its run this month – not a huge surprise, given that showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino left last year and that the consensus among those still watching (which does not include me) is that the show has taken a dip in quality, either as a result of the new leadership and/or typical exhaustion of a long-running show. I’ve previously written about how such authorship changes impact the way we think of television texts – this news continues the pattern that many shows fall into when a high-profile producer leaves: one more & done.
I’m on the sidelines as to whether GG should or shouldn’t continue beyond this year, as I’ve left the audience already. What’s more interesting to me is how the discussion about its continuation speaks to how different the assumptions of “success” are in U.S. television vs. most of the world. Only in the U.S. is a successful series defined by how long it can approach infinity, which is a really ridiculous measure of creative/artistic value – if it applied to other forms, we’d anoint Stephen King the greatest author of all-time for his ability to amass pages and delay conclusion!
In other national television systems, fictional series are typically created with an end point in mind, typically running for one “series” of somewhere between 6-20 episodes; if the show is deemed successful and the producers still are invested, it will return for another series (what Americans call “seasons”). But some of the all-time great British television programs, like Fawlty Towers and The Office, ran for a scant couple of seasons – a comparatively long-running hit like Absolutely Fabulous only accumulated around 40 episodes intermittently over 12 years. Across the globe, serialized telenovelas are created with a limited run in mind. In most of the world, the end of a program is implied by its beginning – the continued run of GG for 7 seasons & over 150 episodes would be truly exceptional for a dramatic series, but here in the States some fans mourn its loss “before its time.” Even a soap opera that leaves the air after 30 years is seen as a “cancellation,” terminated before its time.
As television storytelling becomes less rooted in the episodic interchangeability that marked most primetime programming in the medium’s first 4 decades, we need to change our assumptions as to what we mean by a “successful series.” While I too would have loved to have more than 53 episodes of Arrested Development to enjoy, we must recognize that running for 3 long seasons at a consistent level of quality is remarkable – despite it being viewed by many as a “failed show” because of its cancellation, I call AD a success on its own terms, both aesthetically and industrially. Some of my all-time favorite programs were canceled before they could bow out gracefully on their own terms, but I don’t think we need to look back at Taxi, Soap, Twin Peaks, or Angel as failed TV shows simply because they didn’t amass the number of episodes that Friends or The Simpsons have.
The need to have a show keep approaching infinity is rooted in the industry’s goals of securing a consistent audience, and the soap opera tradition of a persistent ongoing storyworld. But many of the experiments in narrative complexity being explored today would benefit from a redefinition of success and longevity. As Lost fans continually gripe, the endless delay of answers frustrates many more than it pleases – if we knew that the show would be ending after season 5, we could see ourselves at the halfway point and thus measure our narrative expectations accordingly. Ron Moore has said that Battlestar Galactica has entered its third (and presumably final) act at the conclusion of season 3 – knowing that an end is approaching allows both fans and creators to have a greater sense of the narrative arc.
The industry seems to be moving toward this model of limited series in part, but not following through with the practicalities. Daybreak was conceived as a limited series, playing out a particularly baroque set of narrative mechanics that demanded a resolution – ABC found that the ratings didn’t warrant airing the final seven iterations of this very bad day, burning them off online. In the reverse scenario, Prison Break was imagined as a two season series – one with the titular escape, the next with a manhunt to resolve the story. But Fox decided to keep the hunt going, renewing the series for another year of continued prison-breaking. In each instance, the creative idea that the network first greenlighted demanded a definitive end to its narrative, but each network refused to allow the series to reach its intended conclusion, either by cancellation or deferral.
As television moves beyond the restrictions of the network era, the ability to reach mass audiences for primetime network programming is becoming more diffuse and hard to reach. DVD release & online distribution invite a more bounded conception of what a television series is, viewing a series or season as an assembled package of episodes, rather than a timeslot to be filled in perpetuity. I want to embrace this shift, not because I long to see my favorite shows leave the air, but because there is a greater pleasure in viewing a series as a unified whole coming to its designed conclusion, not an arbitrary commercial decision based on the inexact measure of Nielsen ratings. So let GG fade away, and hope that the CW can come up with a way to allow Veronica Mars to conclude on its own terms, freed from the impossible goal of reaching infinity. One of the greatest television moments I’ve ever experienced was the sense of mourning, loss and finality offered by the finale of Six Feet Under – the story had run its course, and HBO had the sense to embrace the end. Let’s hope more networks and channels do the same.
Filed under: Narrative, TV Industry, TV Shows | 13 Comments