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.

13 Responses to “Embracing the end of a series and denying infinity”

  1. 1 Jonathan Gray

    It is an odd thing, this American TV creature. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to hold an endless book, or to sit down in a cinema not knowing if the film would end, or getting to another 4000 lines of a haiku. Almost all other artistic forms seemingly have borders — the frame of the picture, the end of the sculpture, the 14th line of a sonnet, even the 15th hour of Wagner’s ring cycle. So television’s (and comics’) rare act of avoiding an ending is at one and the same time that which is peculiarly magical about it, but also an incredible burden on the relationship between artist and audience, as no other artists are subject to such a longterm relationship and continued expectations.

    It’s also important, though, to point out that many new shows are doomed because their oxygen is being stolen by these rambling creatures. Each year, many new shows are ushered in with no real chance to gain an audience, because we’re busy watching a beloved show die painfully on another network, or because the dying giant has the decent time slot. I’d love to sit down some time and work out what was dying on the air when Freaks and Geeks was cancelled, or Sports Night, or other shows with significant potential.

  2. Good point about the competition for air and way to issue a challenge to someone avoiding grading! In 1999-2000, the year of Freaks & Geeks and the 2nd season of Sports Night, networks were enthralled in the quiz show craze, with Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and its clones popping up across the schedule, plus NBC was in full “all Dateline all the time” mode. Among the list of series that were probably overripe were The X-Files, Party of Five, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Touched by an Angel, Walker Texas Ranger, Law & Order (which is still ripping from the headlines!), and Chicago Hope. It’s actually quite fascinating to look at this grid to see what network TV looked like right before the reality boom, and how many shows with a shelf-life were on the air at that time.

    The problem is that the economic system of network television makes the late seasons of a program more valuable to the producers & (usually) network than the early seasons – once a show gets through its first few seasons, the economic incentives are to keep it going for all players (except perhaps the audience!).

  3. 3 Cole Moore Odell

    A few thoughts:

    Comics sometimes address this sense of endlessness by offering “continuity reboots”; while the Legion of Super-Heroes has been published by DC Comics more or less continuously since the late 1950s, the company has pushed the reset button at least twice since then, sweeping away all previous stories and starting fresh from square one with all-new versions of old characters. Imagine how audiences would react if the same thing were attempted with a long-running TV show–the only example I can think of that even comes close is that dream season of Dallas.

    Looking over the responses to Gilmore Girls’ cancellation at TV Guide’s Ausiello Report is amazing. Some of these fans *never* want it to end, any more than they would want a close friend to move to Argentina. American audiences really do anthropomorphize their favorite shows. “I’m crying too hard to type” is a common comment.

    Other GG viewers want the show to have the ending it and the fans allegedly “deserve”–i.e., a drawn-out ending with smooches between the romantic leads, wedding dresses and babies. Blech. As Lauren Graham is now being quoted, the show is about a mother and daughter who are best friends. If it ends by reinforcing or recontextualizing that, the show will have dramatic closure no matter what happens with the guy in the baseball hat. Besides, for all the talk of cancellation, I thought that Amy Sherman-Palladino had always talked about the show ending with Rory’s college graduation. Despite the loss of the creator, this feels far more like a natural conclusion than a cancellation.

    I know from cancellation: I was a die-hard fan of Michael Mann’s Crime Story, which was canceled by NBC in 1988 on one of the most perverse cliffhangers of all time. Stephen Lang’s character was shot and hanging between life and death, while most of the other series leads went down in a plane crash. I was in high school at the time, and I was motivated enough to 1) write to NBC and 2) pen my own final script tying up the loose ends.

    The Office, UK and US versions, provides an excellent example of how the demands of US television can warp the arc of a story. The trajectory of Tim and Dawn’s relationship is relatively plausible over 14 half hours. Jim and Pam’s 22-episode a year will-they-won’t-they increasingly feels strained. Like something you’d see on TV. Really, the US infinity model underscores the obvious: that most networks/channels really broadcast commercials, and that the shows are just ways to get you to stick around for the next set of ads–or resubscribe to the cable service, explaining The Sopranos extending past its one perfect season to a second great season, third good season, etc. Whatever frustration fans might feel probably only matters to execs to the extent that it impacts Show X hitting its target demographic numbers this week.

    It’s still hard to see the words “Freaks and Geeks” without wincing, but honestly, that show at best had one more season in it. Actually watching those kids grow up over the course of years probably would have been as disheartening as watching Jerry Mathers do the same.

    Finally, Jason, if you ever get a spare 22 hours, you might find it interesting to at least skim the final season of GG–not only because it was often decent on its own terms, but because it was fascinating to watch the new production team plainly struggle with the loss of the creator’s vision. With every choice, every lack of ability to get the dialogue just right or juggle the huge cast effectively, you can feel the effort that went into a show that was supposed to seem effortless. Even as a failure it’s often compelling. And in the final stretch, they’ve managed to create a fair approximation of the show when it was firing on all cylinders. Following up on the question from your earlier post, I think any future analysis of this show will have to take the final year into account.

  4. First off, I love the term “infinity model” in association with US network TV. Has that been used before?

    Secondly, you pretty much stole my (overdue) thunder about seriality, but that’s OK, as you’ve given me a bit more food for thought. Cole points to a particularly salient point: audience habit. There’s something reassuring about going to Star’s Hollow every Tuesday night, no matter what might happen there. My wife and I watched this season (and gritted our teeth through much of it, though it’s certainly gotten better the last few weeks) largely because of that GG-shaped hole in our weekly TV viewing.

    That habit can be premium-priced, but still worth it. Just ask Jeff Zucker, who ponied up six boatloads of cash to keep Friends on for a pointless 10th season. As for Law & Order, one of the interesting stories is its possible demise this season, as the habit (for new episodes at least) seems to be fading.

    It’s clear that narrative pacing is the least of concerns with conventional US programming (otherwise, we would know just when Lost was going to end), though perhaps that’s changing.

  5. 5 kbusse

    Jonathan, this is a bit of an aside, but you just made me realize why I’ve started to grow quite fond of watching canceled series after the fact. I thought it had mostly to do with my desire to mainline episodes and control the flow, but your comparison to books makes me think that the awareness of an ending is also quite enticing. I’m what a friend has termed Random Access Reader *g*, i.e., I don’t read linear and avoid Works-in-Progress for that reason. Of course, TV tends to be WiP not only in the airing in parts sense but also the open-ended sense. Very interesting!

    Jason, great observation and even greater term! I think this is a perfect example of creativity and commercial interests being at odds. And as a fan I often tend to be torn between what I want and what I need (or rather, what I know the show needs).

  6. 6 Jonathan Gray

    Kristina, that “what I want and what I need” is the thing, though, right? I’ve missed many good shows because of watching the last dregs of a once beloved show.

    As for GG, I must admit that this program is the only show to have been blocked on my TV — I was playing with my remote one evening, and out of humor, and dismay at how poor the show has become, I blocked it … which really bothered my wife until I explained what was up. As usual, I lost that discussion. But the show lost more than I did

    And as for Law and Order, cancellation or no, the threat of it “spinning off” a presidential candidate was one of the more bizarre stories. It made me wonder what other TV presidents we might see. Perhaps a battle between Matthew Fox (Dem. Or Rep?), Terry O’Quinn (Ind), Michael Emerson (Rep), and Jorge Garcia (Green)?

  7. 8 Mike Roberts

    As Cole stated:

    “I know from cancellation: I was a die-hard fan of Michael Mann’s Crime Story, which was canceled by NBC in 1988 on one of the most perverse cliffhangers of all time. Stephen Lang’s character was shot and hanging between life and death, while most of the other series leads went down in a plane crash. I was in high school at the time, and I was motivated enough to 1) write to NBC and 2) pen my own final script tying up the loose ends.”

    His number two statement jumped out at me, as I was already thinking of the fans of James Cameron’s “Dark Angel” who, after the cancellation of the series after two seasons, started a fan-fic site to write out a THIRD season and, in their minds, bring a proper resolution to the narrative arc, essentially transforming themselves from passive receivers of media into collaborators in the narrative process (I haven’t heard whether Cameron approves of this solution or comments on the quality of the ‘ third season’ writing)

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