Too much of a good thing

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Michele and I are slowly making our way through the first year of The X-Files. It’s fun to watch the show as it introduces us to the characters and establishes the “rational science vs. open-minded faith” tension that made the show so interesting.
Reflecting on the X-Files has led me to a conclusion about our relationship to stories and entertainment: it’s very hard to let go of a good thing, even when that good thing is past its prime and needs to be retired. I’m not talking about lackluster shows that “jump the shark” by pulling crazy publicity stunts to re-ignite interest in a flagging series; I’m talking about excellent shows that make their point and tell their stories, but then just keep going past their expiration date without any compelling artistic reason for doing so.
The X-Files is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Over the course of 5-6 years, it told the fascinating story of two quirky personalities and their entanglement with government conspiracies, alien invasions, and supernatural horror. It was a great show; it was generally entertaining and it featured a great story arc in which both protagonists grow and mature and re-evaluate their worldviews. And then, not long after the (excellent, in my opinion) movie, the story was wrapped up: the long-running Syndicate plotline came to a close, Mulder and Scully had both grown to be better people after years of interaction and tribulation, and it was time for The X-Files to bow and gracefully exit, its point made.
But instead, the show just… kept going, even with one central actor gone and despite the fact that the major plotlines were either resolved or had become so mainstream as to lose their edge. I’m told by friends who watched the show’s final years that it continued to be an excellent and well-written television show. But why? Anything truly provocative or interesting that show had to say had been said quite effectively already. Sure, we all like the characters, but is there a compelling narrative reason to keep them around any longer? Wouldn’t we be better off if the show’s creators and writers just wrote “The End” on The X-Files and turned their creative efforts to a fresher project, instead of working desperately to squeeze several more years’ worth of marginal relevance out of it?
Or take The Simpsons. Why are they still making new episodes for this show? It has been brilliantly funny in the past, and has had a profound influence on comedy and animation. But the last two episodes I tuned in to, while probably no less competently-created than any past episodes, hardly convinced me the show needed to be around: one episode centered around mocking Walmart (“Sprawlmart”–zing!), and the other was truly pushing the envelope by being the 37,648th television show to feature gay characters/marriage. I think we can all agree that The Simpsons has said its piece and carved out its place in history, and should go gracefully into the good night.
There are exceptions to this phenomenon, although they’re rare. Babylon 5, my favorite sci-fi television series, set out to tell a story over the course of five years, and did so spectacularly. Once the story was told, it stopped, and is a much better show for not trying to eke out any more life out of its basic premise. The Star Trek shows limit themselves to seven years, but I personally wonder if seven years isn’t a bit excessive in some cases. I got my hopes up when 24 promised to tell the story of a single day, only to have those hopes dashed when the same gimmick was repeated in successive years. I found the show Scrubs hilarious for a year–but how many years of the same joke do we really need? Arrested Development is funny–will it still be funny in a few years? We can be sure neither of those shows will end because their creators decide they’re satisfied and finished; they’ll be cancelled when the ratings drop below a certain level, and not a minute before. Why doesn’t anybody ever produce a truly great show for one year, then move on to produce another good show the next? Why can’t we just enjoy a good idea for what it’s worth and move on? Why are low ratings the only reasons that shows are ever cancelled? Why must all good shows end their days having been run into the ground several years after their peak?
The answer is fairly obvious, I suppose: good shows get stretched into emaciated, purposeless shells of their former glory because we keep watching them, and because they’re “safe bets” for television networks in search of a good long-term investment. But I have this crazy dream that one day, we’ll see fewer open-ended, long-running sagas that lose their edge well before the end, and more short, concise, well-executed shows that make their point and then stop before pressing it too far. One can always hope.

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3 thoughts on “Too much of a good thing

  1. Ron

    Hey, interesting post Andy.
    I’d agree with your main point: There are shows that go on longer than they should. I watched X-files off and on, and found it very interesting, and really liked the movie… After Mulder left, it seemed weird that the show kept going, and seemed as though it would have been better for it to just end.. but then I ended up watching most of the last season, and it was really good.. I thought the final episode was incredible.
    I’d agree the the Simpsons is another show that has past its prime. It can be funny, on occasion, but it’s no longer the “every episode is great” show that it was a number of years ago…
    So I guess you have to weight the good and the bad.. considering how many excellent shows never make it past their first season, and how many great ideas never get their shot, once a show is on the air, are you really just going to let it die the instant you accomplish your original intent? Should Arrested Development end now, just in case they aren’t quite as funny in season 3? Seems like shows end for one of 2 reasons: They get canceled, or the people involved don’t want to do them anymore. If we were overwhelmed with the sheer number of quality shows on the air, I’d be right there with you telling them to pull the plug on a number of shows past their prime… but if canceling the Simpsons means adding “America’s Next Top Elvis Impersonator”, I’d rather just watch the Simpsons.
    As for Scrubs.. I think you just aren’t a fan of romantic comedy sitcoms in general. Scrubs continues to be one of my favorite shows, and seems to be liked by a lot of people. So I guess the flip-side of your argument would be: If shows were killed as soon as they finished saying what they originally set out to say, we’d miss out on a lot of really interesting shows. Writers would no longer have to be all that creative.. Come up with an idea, say it, then you’re done. Sure, if shows get the ax early you can avoid the 1000th Simpsons episode where you find out Homer is a bad husband, but you could lose some really quality shows. Cheers would’ve ended the instant Diane left, Friends would have ended as soon as Ross hooked up with Rachel (the first time), Ed would have ended anywhere from the 3rd episode to the end of season 2 or 3, etc.. Sure, plenty of shows get stale and dull, but other shows go in interesting new directions when their “original” storyline is done.
    Also, DS9 & TNG were still interesting and I’d say “fresh” in their 7th season, and I wouldn’t’ have minded seeing them continue a bit longer.
    So I guess what I’m saying is the bigger problem is that the overall quality of television is so low that shows aren’t really required to be that good. Simpsons still gets good ratings because it used to be quite funny, and there’s nothing better to watch.

  2. Jon

    Andy,
    Interesting post. As you say, there are exceptions — The Office finished its brilliant run after a meager 12 episodes because the creators didn’t want it to get stale. The Prisoner only ran for a season. Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of the main influences on The X-Files, only went for one season (mercifully).
    Star Trek is a different matter. While seven seasons has become the standard for the franchise (soon to be broken if Enterprise stays canceled), I don’t think a service would be done by shortening their runs. This is because it’s the later seasons that are among the best. I just watched the TNG pilot “Encounter at Fairpoint” the other day and, man, did it ever stink up the joint. Give me seventh season fare like “Lower Decks” or “All Good Things…” over that dreck any day.
    Still, overall your point holds.

  3. Heather

    “Why are low ratings the only reasons that shows are ever cancelled? Why must all good shows end their days having been run into the ground several years after their peak?”
    Because television shows are created to sell products. As long as it’s selling stuff to its target market–uh, audience, it stays on the air. Once a show can’t sell stuff as efficiently as the next best show, it gets zapped.
    All that creative energy just to sell fast food and what-have-you.

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