This past week, FX's gritty rogue cop drama, and one of my favorite shows, "The Shield" had its series finale. And, not only was it pretty gosh darn amazing, but it was also really, really f-ing satisfying to see. It had the rare distinction -, in a world of never-ending soap operas, reality and talk shows - of having an honest to goodness "we're done here, nothing more to see" ending - something that apparently only shows on HBO and a handful of others have ever been able to pull off.
Television is without question my favorite medium for storytelling. I think a smart, well written, acted and plotted serial drama or comedy (see: Lost, The Shield, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, The Office, Battlestar Gallactica [though I haven't loved the past season] is more engaging and entertaining than any movie, play, book, puppet show or personal retelling could ever be. In all great television series you have some of the most well crafted characters and worlds that have ever been seen, something that audiences develop real attachments to. You're not limited to telling your story over the course of 2 1/2 hours*, and as such, you can take your time creating depth and developing all the wonderful details that make your world feel whole, and rewarding to be part of (and on the downside, you get fanboys).
Now the problem is, every single show that makes it on the air (which itself is a daunting task I hear) only has the potential to tell the story it sets out to tell. For every series like The Shield, and the Sopranos, there's a Veronica Mars, and just this past week, a Pushing Daisies, where due to ratings, or any other number of reasons (usually just ratings) the show is canceled before its time, lost forever in an awkward finale that either was cobbled together last minute or an abrupt ending that only hints at a story we'll never see.
This isn't the only problem, either. There are also plenty of shows that go well past their prime. If 24, Alias, and Heroes had ended before their 6th, 3rd, and 2nd seasons, respectively, those shows would probably have made my list of "Matt's Shows To See." Or at the very least, shows I'd recommend to a friend without the caveat "but then things go to shit..."
I was the hardest of the hardcore Simpsons fans for over 10 years. I taped every episode that aired, watched each one of them probably at least three or four times, and was able to quote and/or detail nearly all of them. I remember being furious at the first series of syndicated episodes, appalled at the 1-2 minutes of brilliance they cut from each episode. Then...the show kept going. And going. And it stopped being the funniest thing on television. Now, here we are, almost 20 years after the show debuted, and it's still on the air. And, I'm sorry to say, it's now just a watered down, embarrassing shadow of what it once was.
Of course, the Simpsons is an animated sitcom that has no ongoing story that it's trying to tell, and the same argument for ending the aforementioned dramas can't be applied to it. But it does go to show you that even shows like this and Family Guy also could stand to benefit from an expiration date. And sadly, now The Simpsons will not go down in history as one of the greatest shows of all time, but rather just another show that eventually died because people stopped caring about it.*
In Britain, on the BBC, scripted television shows generally only last a season or two at most, which inevitably lead to most shows - even the comedies - telling a dense, layered story in a handful of episodes, and leaving the audience begging for more while still in their prime. Now I don't think all shows need to end with about 20 episodes (I still find the American Office to be pretty good, though I think its best episodes are behind them), but I do really like the idea of all shows being written with a specific expiration date in mind. I mean, for god's sake guys, when the heck is Ted Mosby finally going to tell his kids HOW HE MET THEIR MOTHER?!?
Now of course, I realize that I'm living in a fantasy world, where money isn't an issue, actors always are willing to stick it out in the shows they star in, and people all take their television viewing habits as seriously as I do (which involves sticking to a tight regimen of chronological DVR and Netflix viewings of all interesting shows, never channel surfing, not watching anything new if one's schedule does not allow for it and NEVER watching a single episode before you've seen the pilot). And I do realize that even my favorite shows like Lost aren't completely (or even vaguely it seems) mapped out when they are shooting the very first episode. But is it that hard for the studio execs, producers and writers to sit down once the pilot has been greenlit, and come to the conclusion: "yeah, 5 or 6 seasons of this and we'll probably be done." The writers will know how long they have to tell their story, and the studio will then know how much time and money they are both investing in and milking out of the franchise. Now all they need is the ratings, right?
Well, ratings might be everything to some people, but for some of the people writing these shows, you have to wonder how they can live with themselves after a certain point? When your lead character is sleeping with the ghost of her dead fiancee or your main character, who at the age of 26 is fighting Doomsday and Brainiac and is SOMEHOW STILL NOT ACTUALLY SUPERMAN*, can you really tell yourself its not just about a paycheck anymore?
And for the shows that don't catch on immediately, but really do resonate with people - isn't there a reason down the line to take a chance now and keep them going, what with more and more people watching shows after the fact on DVD and iTunes? What shows are busy people more likely to take the time to check out? A mediocre show that maybe was once good but goes on for 4 seasons too many, or a great show that ends sooner, and more importantly when it's supposed to?
My point is, a vital part of a show's legacy is its ending. Some people may argue with this theory - I know I've been thinking about it for some time. Can a really good show be undone by a shitty, abrupt, or non-existent ending? Well, yes and no. While I still highly recommend Veronica Mars or Pushing Daisies, even though both shows ended (or will soon be ending) before their time, ultimately a show like The Shield is the more satisfying experience when taken as a whole. VM ended its 3rd and finale season with Veronica walking down the street in an extremely frustrating open ended cliffhanger, which leaves a terrible taste in my mouth when I think back on it.
And while Lost can wow me and have me singing its praises for 6 seasons, if it ends with Matthew Fox waking up safely on Oceanic Flight 815 as it comes in for a landing from "a crazy-ass dream he just had," you had better believe I'll be the first to say that I was definitely a bit too hasty in my undying love for the show. Was it a fun ride? Sure, but hey, you guys didn't stick the landing.
Maybe what I want doesn't make any logical sense from a business point of view. Maybe it just boils down to shows that make money stay on the air, and those that don't get canceled. And in a few rare instances, sometimes a show can bow out just as its popularity has waned enough for the network to let it go. But when the math is kept that simple, so few shows wind up ultimately where they should in the grand scheme of things.
I just want television as medium to achieve the greatness I know it's capable of, or at the very least, hit a few more home runs than it's hitting right now.
Yeah, but I'd still rather be playing: Even though its over a year old, I never got around to playing Assassin's Creed. It shall be played!
*I know it seems like I'm talking about movies or perhaps plays here, but this is actually how long I allow myself to devote to any book.
*Although, technically, what I do with the Simpsons is I pretend the show stopped at Season 10, so I can continue to adore the first decade of it. Jesus, did I just say that?
*Honestly, I'm ashamed I ever watched this show.