'Desperate Housewives,' 'Breaking Bad'

When is it the right time to pull the plug?

by Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

22 August 2011


Early this week, word came from AMC that “Breaking Bad,” the critically adored drama about a meth-selling chemistry teacher, will wrap up with a 16-episode season next year. That announcement followed the recent news that ABC’s glossy soap, “Desperate Housewives,” will finish off its eight-season run in May.

The end is also near for a few other shows. “Rescue Me” (FX) and “Entourage” (HBO) are both in their final seasons, and on Sept. 23, the venerable ABC daytime drama “All My Children” will leave the air after 41 years.

This robust flurry of TV terminations has me pondering, once again, those deep, philosophical questions: When is the right time to pull the plug on a show? How does closure come? And why do we, as viewers, sometimes have such a hard time letting go?

After news broke during the recent TV critics press tour that “Desperate Housewives” would end, ABC brought on creator Marc Cherry to share his thoughts.

“I’m very aware of (shows) overstaying their welcome,” he told the assembled journalists. “I didn’t want that to happen with ‘Desperate Housewives.’ I wanted to go out when the network still saw us as a viable show and a force to contend with. ... I wanted to go out in the classiest way possible.”

His remarks provoked in me a surge of TV critic snideness. “Housewives,” after all, generates nowhere near the kinds of ratings it did when it premiered in 2004 and became a pop-cultural sensation. More significant, it ran out of creative steam a long time ago, spewing predictable and tired storylines on a regular basis. To me, the show already had overstayed its welcome by at least three seasons.

I had the same cranky reaction a few days earlier when Showtime entertainment chief David Nevins told us that “Weeds” might be awarded an eighth season. Talk about a show that went off the rails ages ago. Please, just put it out of its misery.

I was equally dismissive when word came that both “The Office” and “Two and a Half Men” would trudge on, despite losing their primary stars. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to cease and desist?

Of course, I try to keep in mind that TV critics often don’t view television in the same way that many fans or network executives do. Critics have a heavy watch load. We’re always looking for the new, fresh thing. And we get bored easily.

We also prefer that our favorite shows leave the stage at the top of their game. As much as I loved (and promoted) “Friday Night Lights,” I believed that five seasons was just about perfect. Tie a bow on it and move on with happy memories.

I’m also a big advocate of shows — especially dramas — doing what “Lost” did by setting a predetermined expiration date. When “Breaking Bad” announced that it would wind down with 16 more episodes, creator Vince Gilligan explained the advantages of having such an end game.

“This is a great gift to me and my writers,” he said. “It’s knowledge which will allow us to properly build our story to a satisfying conclusion.”

“Breaking Bad” is an interesting case study. Its ratings are actually up this summer and critics still love it. But the show is designed in a way that it must keep raising the stakes and amplifying the danger for its main character, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Continue for too long and there’s a danger that things would get too implausible and ludicrous.

TV executives aren’t nearly as interested in creative concerns as the bottom line. If “Two and a Half Men” is still a cash cow, why not bring in Ashton Kutcher and try to keep it going? On the other hand, at least one factor in the decision to end “Desperate Housewives” (Cherry previously had talked of a nine-year run) had to be the bulky salaries of his leading ladies.

Most fans, of course, don’t care about any of this. They just want to see their shows. Unlike critics, typical viewers zero in on just a handful of series. They build bonds with the characters, who come to feel almost like family members. Often, shows are watched out of habit. They become a comfort zone.

So it’s no wonder that many soap opera devotees — perhaps the most passionate TV fans — are up in arms over ABC’s cancellation of “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” We critics and non-soap watchers may not quite comprehend the depth of their furor (“Hey, ‘Arrested Development’ got only three seasons, be happy that you got four decades,” we say).

But soap fans see it differently: Their “stories” are a religion — a daily routine — that in some cases have existed for entire lifetimes. And even if your fervor sometimes might wane, it’s comforting to know that they’ll be there for you.

For them, there really is no good time to pull the TV plug.

//Mixed media