TV is better than film. It’s almost become a truism that the best scripts, the best acting, and the best directing are deserting the multi-plexes for the freedom of the small screen. Martin Scorcese is just the latest émigré to arrive at the shores of HBO, where he can tell the story of Boardwalk Empire on the sprawling canvas he wants. Glenn Close, forced out of her role in films as the one you hire when Meryl Streep isn’t available, has found a showcase for her talents on Damages. A writer like Joss Whedon, dismayed at the film treatment of his vampire-slaying teen heroine, was able to resurrect the concept as one of the great TV series of all time.
If TV is so much better than film, then what I’m about to suggest is going to sound a little strange: I want to see a lot more TV series cancelled after two seasons.
Those of you who are still reading this probably aren’t fans of Pushing Daisies, The Riches, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Terminator: The Sarah Conor Chronicles or Carnivale. All of these shows elicited a fierce reaction from fans when they were cut short in what many thought was their prime. Well, I liked all of those shows – indeed, I loved Pushing Daisies and Studio 60 – but I’m far from sure that an extension of their run was what they needed.
Furthermore, I could easily name plenty of long-running shows which would have been better if they had been cut short at that mark. The Sopranos, for example, switched to an episodic format in the third season, shifting its focus away from the rich, multilayered characterisation at which the show excelled, and towards the sensational violence of episodes like “Employee of the Month”, in which Dr. Melfi is brutally raped by a stranger, and “University”, in which Ralph beats his stripper girlfriend to death to appease his brittle pride. By the end of the final season, the only reason to keep watching was to find out what happened, or achieve some kind of closure, and any Sopranos fans out there know exactly how that turned out.
The West Wing, likewise, was at its grandest and greatest during the first two years. Almost every episode saw me weeping salty tears, whether from patriotic pride or human pathos. By the end of season three, however, it was reduced to random death and Rufus Wainwright’s recording of “Hallelujiah” (which automatically counts as cheating) in order to wring out the tears.
Even Scrubs, which has now devolved into a passably amusing, if frequently irritating absurdist farce, spent two years of its early life as the bravest, most formally innovative and emotionally honest sitcom ever aired. Every one of these shows would live longer in the memory, indeed, would stand up better as works of art – that is what television series are, after all, no matter what snobs might tell you – if someone had called time on them after two seasons.
Of course, there are plenty of good reasons networks don’t do that. Although less important than they once were, syndication rights still play a major role in the thinking of execs who commission television series, and it’s both easier and more lucrative to syndicate a show which has 100 or more episodes than one with only a couple of dozen. Moreover, the most expensive part of a series is often its first season (octogenarian shows like Friends, with skyrocketing wages in later seasons, being the exception), when sets are being built and fresh ad campaigns are saturating the airwaves.
However, if all of the financial considerations encourage television shows to go on and on until they haven’t just jumped the shark but watched the poor thing die of old age, the aesthetic case is against them. Television series excel at long form narrative, at letting stories unravel slowly – but let them last too long and you risk revealing that there wasn’t much story to begin with, just one damn thing after another.
So this is a call to HBO, Showtime, and any other channel which claims to stake its name on television quality: learn to know when you’ve had enough of a good thing. The next time your big-name series is on the bubble, don’t think about next year’s balance sheet — just have the courage to pop it.