The ideal television series is a perpetual-motion machine. It runs on a combination of external and internal energy sources: Viewership and ad revenues are the ones the people at the controls truly care about, but that machine’s going nowhere without a battery of good writers and a showrunner to guide their output. Those external sources aren’t renewable resources (they’re downright elusive and easy to deplete), but the internal ones—and nearly every other component of the machine—can be swapped in and out at regular intervals. Is your lead actress looking to establish a movie career? Install a new one—or, if you’re feeling ambitious, install two for the price of the old star. Showrunner no longer generating the same amount of creative juice he was two seasons ago? Good news: There are writers’ rooms and sound stages full of potential replacements.
Of course, like a perpetual-motion machine, the ideal TV series is only a theoretical. The closest American television has come to realizing such a show are non-scripted juggernauts like The Tonight Show and 60 Minutes, programs highly dependent on their topicality and formats hot-wired to generate inspiration from outside origins. The scripted realm holds two notable exceptions—The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live—but they keep on keepin’ on due to façades that disguise wear and tear (in the former’s case, animation; in the latter’s, the nation’s inexhaustible well of fresh-faced improv students and sketch-comedy acolytes) and diminishing returns (as evidenced by regular “If you only see one Simpsons/Saturday Night Live episode this season… ” reports).
But just because a TV show could be built to last doesn’t mean it should. Think about your favorite television series of all time. How many lasted for 100 episodes? Probably a few—especially if they became your favorites thanks to syndicated reruns—but certainly not most. But how many lasted for 200 episodes? The list of series that managed to double the old syndication mark is a short one, and there isn’t a single one of them that didn’t lose steam as they came to an end. Some, like Friends (238 episodes), M*A*S*H (251), Cheers (271), The Carol Burnett Show (278), ER (333), and Gunsmoke (648) are undisputed classics, but also subject to the pitfalls of long-term television production: Departing cast members, shifting thematic grounds, and retrofitted back-stories, to name a few. But hey, at least Carol Burnett’s Charwoman managed to make it through 11 seasons without receiving a complicated mythology.
Why bring up the 200-episode mark? Because that’s exactly where NBC’s adaptation of The Office could end up at the end of a 24-episode ninth season. Not too shabby for a show that once looked as if it wouldn’t survive beyond its first six episodes. Then again, “shabby” is one of the more charitable adjectives describing the current state of the Peacock Network’s flagship comedy. Like the members of an exclusive club The Office will join in 2013 (renewal pending), the show’s latter seasons have been more miss than hit. It’s been particularly rudderless since Steve Carell pulled up stakes and left Scranton for good, leaving the eighth season to mine lackluster material from new characters (James Spader’s enigmatic Robert California; Catherine Tate’s domineering Nellie Bertram), new locations (a swiftly discarded arc that involved the failed establishment of a Sabre Store in Florida), and old relationships. (Andy and Erin’s revived romance gave hope to the ’shippers, but failed to replicate the butterflies of Jim and Pam’s water-logged proposal.) The show has burned through a lot of goodwill in the process, and a once-favored underdog now comes off like the college freshman who still stops by his high school alma mater every Friday afternoon.
But it could be sporting a cool new haircut when it returns to its old stomping grounds next fall: Facing a ninth season without showrunner Paul Lieberstein and several key cast members—Rainn Wilson could join Lieberstein on a Dwight Schrute-focused spin-off; Mindy Kaling sold a pilot to Fox; Ed Helms, John Krasinski, and Jenna Fischer are at the end of their contracts—executive producer Greg Daniels floated the idea of “rebooting” the series. The news, though speculative, was met by much online handwringing (and, more recently, qualified assurances from Fischer that she and the rest of the leads want to return). The loudest responses merely echoed what has been said about the show since its big wedding episode… or it’s big baby episode… or its farewell to Carell: “Just end it already.”
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But ending a television series is more complicated than scripting a finale and declaring, “Okay, no more to see here!” There’s the human cost, obviously: Rooting for a show’s conclusion is akin to rooting for a small business to shut down. In order for television fans to get their precious closure, some people have to lose their jobs.
There’s also the difficulty of finding that closure. How can television writers bring their stories to gratifying conclusions when they expend so much energy avoiding those conclusions? It’s the greatest fault in the perpetual-motion-machine model for TV series: There’s no way of ending a story that, ideally, shouldn’t end. That’s assuming a show’s staff is allowed the luxury of ending things on its own terms, which is rarely the case.
Therein lies one of the unspoken advantages of cancellation: It relieves the burden of tying up loose ends. And, in some instances, it provides an open-ended conclusion that speaks to the concept that the best, most fully realized televisions characters have lives outside of what we see on the screen: The last episode of Freaks And Geeks introduces new paths for its characters to follow, which could shape the rest of their lives or be abandoned within a week. (We’ll never know, and that’s thrilling.) Judd Apatow’s follow-up to that show, Undeclared, was similarly cut down before its time, but leaves on a lingering note of romantic anxiety that’s familiar to anyone who’s lived through the end of a school year. (In this case, however, there’s no school to return to at the end of the summer.) Firefly has since been continued through comics and a film adaptation, but the uncertain “ending” of the series left the door open for those interpretations.
Cancellation can be the best thing that happens to a series. Consider it the “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking DVD set” mentality: Sure, viewers were denied further adventures of Terriers, Max Headroom, Party Down, and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but none of those shows ever had the chance to grow stale, either. They’re preserved in digital amber, never to be besmirched by the introduction of unnecessary side characters or subjected to show-sinking relationship bingo. Keep that in mind the next time one of your favorites shows up on the wrong end of a cancellation/renewal notice.
And while the Lazarus effect exercised by the cult of Arrested Development is far from typical—and the show’s resurrection protracted—it does serve as testament to the fact that cancellation is not a death sentence in the current television landscape. The post-cancellation interest generated by the Bluth family has given false hope to fans of other short-lived series; with Arrested Development’s fourth “season” confirmed to debut on Netflix, we can all move on to bugging the cast members of Party Down about when Adam Scott will finally get to say “Are we having fun yet?” on the big screen. (As of this month, creator Rob Thomas has the script outlined, so that’s a start. Just don’t hold your breath for that Veronica Mars movie.) Though there’s an added pressure that comes with making a movie out of a beloved TV show that isn’t present when you’re churning out episodes for 100,000-some Starz subscribers. Predictably, Scott’s line on the film has become “We don’t want to screw it up.” And those who want their fond memories of Party Down preserved are probably just as anxious about those pink bowties coming out of mothballs.
In light of Arrested Development’s example, maybe we should look at the ideal television series not as a perpetual-motion machine, but rather The Bluth Company stair car. The best ones take a while to reach their destination, and even then they’re not 100 percent reliable. And, when the thing has proven its usefulness, you can set it aside and sail off to some tropical destination. When you drive it as long as NBC has driven The Office, you need to watch out for spinoffs and hop-ons. You’re gonna get some hop-ons.