TV Series That Died Young (and left a beautiful corpse)

Written By: Paul Toth - Mar• 23•14

Most of us have experienced the dejection, the denial—the outright horror, perhaps—of having a beloved television series cancelled. We rage, we curse the gods, we imagine what sort of things we’d say to the loathsome executives who pulled the trigger on that esteemed bit of entertainment we were looking forward to enjoying—well, forever, really. Sometimes we even take action, blending together into one vast letter-writing, protesting, give-me-back-my-series-or-I’ll-seriously-get-my-pout-on organism. A being that will seethe and stomp and roam convention halls until it either gets its way or disperses in a dark, billowing cloud of exasperation and ennui.

 

But are we always better off having our favorite show renewed for “one more season?” Or is sometimes best for a series to pass away in its prime (or at least a close approximation thereof), dying a dignified, if exasperating, death? I’m going to look at the way a number of shows went to the showbiz boneyard, and I’ll share some thoughts about whether their deaths were untimely, deserved, or sad but ultimately for the best (like putting ol’ Rex out to pasture after his eyes give out and his bladder gives out and he gets too arthritic to trouble the postman).

Star Trek, the First Cause Célèbre

So far as I know, Star Trek was the first television series to raise a furor when it tried to meet its maker (who would be Gene Roddenberry, if you want to get literal about it). When the network tried to pull the plug, incensed fans staged an ultimately successful write-in campaign that bought the broadcast phenom a fresh lease on life. As I’ll be doing for a number most of the series mentioned, I’ll pose a few questions:

  1. Did the series die before its time?
  2. Did it leave a beautiful corpse?
  3. What about loose ends?

Everyone will answer these questions differently—not just for Start Trek, but for pretty much any series you care to name. I’m not going to poll, or try to reach a consensus with fellow TV geeks, I’m just going to give you my take on things and leave you argue amongst yourselves (no fisticuffs, children, play nice!).

To answer question #1, it’s useful to think in terms of a series lifecycle (It’s the Circle of Life… And it moves us all… Through despair and hope… ahem! Sorry, got distracted there).

Every decent show starts out a bouncing baby pilot, all cuddly and lovable, looking out at the world through rose-colored, too-big aviator’s goggles. After a few awkward first steps, it’s off to the races, making us laugh and cry with its charming antics (look, baby’s first monologue!) Somewhere around the last half of season one—season two or three, for the late bloomers—the series reaches sexy early adulthood, getting some swagger and turning some heads. After that, some of them live hard and die a quick death, while others age gracefully, continuing to attract more admirers as the years go by. Eventually, though, the bloom comes off the rose, decrepitude sets in, and the show goes the way of all good things.

But why, you ask? A television series has no bones to ablate and no flesh to become diseased, so why must the devil get his due? Look at this way: A TV show’s long-term potential is like an ovary.

Yes, an ovary.

When the series creators’ complete their work, cranking out character profiles, drawing storyboards, defining the concept, and writing the pilot—they’re creating something that contains the potential to provide a finite number of lives. And by “life,’ I mean high-quality episode. And by “episode” I mean egg. And by “egg” I mean… Well, you get the idea. When the ovary comes into being, it has all the eggs it will ever have. At regular intervals, eggs leave, never to return, and no new ones are ever added. The ovary may, for whatever reasons, fail to disburse all of its eggs, but its maximum output is immutable.

Surely not, you say. Certainly the number of good episodes to be had depends on all sorts of things, like the inventiveness of the writers, the quality of the direction, and the level of ongoing funding a studio receives.

Nope. Not in my cosmology, anyway. And if you believe differently, feel free to write your own damn blog (or harangue me in the comments—as you wish). The best the writers, producers, and actors can do is make sure that ovary coughs up every last egg it started with, and while no one really knows what that number is, be assured: it as fixed as pi and e and any other constant you care to bandy about. And once the life-source is empty, folks, that’s it. The show can endlessly recycle its successful plots, or it can jump the shark, or it can devolve into self-parody and celebrity-worship (Famous guest stars! Yay!) But it will never, ever, be good again.

Better, then, to put it (and us) out of our collective misery.

So, to answer question number one, we must first figure out which stage of life the series was in when took a bullet. Was a winsome pre-teen, gazing up at the stars and wondering what life had in store? Or was it an energetic adult, with lots of living in its past, but lots of living yet to do? Or had the time come to admit it was like Rex—still loved, but no longer able to bring joy to himself or anyone else.

In the case of Star Trek, I think things played out in pretty much the optimal way. Season three had some fine episodes, but there were also a few that looked a lot like earlier ones. That sort of repetition is a pretty good clue that the ovary is getting close to giving up its last egg. I suspect that, if there had been a season four, it would have been less than great, perhaps serving to tarnish fond memories of a great series. The network execs did the right thing when they gave into the show’s most ardent fans and green-lit another season, but they also did the right thing when they pulled the plug a year later.

It also stands to reason, then, that the answer to question #2, “Did the show leave a beautiful corpse?” is “yes.” When Star Trek managed to exit stage left without overstaying its welcome, it earned a place in hearts of scifi geeks everywhere, as the first installment in the most successful television franchise of all time. And as the series was primarily episodic in nature, question #3, “What about loose ends?” is fairly straightforward: there weren’t any—none of note, anyway.

The Growing Power of Fandom

Star Trek aficionados might have been the first to band together and make a concerted effort to save their series, but they certainly weren’t the last. Off hand, I can think of at least four other examples of fandom flexing its collective musculature: Farscape, Jericho, Chuck, and Veronica Mars. There have no doubt been many more. In the cases of Farscape and Jericho, the fans didn’t get their way, while both Chuck and Veronica Mars inspired successful campaigns. The latter two are instructive in that they give us a good idea just how potent a force fandom has become.

Earlier attempts to keep shows on the air consisted primarily of letter-writing, but the Chuck fans took things a step beyond. Several steps, actually. They organized at conventions, circulated online petitions, and got in touch with sponsors. These activities took on a self-reinforcing quality, with high-profile efforts gaining the notice of additional fans, which in turn cranked up the volume even more. This legion of well-organized, passionate Chuckssters got the network’s attention, held it, and eventually convinced the powers-that-be to reverse their original decision. The fans won.

I had the pleasure of attending Comic-Con three years ago, and had the opportunity to watch the Chuck panel. After announcing the show had been renewed—to mighty applause—the producers/co-creators described the manner in which the decision came about. They singled out a specific fan (one of primary organizers of the “Save Chuck” movement) for thanks. She stood, and was rewarded with her own round of applause. The producers’ message was clear: the fans, and this fan in particular, had done what they could not. They had convinced the bean counters to keep the series alive.

Veronica Mars is an even more interesting testament to the escalating potency of fandom. A crowdsourcing campaign was able to raise the considerable pile of cash required to fund a Mars movie. As I write this, the reviews for the film—mostly positive—have begun to roll in. The funding of motion pictures—once the purview of industry executives and the independently wealthy—can now be accomplished by fans. This importance of this tectonic shift in the in industry’s power structure cannot be underestimated. The only event that’s even worthy of comparison is the antitrust ruling that dismantled the big studios’ vertical integration, and it’s a distant second.

One of the interesting things about the Veronica Mars phenomenon is that it makes evaluating the questions surrounding its cancellation a good deal more tricky. Because the movies are essentially an extension of the series, it becomes difficult to tell when a series has truly come to an end. For this reason, I’m going to reserve judgment on the Mars corpse, but it’s not so clear that there is one, just yet. As the power of the mega-fan grows, this may become increasingly common.

Firefly: the James Dean of TV Series

Many fans bemoan the seemingly premature demise of Joss Whedon’s brilliant Firefly, and I’m one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of the best television series ever developed, and it lasted less than two seasons. Why did it die so young, embalmed while it still had nice, full ovaries ready to bring about the birth of an exquisite litter of narrative works? Depends on who you ask, but some mixture of indifference, incompetence, and political infighting at the network seems to have been at fault.

However it happened, Firefly became the archetypal example of the James Dean series. Those episodes that did manage to run the gauntlet of corporate ineptitude and arrogance are extraordinary, and Whedon & Co. even managed to tie up most of the loose ends in Serenity, a not-so-surprisingly good theatrical film.

While Firefly continues to be a fan favorite, such is not the fate of all James Dean-ers. Journeyman was a fascinating series with a great cast, a concept that seemed kind of derivative in theory but felt startlingly fresh in practice, and masterful storytelling. It had a terrific sense of mystique, and watching it felt like plying unknown seas on a quick, skittish clipper with a knavish crew. Its cancellation was just as befuddling as that of Firefly, but it remains largely unknown—an obscure footnote in small-screen history. Hell, it’s not even available on DVD. Unlike, say, every season of Diff’rent Strokes

So, what are some of the other James Dean series? Surely there must be others.

Indeed there are. But not, perhaps, as many as you might expect. Many shows that at first seem like good candidates for such a designation don’t really hold up under scrutiny. Twin Peaks is a good example. Like Firefly, it lasted less than two seasons, and, like Firefly, it was brilliant. It even managed to inspire a climatic theatrical film that brought the various incomplete plot arcs to a head. Beyond this, though, the comparison breaks down. By the time Twin Peaks began its second season, it was already beginning to show its age. With many of the more interesting plot threads already tied off, the show felt like it had been cut adrift. It wasn’t clear that the staff writers had any clear idea where to take it, or that they were even fully engaged. After a single glorious season, the ovaries were already depleted.

Such is the way of things. Some shows have a long, fertile life ahead of them, with the potential for many large litters of cute, squirming babies. Other, equally beautiful, series must be satisfied with small families.

Paging Dr. Reaper

For every James Dean television series, there are a half dozen of what I’ll call “Methuselahs”—unnaturally long-lived beings that outstay their welcome, like Uncle Fredrico with the smelly toupee who likes to pick his toes on the living room couch. Sure, Freddy’s got some amusing anecdotes, and his flaming fart tricks were hilarious the first dozen times, but we’re really ready to send him back to his belly dancing Chilean mistress. Don’t worry about the high price of airfare, Freddy ol’ pal, we’ll take care of it.

One of the best-known Methuselahs is X-Files. Chris Carter originally planned to wrap up the show after its first few seasons, using the theatrical movie to move it toward a dramatic conclusion. But Fox would have not of it. The show’s ratings were still strong—strong enough, in fact, to make cancellation out of the question. So it trundled along for another half-dozen seasons, continuing even after both of its leads left for greener pastures. Unsurprisingly, many of the later episodes were weak, and the last few were complete crap.

I’m not going to claim all of the latter-day X-Files plots were thin. In fact, some of its best episodes came during the show’s gradual decline. Monday, a Groundhog Day-esque tale in which the protagonists must relive a calamity in order to find a way to stop it, is a fine example. The episode has been heavily copied, on both big screen and small, and if imitation is the best form of flattery then Monday has been well flattered indeed.

But a few moments of splendid health won’t change the ultimate prognosis—X-Files had full-on Methuselah syndrome, and pulling the plug would have been a mercy. I would have preferred that Fox let Carter wrap things up in his own way, and many of the show’s fans seem to agree.

Sometimes a network acts to prevent Methuselah syndrome only to have the viewers attempt to intervene. Yes, sometimes we ever-more-powerful and deeply opinionated fans don’t know what’s good for us. Farscape is a prime example. After five good seasons, Sci-Fi decided to pull the plug, and the fans were up in arms. A Star-Trek style write-in campaign ensued, but to no avail. Farscape was no more.

Sort of. While Farscape died just young enough to leave a pretty corpse, it left behind a bevy a big, scary loose ends, flailing around like the disturbing whip-like tentacles in The Thing. Thankfully, a passable multipart cable movie gave the creators a chance to provide grumpy fans with a sense of closure.

In my humble (or not so humble) opinion. Farscape’s cancellation came at an opportune moment. There were already signs of shark-jumping starting to show up in season five, and to me the figurative ovaries were beginning to look decidedly saggy. There were a few good eggs left—enough for a satisfying and action-packed story-within-a-story conclusion—but probably not enough for another full season.

What I Learned From Jericho

The story of Jericho is one of the oddest in the history of the medium, and this is why: mediocre ratings turned out to be a good thing, ultimately allowing the series to leave one of the purtiest corpses this side of the Pecos.

“How can that be?” you ask, with forehead all a-wrinkle. “Certainly not!” you insist, with an accusatory finger pointed straight at my no doubt soon-to-be-lengthening schnoz. Well, gather ’round the campfire, kiddies, and I’ll tell you a tale that’s passing strange.

Jericho focused on the plight of a small town that’s left its own devices after a series of nuclear strikes throw the country into chaos. The survivors have to deal with fundamental questions of survival and governance, and are eventually called upon to face deadly external threats. A conspiracy thread runs through the overarching plot, providing an enhanced sense of anticipation and intrigue. It’s an outstanding series with spot-on casting, cinematic visuals, and writing that hits the mark time after time.

Despite being a damn fine show, Jericho’s ratings weren’t that great, and the network decided to end it after season one, providing funds for just a handful of episodes in season two. I have to believe this completely changed the writing dynamic. Instead of needing to come up with enough material to flesh out twenty-plus episodes, the writers were forced to find a way to wind things up in just seven. This undoubtedly meant careful planning and lean plots that had to make every scene count—each sequence had to move the show’s central arc closer to its conclusion. In short, instead of writing in an open-ended, more-is-more fashion, the writers had to structure the ongoing story like a novel.

And that was a good thing.

Very good.

Though there’s the occasional coarse note or sloppy scene, the truncated second season of Jericho feels taut and fast-paced. It manages an intensity only three four or series have matched, and its denouement is more satisfying than that of the typical feature film. In the end, what we got is a series that feels like a superb thirty episode miniseries. Twenty odd hours of pure viewing pleasure. And it’s all thanks to the miracle of crappy ratings.

As it turns out, many fans didn’t see it this way—at least, not back in 2007 when the show’s cancellation was announced. As with Farscape, furious viewers attempted to convince the network to reverse its decision. “Why,” they collectively asked, “do you empty-suit asshats have to go and cancel the best damned show on network TV?”

In a sense, they were right. Jericho was indeed a fine show, and cancelling it certainly seemed like short-sighted decision for the ages. After all, many series (Seinfeld is an oft-mentioned example) require patience to build a following. Some shows have appeal that doesn’t readily translate to 30-second ad spots or TV guide synopses, and require the slower process of word-of-mouth to grow their audience. It seemed perfectly reasonable to think that Jericho might be just such a series, and that penny-pinching executives were cutting off their pointy noises to spite their treacherous faces.

I respectfully disagree. To my mind, Jericho had a structure that lent itself far better to the miniseries than a traditional open-ended format. Ideally, it would have been designed as a miniseries from the start. Why wasn’t it?

Hard to say. I’m guessing either no one thought far enough ahead to realize Jericho would be more entertaining given a fixed length, or it was just easier to sell the concept as open-ended. I don’t claim to know the mind of the Hollywood decision makers, but it makes sense that a series with an inherently short lifespan would be a harder sell. And while the traditional syndication model is slowly breaking down, it was still going strong in 2007, and syndication generally requires at least three seasons (as syndication occurs after production costs are paid, it often delivers the lion’s share of the profits).

In the end, the series didn’t die before its time. It left an exceedingly lovely corpse, and by design left no messy stringery to trouble its followers. Jericho, in other words, died the perfect death.

Pale Horse, Pale Writer

Jericho‘s unusual journey from cradle to grave begs the following question: Would the industry be better off if it was more open to creating fixed-length series from the git-go?

If the answer is “yes,” then we ought to be able to find some series laying around the boneyard that would have benefitted from such an approach. Are there shows that would have been better off if they hadn’t been produced as open-ended series?

Most definitely.

Flash Forward is probably the best example. Adapted from a novel, the series starts out brimming with suspense and intrigue, and ends up wandering off into an existential hinterland where every path seems to lead somewhere we’ve already been. What if the writers had just adapted the novel? Or perhaps gone the Hobbit route and added some new material, but still built the show around a pre-planned central arc? There seems to be little doubt that a better product would have resulted—perhaps a first-rate series that fully realized the potential that was evident during the first few episodes.

Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.

The Event is another show that comes to mind. Like Flash Forward, it shows early promise and then craps out. Craps out in a hurry. The fact that The Event didn’t even manage to get through one season without turning to horse pucky isn’t, as one might expect, the sign of a flawed concept—the series concept is actually pretty damn intriguing. I also don’t believe it was case of fundamentally bad writing. No, I’m pretty sure that the series would have been a failure no matter who ended penning the individual episodes.

So what was problem, then, if we can’t blame the writers?

Bad acting? Low budget? Poorly designed visuals? Did it just end up in a shitty time slot?

No, none of the above. The Event was just a show with small ovaries. Puny ones, in fact. I believe it would have made a good miniseries, coming in somewhere around the five to ten hour mark. If it was written like a novel, with every scene pushing toward a well-understood climax, there’s no reason it couldn’t have been entertaining. Instead, The Event’s round peg got jammed into a square open-ended-series hole, to disastrous effect. Crappy ratings, wasted marketing dollars, and—I imagine—disgruntled advertisers.

The lessons are clear, Hollywood. Keep an open mind, know thy ovaries, and be prepared to ignore the fans. Even the really loud ones.

 

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