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When TV Shows Live Too Long: When Is It Time to Say Goodbye?

When TV Shows Live Too Long: When Is It Time to Say Goodbye?

TV has changed drastically over the years. Streaming services like Netflix and channels like HBO and Showtime put a much higher priority on production value and focus on storytelling far more than ever before. But with these changes comes a shift in the end goal of a show. Being on the air forever doesn’t necessarily mark a successful show; Breaking Bad, told its story in five seasons. Despite its rabid popularity, AMC closed up shop once the story was told. Striving to make tons of seasons or hit that 100 episode syndication goal wasn’t the intention, it was about making one of the best shows ever. TV shows can run until they’re cancelled, but it’s always better for the cast, crew, and viewers if it can wrap up the story line.  So, what are those cues that it’s maybe time to let a show come to a close?

When the show’s narrator, tone, or point of view has to take a drastic turn.

I’m looking at you, Scrubs. If you were a fan of the show, we all remember the final episode of the “normal” show, “My Finale”. The ending was perfect and tear-jerking. For a show that was largely lighthearted, it let us know that the characters we loved so much ended up happy and that their relationships would remain strong through the years. And then they made a ninth season.

Zach Braff only brought his character, J.D., back for a few episodes of the show, which was a big deal since the show was told through J.D.’s perspective (also why each episode started with the word “my”). Even though they started calling the show Scrubs: Med School, it was never an official spin-off, which threw fans off and made it feel like a new show when it was never made totally clear if this was actually a new show. Despite Braff promising to come back if Scrubs got a 10th season, the show got cancelled. The same happened when the main character of That 70’s Show, Eric Foreman (played by Topher Grace) left. The show had largely followed Eric’s story, and once he left the show felt totally un-moored. If you’ve got a show based on one character, and that character leaves, it’s time to call it a day.

After a huge metaphorically (or literally) world-ending event.

I love Supernatural, but I’d not be doing my job here if I didn’t mention the fact that way back in season five, the boys took care of the literal apocalypse and then kept the show going. Whether you’re still a fan of the show or you moved on after Sam pulled Lucifer into the pit with him, there’s no denying that the show went through… growing pains as it tried to find a good story to tell after taking care of the apocalypse.

It’s tough to carry on after you’ve dealt with the literal end of the world. I’d argue that the show re-found its groove once it started putting Sam through The Trials, but some would say it’s never been the same. So, while I’m definitely not calling for the end of Supernatural, I would just say that if you’re going to end the world and keep your show going, you had better have a solid game plan for what happens next.

If you’ve run out of plausible story lines, so the show’s crazy is completely outside of reality.

A shooting, a plane crash, a ghost boyfriend, severe PTSD, another character with severe PTSD, a miscarriage while performing surgery on your husband in the midst of a shooting, a bomb in someone’s chest, being stabbed by an icicle, a musical episode, an alternate universe episode, a marriage based on a need for health insurance that becomes a loving relationship… that ends with death, and a literal lion getting loose in  a city. You guys, this is all stuff from just one show: Grey’s Anatomy. 

I used to be a pretty big fan; it was nice and soapy, plus it had that fun twist of being a medical drama. And then it went completely bonkers. So bonkers that my list above isn’t a complete list of all the nutty things that went down in Seattle Grace/Seattle Grace-Mercy West/Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. For shows like Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, and The Walking Dead which always keep one foot firmly in crazy town, things getting nuts is totally expected. But programs like Grey’s are meant to feel a tiny bit realistic. Once you’ve run out of compelling stories to tell that are rooted in your show’s realm of reality, it’s better to just walk away.

You’re on the verge of creating ridiculous story lines just to keep a fan-favorite character on the show.

Remember when Heroes was super awesome, and then faster than Claire could heal herself, the show started to hardcore suck? There was a lot of contributing factors that added to the demise of Heroes (crossing all of my fingers that Heroes: Reborn recaptures the show’s magic), but part of it was their insistence on keeping Zachary Quinto’s character, Sylar around. I get the temptation. Sylar was badass and everything you want in a Big Bad. However, when big face-offs were promised between Sylar and a Good Guy, they fizzled. They tried to revive his story line by making him an unlikely hero, ultimately changing what made Sylar so awesomely evil, and generally confusing everyone.

Fan favorites are definitely hard to say goodbye to, as they often carry the majority of the audience. So if the show rides on one character’s shoulders, instead of following the Heroes model (doing serious writing gymnastics to keep a character on the show), follow the Breaking Bad model, ending the show with the character.


When do you think it’s time for TV shows to go off the air? Let me know in the comments!

Image credit: adamreese2006/

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