When the death of a TV show is sweeter

News Caroline Preece
28 Apr 2011 - 13:41

Is it better for a much-loved TV show like Firefly to burn out than fade away? Caroline argues that, sometimes, an early cancellation is a show’s best fate…

When geek demi-god Joss Whedon announced that he would be making a new show for the first time in seven years back in 2009, the world stood still in anticipation.

He had not worked in television since his ill-fated space opera Firefly’s cancellation, and a procedural-saturated TV landscape was gasping for his creative vision to inspire the fan within us. We got Dollhouse, a bizarre comment on identity and desire, which explored Eliza Dushku’s Echo and her place within the mysterious Dollhouse.

It should have been lightning in a bottle. Not everyone ‘got’ it. It got cancelled. But this time around, the outcry that followed Firefly’s death was largely absent. It just didn’t hurt as much - maybe because it wasn’t as good. Which brings me to my question: do some TV shows deserve to be cancelled, however promising? And, when is it best to put a good show down, before it runs itself into the ground?

We’ve all heard and dreaded the phrase, ‘jumped the shark’. It’s the moment in which a television show has completely run out of ideas, the moment when it becomes something else entirely simply to keep its ratings up. The fans are forgotten, the show as it was is no more. Shows like Firefly and Dollhouse didn’t have a chance to jump in their shorter than short running times, thus saving them from the fate many once innovative programmes have walked into.

Chuck has been a huge victim of serial threats to its life. It has reached a point where there are at least two finale episodes each season. The most recent, Chuck Versus The Push Mix was the most obvious and heavy-handed, receiving heavier criticism from fans and critics than many of its previous efforts. Here’s the pattern: NBC order a half season, and the show delivers these episodes as a last gasp, just in case.

The network then renews it, and the show has to figure out somewhere new to go now that the ends have all been so neatly tied. In the past, it has found these unforeseen places and largely kept up the quality, but time could be running out for a programme that was once so original and universally loved.

Another show graced with more episodes last year was Supernatural. Reaction ranged from indifference and confusion to anger and disappointment. A show that had ended so beautifully and poignantly had to think of something new, as well as something bigger than Lucifer himself for the boys to fight. Oh, and there was the little problem of Sam having died. It is many people’s belief that this escalating tale of family, good and evil, heaven and hell would have gone down as one of the greatest fantasy shows ever made if it had ended here.

Instead, it’s in danger of murdering its own legacy with a muddled sixth (rumoured seventh) season. In the words of Castiel, “you got what you asked for. No utopia, no hell, just more of the same.” (5x22 Swan Song.)

Now, in the land of TV, love and hate are never mutually exclusive. Genre fans are renowned for their obsessive engagement with particular shows, and they complain more than anyone else when their love disappears from the airwaves. But they also complain more than anyone else when they stay on ‘too long’.

This could be because genre television has the potential to be the best entertainment in the world. We know this; we demand it. When a gem is found, we hold on to it for dear life. Firefly fans (dubbed Browncoats) are a particularly inspiring example, getting a major motion picture made of their little cancelled show, while Chuck fans (and Subway) have helped save their show more than once.

But this same predisposed need for nothing less than excellence can lead to frustration when a once loved show falls into the gutter of its own lost potential. The X-Files, Lost, and Smallville are just three examples of critical darlings that just couldn’t maintain the same quality over multiple seasons.

Mainstream viewers may abandon a show that no longer interests them, but those who connected and championed it from the start aren’t able to give up so easily. Lost saved itself by effectively getting cancelled three years in advance; they were given an end date and the quality shot up.

So is it better to say something well once, rather than say it from every angle possible?  It’s arguable that Firefly had no ultimate point to reach; it existed in much the same way as its characters - a daily struggle to stay above water. It had no natural end, and we can imagine Mal and his crew are still out there somewhere. The film was able to tie up the loose ends of its mythology, but can you imagine what Firefly would be if it were still running? Would it still be held as one of the great works of television history? Would it still be Firefly at all?

Some would attest that Veronica Mars had the perfect ending. Life went on, she didn’t get the guy, her dad was gone and the final shot consisted of her slow walk in the California rain. Yes, it was a downer, but the show’s depiction of life was not all rosy and the finale stuck to those same themes we loved all along.

I would argue that Angel had one of the finest finales of all time, simply because its sadness, tragedy and hopelessness were consistent with the five seasons that had come before. A happy ending to either of these shows would have taken away some of their power, in the same way an unhappy ending to Buffy The Vampire Slayer would have.

When introducing a special test screening of Serenity, Joss Whedon announced to this audience, “This is your movie, so if it sucks, it’s you fault.” I assume he was joking, but have genre TV fans become a victim of their own passion?

Sometimes, cancellation can make a show live longer in our hearts and minds, if not on our screens, but when is the right time to let it go? Producers could learn a lot from Lost’s reinvigorating end date, and writers a lot from Whedon’s culling of Buffy after seven years.

The moral of the story is, if you love something, let it go.

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