In praise of limited runs

There are periodic protests by fans of some TV shows when they are canceled. The latest is about Netflix canceling the series One Day At A Time after three seasons because it said it attracted an insufficient audience. I had not heard about this show until the cancellation protest and people wrote in support of the show saying that it was well-written and funny. It is a reboot of a show of the same name that I watched when I was in graduate school and had the same general outlines of a single mother raising two children, and it even had the same theme song and the same name for the building supervisor. Part of the reason for the protest is that the reboot was one of the rare shows that featured a Hispanic cast, in this case a family of Cuban origin. An added bonus was Rita Moreno as the grandmother.

I am of the opinion that TV shows should have limited runs that are determined and announced in advance, because however good they start out, they tend to run out of steam and become repetitive. For example, the fourth season of that funny show Soap was awful and it was merciful when they abruptly stopped it, though the sudden end meant it ended the last season on a cliffhanger that never got resolved. I am worried that the The Good Place is going on for too long and that it may be time to pull the plug, even though I like it a lot. Arrested Development just ended its fifth season with what looks like finality and that is a good thing because it was running out of steam too. The show Galavant was excellent but was canceled after two seasons. Much as I liked the show, I was not sorry to see it end because it ended on a high note and I thought that it would become stale if it returned for more.

One cannot have a formula for how long a show should last. It depends on how many shows a season contains and how long each episode is. In the US, regular broadcast network TV seasons consist of about 22 episodes, which is a lot. The streaming services are not as locked in to a daily schedule and so are able to have series of varying length and this is having a beneficial spillover onto network TV. In an interview, I read that the creators of The Good Place argued for and got seasons that are only 13 episodes long (though even that is a lot) because they said that in a 22-episode series, the second half of each season is usually of lower energy as the writers and cast are just treading water until the end. I think it helps to have the story arc planned out in advance that has a definite end, like a mini-series. I am more likely to watch a TV series if it is of finite length. Ending a series also frees up room for new series to emerge that showcase new writers and actors and situations.

It is like comic strips in newspapers. There are strips that people are so attached to that they go on forever, even after their original creators have died. Newspapers either continue to recycle the old strips or new writers take on the same strips. This results in the same gags being recycled and leaves little room for new talent to emerge. In the local Plain Dealer there are certain strips such as Family Circus and Marmaduke that in my opinion have gone on far too long, One has to admire Bill Watterson who decided that ten years of his incredibly popular Calvin and Hobbes was enough and walked away from it. Bill Amend did the same thing with his funny strip Fox Trot.

When people talk fondly of past shows, that almost invariably refer to shows that had limited runs, like Twilight Zone or Fawlty Towers. I think that it is because those shows ended on high notes before the creativity ran out.


  1. blf says

    A variant of this is perhaps Doctor Who, where the actor playing the doctor, the (to use modern terminology) showrunner, et al., seem to need to replacing now-and-then only for their own personal sakes, but also to allow the show to revive and continue. (It 56 years old now, albeit not continuous.)

    Didn’t M*A*S*H end its (10(?)-year) run whilst it was still quite popular, in part to avoid becoming stale?

  2. cartomancer says

    I think the way US programmes organize the writing, and the sheer expectation of series length, makes them a lot more prone to this. You mention Fawlty Towers -- that actually had a fairly normal run for a British sitcom -- two seasons of six episodes apiece with possibly a couple of Christmas specials as a bonus. Since British programmes tend to have a single writer, or at most a team of two or three, there is a natural limit to the number of episodes that can and will be produced. US programmes tend to have huge teams of writers, often a dozen or more, and so are less the product of a single, coherent, authorial imagination.

    One of my favourites at the moment is Upstart Crow -- a sitcom about William Shakespeare and his life as an overworked commuter and social climber trying to get in with the high society his birth prevented him from being a part of. The repeated theme of most episodes is that Will gets the plots for his plays from the ridiculous things that happen to his friends and family. That’s written by Ben Elton (of Blackadder fame) on his own, and so far there have been 20 episodes over the course of three years (three series of six and two specials). I’m hoping there will be a fourth series, and the team behind it are keen to do one -- Elton has plenty more plays to mine for ideas, and the cast enjoy doing it -- but so far the BBC is uncertain, because three series is very long for a British sitcom.

  3. blf says

    Ah, so that’s what Upstart Crow is all about — I’d never(?) heard of it until earlier this week, when a hilarious clip was referenced as an answer to my offhand comment “I do wonder what sort of tragicomedicfarcewhatever Mr Shakespeare would write on, or alluding to, brexit.”

  4. Michael Sternberg says

    The acclaimed SciFi series Babylon 5 was created from the outset for a limited 5-year run, as stated by showrunner J. Michael Straczynski ahead of time. He had a classical dramatic arc in mind for the show, played out over the seasons. He was able to mostly follow this through, except broadcast and marketing issues forced him to account for a possible early cancellation after year 4.

    I found the show very interesting in itself, and even more so because of JMS’s engagement with viewers, where he shared his ideas and influences from mythology and literature: from Ancient Greece, over Arthurian legend, Tolkien’s legendarium, and into modern SciFi.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for that clip of Upstart Crow! I had never heard of it but will seek it out. David Mitchell is pretty funny.

  6. consciousness razor says

    US programmes tend to have huge teams of writers, often a dozen or more, and so are less the product of a single, coherent, authorial imagination.

    Another, somewhat related, factor is how clearly the premise of the show is defined.
    You have a vague concept like “a group of people doing nothing in particular in NYC,” and you produce shows like Seinfeld or Friends. There’s little or no structure, and nothing in it points toward a conclusion of the story. You can keep cranking out more of the same indefinitely, or as long as it can make money. To take a somewhat different example, The Next Generation has very little in terms of substantial long-term plot development. The premise is basically “explore the galaxy more or less aimlessly, grow the characters a little (but not too much), with little that connects episodes into an overall plot, until the studio decides it doesn’t want the show anymore.” The whole thing is very open-ended, by design.
    There are other kinds of shows, like The Good Place, where it may be hard to characterize the whole thing in a very compact form, but the boundaries are pretty clear and it has a definite goal. Much of the plot develops over the course of the first season and continues to change in later ones, but it’s definitely headed somewhere (trying to avoid spoilers, but fans will understand). Assuming it will have something like a happy ending, as I expect, then I know pretty much where it will go. However it ends up, I wouldn’t be at all satisfied if it were cut short. The writers could stretch things out for a long time, exploring lots more philosophical issues along the way (this is one of the constraints which guide the show along), or take things in even more wild directions than they already have. But there is certainly an end in sight, a clear goal for the characters to reach. (In this story, the characters themselves are very much aware of that.)
    I don’t know much of anything about Upstart Crow, but Shakespeare’s life and works are of course finite. The source material is limited and constrains how the show proceeds from one episode to the next. I don’t think anybody would be very interested in going to season 27 (or whatever), where they start to repeat stuff that was in earlier seasons. But that’s basically what they would need to do, so long as they don’t radically change the show and stick with the basic premise that cartomancer described.
    Just speaking very generally (as a composer not a screenwriter), I think it’s really nice to have some kind of plan like that ahead of time. It doesn’t need to be adhered to very rigidly, and it can certainly be expanded or adjusted however you like. But it helps that you’re not starting with a literal blank page, every single time you need to come up with more material. And in practice, what you’re likely to do, when starting from practically nothing, is simply steal ideas from older works — because you know it worked before, and you think you can make it work again. So instead of the creativity free-for-all that you might have been aiming for (which sounds sort of nice), it can start looking more and more like cannibalism (which sounds a bit less pleasant).

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Michael Sternberg @4: I loved Babylon 5, but I had the distinct impression they had to wrap it up real fast; the Vorlon-Shadow conflict was “resolved” ridiculously quickly.

    Yeah, Tolkien immediately came to mind when the Shadows’ homeworld came up: Z’ha’dum. Sounds like Khazad-dûm. There were other suggestive names, but memory fails…

  8. sonofrojblake says

    The (abridged) story with Babylon 5 is that jms had a five year plan, with “outs” for every character planned in if something came up that mean an actor had to leave. He used these trapdoors for several of the characters. He was told after season three that season four had to be the last, so he rejigged the story to get the Vorlon/Shadow war resolved much more quickly than was originally intended. Ridiculously, as they neared the end of season four production, he was informed that actually they WOULD be renewed for season five. He then had to cobble together something for the characters to do for another year using bits of plots he’d excised to get it down to four seasons. It shows.

    Also of interest: the show lost its lead actor after one year. At the time, jms insisted it was always the plan, and had nothing to do with reviewers’ criticism of the performance. The actor returned to reprise the role and close out the character’s arc in a few later season episodes, but in general was not anywhere near as much in evidence as you might have expected. That actor (Michael O’Hare) died in 2012, and gave his explicit permission for jms to reveal the real reason -- O’Hare was suffering from serious paranoid delusions during the making of season 1. Given that he was being required to portray a man suffering from hallucinatory episodes that he believes to be delusions, it’s hard to imagine how difficult his life must have been at that time, and it’s incredible how good a job was done of keeping the whole thing out of the press. O’Hare wanted the story out after his death to raise awareness and understanding of people suffering mental health issues.

    I do think that part of the reason for the steamrollering success of “Game of Thrones” is the fact that from day one the thing was known to be building to a definite conclusion, rather than being an open-ended soap opera. Quite looking forward to that conclusion in the next couple of months…

    Here’s a nice hand grenade to chuck in -- at what stage should they have stopped making The Simpsons?

  9. Don F says

    Uh, no. Maybe it was still popular, but M*A*S*H got all preachy and Alan Alda got all full of himself before the series ended. For two or three years, as I recall.

  10. says


    I think a perfect example of what you’re talking about is Ricky Gervais’ newest outing: the brilliant After Life on Netflix. The story arc--a total of five episodes--is perfect and I think this is Gervais’ best work since The Office (which ran for a total of two seasons of six episodes each plus two Christmas specials).

    Compare that to the America version—9 seasons with 23 episodes per season—or Queer As Folk, two season with a total of 10 episodes in the U.K. vs. five seasons and 83 episodes in the U.S..

    If there one strategy that American television executives worship more than any other it is to beat the dead horse until there’s nothing left from the bridle.

    And for the record, I haven’t watched network television on air—I do still watch some shows on DVD—since 1992.


  11. Mano Singham says


    I watched After Life and thought it was funny but did think that the story was a little too contrived. His character’s cantankerousness at the start was extreme and his transformation at the end was a little too quick and glib.

    But you are right about the correctness of the length.

  12. Trickster Goddess says

    One ancient comic strip that is enjoying a refreshing renewal right now is the 80 year old Nancy.

    Last April it was taken over by a new artist going by the name of Olivia Jaimes (which is a pseudonym for an unknown person who already has a successful web comic under her own name.)

    While the previous artist had devolved the strip into a schmaltzy soap opera with Christian religiosity and cheesecake drawings of a big breasted Aunt Fritzi in tight t-shirts, Jaimes has returned it to Bushmillerian sensibilities and updated it with Nancy using cell phones and social media and reluctantly joining her school’s robotics club.

    It has even spawned a “Sluggo is lit” meme.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    Another anecdote from television history: the BBC had a series called “Blake’s 7”, a dystopian sf serial that ran from 1978 and was one of the things jms stated was a major influence on Babylon 5. At the end of the first season of thirteen episodes the main ship, the “Liberator” was apparently destroyed. That was the cliffhanger ending to lead into season 2. By the end of season 3, however, the lead actor had left and the series was done. They filmed the finale, in which the ship was destroyed for real -- including them blowing up the actual sets. The actors and production team moved on to other work, as you do. Then the finale was broadcast. The story goes that the controller of BBC programmes watched it, and was so impressed (or in some other tellings so conscious that the show they had to replace B7 was running way behind schedule) that he called into the station from home and instructed the channel techs to announce over the closing credits that Blake’s 7 would return for a fourth series. This was literally the first anyone involved in the show knew about it. They cobbled together a new ship set, new models, some new cast members, and the show ran for another 13 episodes, before finally and definitively destroying the new ship killing off the entire cast in a legendarily bleak denouement.

    In these days of Game of Thrones and other shows where not every character has plot armour, it’s hard to imagine the impact when even the first of the main cast died, early in season 2, let alone when literally every single one was ruthlessly gunned down.

  14. Sunday Afternoon says

    sonofrojblake is too modest to point out that eir nom de plume is a direct reference to Blake’s 7, so I shall!

  15. Marshall says

    This is why The Leftovers is (in my opinion) perhaps the greatest show ever made. Seasons 1-2 had 10 episodes each, and Season 3 had 8. The entire story arc was written up front, and it was known it would be 3 seasons from the get-go. That and the the fact that the writing, acting, and cinematography were all top-notch, with all the subtext, metaphor, and drama of a masterpiece.

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