In the past couple of years, an interesting trend has been settling in on genre television: We have seen more series take a “less is more” approach, in regards to longevity. In the past year alone, we’ve seen the third and final seasons of both PENNY DREADFUL and HANNIBAL. Whether by choice or by network decision, both shows ended on high notes before viewer fatigue (and I dare you to come up with a better ending for HANNIBAL than Season 3’s conclusion, because it’s just not possible! But I digress…).
Some series are even shortening their seasons for a more accelerated narrative — more killer, no filler — like THE STRAIN’s decision to go down to ten episodes per season. Even HBO powerhouse GAME OF THRONES is ramping up to its finale with two shortened final seasons. They say brevity is the soul of wit, and many more shows are taking the adage to heart.
At the other end of the pendulum, though, we have the shows that go longer… perhaps longer than required. And with that, I give you Exhibit A: The CW’s SUPERNATURAL.
Sam and Dean Winchester have been travelling America’s highways and byways for eleven seasons. With the recent renewal announcement for Season Twelve and (according to producers) so long as leads Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are up for it, there’s still more to come. But it wasn’t always supposed to be this way.
Show creator and show runner Eric Kripke had a complete arc for The Winchesters’ story: a beginning, middle and ending, culminating in Season Five’s showdown with Lucifer and Sam’s sacrifice to stave off The Apocalypse. It would have been a perfect, albeit downbeat, wrap-up. But the WB saw things very differently. SUPERNATURAL was one of the network’s flagship series — and incredibly popular, to boot. Even with Kripke’s departure, having told the story he wanted to tell, the WB has consistently renewed the series. The resulting seasons? Well, it all depends on who you ask. The show does have its detractors, with many claiming the series has become one of those “comfort food” shows that viewers watch out of familiarity more than interest, a la THE SIMPSONS.
But what do I know? The SUPERNATURAL conventions still continue to draw in huge numbers, and the fans are dedicated in a way that can only be compared to DOCTOR WHO’s disciples… so the support is still there, even if some feel the quality has been one of diminishing returns.
If ever there was a show that defied conventional wisdom, it’s AMC’s ongoing adaptation of the Image Comics sensation THE WALKING DEAD. An unapologetic and tense tale of life after the zombie apocalypse, TWD has secured a fanbase of both dyed-in-the-wool-horror fans and non-genre enthusiasts alike. As the show enters its seventh season, though, some of the cracks are starting to show in the Sunday-night powerhouse… and for some fans, the series has begun to spin its wheels. The plots have become repetitive (the gang finds a new community attempting to rebuild civilization, and they have seeeeecrets…) and the sense of dread that permeated the series’ early years — the notion that any and every character’s life was up for grabs — has been replaced with a sense of playing it safe for the sake of fans’ appeasement (“If Daryl Dies, We Riot.” I rest my case). It also probably wouldn’t hurt if your “end of the world” story had an actual end, which is nowhere in sight here.
There’s also the other end of the spectrum — those who continue to tune in for the sake of “hate-watching,” then taking to the message boards to complain about how bad the show has gotten. While this is not exclusive to TWD, it is especially venomous and pretty sadomasochistic.
There are signs of an upswing, with the last half of Season 6 generating positive reviews from critics and fans alike, as well as the arrival of comic-book heavy Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, no less). But the apparent fumbling of this season’s “who dies?” cliffhanger, as well as the “huge build-up/disappointing payoff” that was The Governor (personal opinion only, but I know I wasn’t the only one), this will be make-or-break time for the series. Oh, not for its longevity — hell, it’s AMC’s show pony and a license to print money — but for its level of quality. It hasn’t jumped the shark yet, but it’s getting close to the ramp.
The next candidate is an arguable choice, yes, and one likely to garner a bit of eyebrow-raising, but hear me out. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s run was short compared to some — only running seven seasons — and wrapping up with a suitably epic finale that saw the destruction of Sunnydale and the Slayer-powered “activation” of every female around the world. But, much like former CW bunkmate SUPERNATURAL, the plan to tie it up originally came much sooner (Season Five, in fact — the same finish-line goal as Los Bros Winchesters). The series, while popular among its fan base, never gained the numbers it needed to gain the CW’s trust.
With the network deciding that time was up, creator Joss Whedon started the march to the endgame himself… and man, what a way to go: the coming of crazed demigod Glory, Spike joins the ranks of The Scoobies, the soul-crushing, heart-rending power of the episode “The Body,”and, of course, Buffy’s final sacrifice at the end. The fact that the WB announced it as the “series finale” made it clear as day: this is the end, my friend.
That is, until fledgling network UPN, desperate for content, picked the series up and continued where it left off for two more seasons. And they weren’t bad, actually — with Season Six’s “Dark Willow” arc a particular standout. But if things had gone according to plan, we would have been left with a powerful and dramatic ending to a series that revolutionized genre TV as we know it… and that would have been just fine.
Now, contrary to what you might think of me (and what you may be taking from this article in general), I don’t like to be the guy who kicks someone when they’re down. I’d rather cheer than sneer. Having cleared that up… what the hell, HEROES?
Equal parts X-MEN and WATCHMEN, HEROES followed the lives of average, everyday humans suddenly granted superpowers, and the threats they face, including a shadowy ‘star chamber’ of superhuman power brokers as well as a psychotic super-serial-killer who steals the powers of his victims. And man, people took to it hard and fast: “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World,” “Who is Sylar?” the lovable ‘otaku’ Hiro, who reveled in his new superhero status, the lead-up to the finale. It was high-grade water cooler material that first go-around, wasn’t it?
After that groundbreaking season, though, the center did not hold… and it all fell apart very quickly. Season Two meandered, never really finding its footing, with lackadaisical stories and a surplus of new characters that cut into the screen-time of those we actually cared about in the first place. While many fans acknowledge that it finally did find its footing at the halfway point, the damage had already been done. The following two seasons had a harder time finding their traction, and viewers lost interest in the dour and convoluted storylines. With no specific ending in sight, the series fizzled out at final call with a cliffhanger ending that left the door open for a return further down the road.
Last year, that return came in the form of HEROES REBORN, with a brand-new cast of super-powered characters, who crossed paths with the cast of the first series while on the run from those who hunted them down. Billed as an “event mini-series,” the reboot effort was met with lukewarm to negative reception from fans and critics alike. Suffice to say, a planned second season was put into mothballs.
So, we wrap things up with America’s Favorite Serial Killer… and rightfully so. Showtime’s DEXTER, based on the series of books penned by Jeff Lindsay, gave us Dexter Morgan, the serial killer antihero who struggled to live in normal society by a strict code of conduct, targeting those deemed “worthy” of his brand of justice. The sociopathic forensics investigator, played with pitch-perfect dead calm by SIX FEET UNDER’s Michael C. Hall, became an instant cultural icon and helped set the trend for such human “monsters” on TV as BREAKING BAD’s Walter White.
Unfortunately, the series went through several showrunners and writers, losing coherence in plot and characterization, repetitive storylines, characters making stupid choices for the sake of plot (seriously, just how many people did Dexter let in on his secret life?) and a limp final season (No. 8) capped off by (in most fans minds) a horrible climax in the final episode. Again, endgame is key when it comes to narrative fiction… and in this case, DEXTER had no game.
The show’s biggest failing, though, came in the inability to follow the story to its logical conclusion: what happens when Dexter loses control? What happens when the code no longer holds? We’ll never know. There were never any consequences to Dexter’s actions, as fate, an ally or some other form of lazy deus ex machina came in to clean things up for him. And then there’s that ending, which I will keep brief: Dexter heads out to sea into a storm, leaving behind a number of dangling plot threads and character arcs, ending up elsewhere under a new identity… as a lumberjack.
Yes. A lumberjack.
DEXTER didn’t jump the shark; it merely loaded its bathing shorts with rocks and lurched towards the deep end of the pool, waiting for the last bubbles to pop on the surface. Talk of bringing Dexter back started around early 2014… and it’s been crickets ever since. Probably for the best.
Each of these shows has their defenders and supporters — and hey, more power to you. Whatever floats your boat. But admit it: wouldn’t it be nice if the stories we were watching, and the characters we fell in love with, all had closure? There’s a lot to be said for fan loyalty and longevity… but sometimes, the best stories require an ending.