All good things must come to an end. Stories are no different. Every good story, all the best stories, that have ever been told have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are few forms of entertainment that eschew this structure. TV shows should be no different. Just as the movies and books that preceded them, TV shows are built on stories. The problem is that TV shows need money to be produced, and not every network is willing to pony up cash for a show that isn’t making them money cause no one is watching them regardless of how good those stories are. It’s the tragedy that occurred with shows like Firefly, Arrested Development, Community, and Hannibal while objectively bad or mediocre shows like Glee or anything produced by Shonda Rhimes manage to stay on the air forever. Ratings and quality are not one in the same, and some TV shows need to realize that.
When Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan decided to end the show with Season 5 he was making a bold move. Breaking Bad was at the top of its popularity in Season 4. Gilligan had become a household name in a way that few writers ever do, especially TV writers. To call Breaking Bad the most popular show on TV is to do it a disservice by failing to mention the cultural phenomenon it had become. And at the top of his power, Vince ended the show. Not because he didn’t want it on the air anymore, but because it made sense. He was coming to the end of the story, even if he didn’t have all the details worked out yet. Season 5 was the ending, and that was that. It’s a lesson Mad Men and Justified soon followed the next year by voluntarily heading into their final (marvelous) seasons. And it’s a lesson other shows should take to heart. So without further ado, here is a list of shows that should take Breaking Bad’s lesson and come to a close before they become stale and stop being the good stories they began as.
Supernatural (Series Premiere: 9/13/2005)
Do you remember The WB? It was that glorious channel that brought us Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Dawson’s Creek and all the other beautiful touchstone TV shows of our recent 90s past. Well, like Hellblazer once was for the Vertigo Comics imprint, Supernatural is the last remaining show still on the air to have originally aired on The WB. It only had one season before The WB folded and turned into The CW that we know it as today, but ever since then Supernatural has supplied said channel with a devoted fanbase and modest to great ratings. But there is an inherent problem with Supernatural’s unusual longevity.
See, Supernatural is a case-of-the-week monster hunting show similar to The X-Files, but it has a long running overarching saga about Sam & Dean gearing up to face the biblical apocalypse. And for the first 5 seasons, that was what the show as about. Every week we would get to see the Brothers Winchester fight a new monster inspired by urban legends, myths, and scary stories, while they simultaneously searched for answers about the demon that killed their mother. Gradually that story morphed into Sam & Dean realizing they are pawns in a larger plan for Lucifer to rise from Hell and enact the foretold Apocalypse, using Sam & Dean as avatars in the final battle. At the end of Season 5, that’s what happened. “Swan Song,” the season five finale, tied up the story of the Winchester as it had been told ever since it started. The Apocalypse was averted, Lucifer locked in his cage, and God left Earth in human hands. Yeah there was a little cliffhanger stuck at the end, but on the whole the episode feels like it can stand in as an efficient series finale, which is what Eric Kripke—the show’s creator—originally intended it to be.
But Supernatural had gotten high ratings from “Swan Song” and though Kripke left the show after the finale, effectively ending his creative input because he had told his story to its end, The CW renewed Supernatural for a 6th season. And to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. The stakes were certainly lower, but Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki had given us characters that we were proud to have back. The concept of the post-Season 5 Apocalypse story line was intriguing too: Now that God had disappeared and Lucifer wasn’t a threat anymore, what was to stop the Angels and Demons going a little bit power mad and mucking about with things they have no conception of like Purgatory, The Leviathans, and The Darkness. It was a simple premise derived from a logical extension of the definitive ending for Season 5.
I remember reading something once that argued that most TV shows with a serialized plot line have trouble sustaining itself past its seventh season. By then the writers have used up most of their best ideas around seasons 3 or 4 and there isn’t much more for the core cast to do. But Supernatural is currently on its 11th season, currently dealing with what happens when Sam & Dean accidentally release the primordial Darkness that existed before Creation when they kill Death. That premise seems like its stretching the show a bit thin, doesn’t it? The stakes just don’t make sense anymore. There isn’t a sense of real tension to the monsters-of-the-week anymore, only a dark sense of humor that (to the shows credit) it cultivated vigorously over its long run.
It still has great episodes, don’t get me wrong. Season 11’s “Baby,” a bottle episode set entirely within the confines of Dean’s precious Impala, was a marvelous entry that tinkered with the formula of a well-worn monster-of-the-week premise and lent deeper characterization to the car that the brothers have been travelling in since the show started. But there is an inherent tired feeling to the rest of the show. There is a clear sense that most of the show is shot on a soundstage now and many sets are obviously re-used to the point that when new locations are used it feels fresh and new. Remember when Community started shooting almost exclusively on indoor soundstages and lost the ability to do outdoor scenes? That felt weird right? That’s kind of the feeling I get from seeing Crowley’s ominous lair or the Winchesters endless string of identical hotel rooms and convenience stores. Add to that the fact that the show has run through most of the more interesting or popular myths, legends, or paranormal concepts or creatures and most of the show is simply reiterating on material that has previously been featured.
I don’t hate Supernatural. In fact it’s one of my favorite shows on TV right now, but it needs to understand that it has run its course and wrap itself up. I get the feeling that people at The CW know that too, since they tried to make a spin-off two seasons back whose back door pilot episode was…less than well received. But the fact remains that Sam & Dean need to finish their hunting. If only because I don’t want to see the show amble on into obscurity and mediocrity.
The Good Wife (Series Premiere: 9/22/2009)
Here’s another of my favorite shows that I hope gets a decent ending. Over 6 seasons The Good Wife has supplied us with the best serialized storytelling CBS has ever broadcast. CBS is a channel that has a well-known history of never-ending sitcoms and case-of-the-week procedurals, be they cop shows, lawyers shows, or any other permutation on the formula that has kept NCIS on the air for its unnaturally long life span. The difference with The Good Wife is that where most procedural shows are content to largely put off their larger story arcs in favor of showcasing both main and celebrity guest talent in one-off cases-of-the-week , The Good Wife emphasizes its serialization. Every new episode either introduces or furthers an element of the larger plot of the season, utilizing the cases-of-the-week to serve this purpose. And since the show began, Julianna Marguiles’s Alicia Florrick—the titular “good wife” who stuck by her adulterous District Attorney husband Peter in the wake of his public scandal—has really come a long way. Every character on the show has grown and changed so much in the wake of every little plot twist and furtherance showrunners Robert & Michelle King have thrown at them.
And it’s the creators I wish to point out with this entry. The Kings have long publicly spoken about the fact that they planned for the show to last about 7 seasons. They’ve even baked this into the show with each episode’s titles. In season 1, every episode had 1 word titles. In season 2 they had 2 word titles and so on until season 5. Season 5’s episode titles were all three words long after Season 4’s were 4 words long. Now it’s season 7 and we’re back to 1 word titles after they were reduced to 2 words again in Season 6, showing a rise and fall if one were to place the titles in a list from beginning to end. Season 5 could even be pointed at by some as the climax of the show, with several major, show-altering plot twists being confined to that season alone.
Going further, where once the show had efficiently evolved from a character study of the poor wives forced to “stand by their man” in the wake of public political scandal into a brilliant, twist-filled ensemble production legal/political serial, it has once again regressed into focusing primarily on Alicia. The ensemble has fallen by the wayside and several main cast members have either left the show or been killed off. While I wouldn’t say that has decreased the quality of the show per se, it certainly has changed up the dynamic significantly. And in a way, it fits with the rising and falling action of the episode titles for the larger plot to evolve into a larger ensemble piece only to focus back in on its main character after she had been put through the ringer.
The Good Wife is not a show that has passed by its expiration date, but it’s getting achingly close. So here’s hoping that a satisfying ending can be included at the end of what CBS has yet to announce as its final season. And going by recent statements made by the Kings and Julianna Margulies that may be the case.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Series Premiere: 9/20/1999)
Law & Order is one of those shows that could conceivably continue forever. Police procedurals are the kind of show that doesn’t really need to maintain an overarching story or maintain a stable main cast of characters. In Law & Order’s case, this is doubly true. Law & Order rarely focuses on the cops and lawyers at its center. They are merely the cogs around which the plot turns, the actors who get to play off of whatever celebrity they have contracted for a guest spot. Law & Order, I would argue, is at its best when it isn’t worried about its main characters or their inner lives. On Special Victims Unit, I don’t feel like many people cared about Detective Elliot Stabler’s family life, Olivia Benson’s emotional issues, Finn’s gang related past or Munch’s various conspiracy theories. Their life experiences were just the basis for the politics that went into the various ways they approached and discussed the cases that appeared on the show.
Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch is probably the perfect version of a Law & Order character. His personality is that he’s humorous and has a lot of conspiracy theories. The character is so basic, so deceptively simple, that he has become somewhat of a TV in-joke. Belzer has appeared as the character on multiple cops shows over the years in addition to being referenced or even appearing on other TV shows across the years, providing the connective tethers of the ridiculous Tommy Westphall Universe theory some TV nerds like me like to bring up every so often. We don’t know much about him though other than that he is a cop that has been around, has a lot of friends in other departments and countries (he got name dropped by Idris Elba on the BBC’s Luther, for example), and likes conspiracy theories. For playing the character for the better part of the last 2 ½ decades, that’s a scant amount of information to be gleaned from his performance. But that’s okay. Because the show isn’t about him, or Stabler, Benson, or any of the other cops that have appeared in Law & Order’s rotating cast of cops and lawyers.
Which is why it’s so odd that while every other iteration or spin-off of Law & Order—including the original all the others came from—have long since been cancelled, ended, or otherwise axed and series creator Dick Wolf had long since moved on from the New York based series onto a cadre of shows similar in concept but now set in Chicago, Law & Order: SVU is still on the air and has even morphed into Mariska Hargitay’s main acting vehicle. When actors are on shows long enough they often get involved in the production of it, and Mariska has been involved in production since SVU’s 10th season in 2009. What’s more, entire episodes in recent seasons are built around set pieces involving Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson getting kidnapped, assaulted, or otherwise personally affected by the actions of the criminals featured on the show. The circumstances of her birth as a child of rape have generated multiple plots when it used to merely provide her with a unique political idealogy when it came to her job.
It’s one thing that SVU managed to keep the same main cast of characters longer than most iterations of Law & Order, but Benson has effectively become the main character of the show now and somehow that just seems to run counter to what the show is supposed to be and otherwise always has been: a showcase for the guest cast. Law & Order is the kind of show that USA Network has weekend marathons of that you can turn on in the background and tune in and out of as you desire while doing something else. That’s the formula Law & Order works best with.
This is to say nothing of the quality of the show either. SVU has always trafficked in the shocking or divisive. It pulls from the headlines of recent news stories and constructs entire episodes around famous guest actors playing deranged pedophiles, sex traffickers, or pastiches of recent criminals you read about in the daily headlines. Sometimes though, SVU does get things pretty wrong; particularly in regards to its portrayal of technology. This is much more of a personal complaint on my part, but I’ve always felt that SVU has the tendency to be a bit of an alarmist when it comes to concepts like video games or the Internet. Pedophiles run protected forums to trade child porn, video games can be used to trap digital constructs of a serial killer’s child victims, and intellectual movements within tech circles are either caricatured or demonized. This isn’t to say SVU’s criticisms aren’t sometimes justified or understandable, but it borders on the comical at points. SVU’s tech alarmist sensibilities are not only ridiculous at times, but dated as well with a pop culture consciousness stuck somewhere in 1995 when the tech boom was a relatively new “thing” with more critics than users.
Honestly, any long-running cop procedural could take this place instead of SVU. NCIS and its various spin-offs have become tired and needlessly prolonged over time and even CSI has finally thrown in the towel and is ending its original incarnation after having already ended its New York and Miami spin-offs. Police procedurals have an appeal, but if they intend to stick with the modern audience, they need to maintain a modern sense of the culture. And when SVU has so thoroughly lost its way like it has, the best thing to do would be to end it gracefully. Maybe make a TV movie where you gather together some of the more well-known Law & Order actors under one roof for a final farewell.
The X-Files (Series Premiere: 9/10/1993)
And finally, we come to it. I have never been an X-Files fan, but that isn’t why I’m including it here. It’s mostly to make a larger point about the way TV works today. But here we go.
When American Horror Story appeared and proved that broadcasting more miniseries’ on their channels would garner more viewers, a lot of networks followed suit and began commissioning what they advertise as an “Event Series.” Now when a network like HBO makes a miniseries, they stick to that idea. Series like Band of Brothers, The Pacific, or John Adams play more like 8-10 hour movies than they do a television series. That’s more the idea that the word “miniseries” conjures in my head. So when I heard about the commissioning of things like a Heroes, X-Files and 24 “event series” or a new miniseries called American Crime my mind immediately ventured to the notion that the networks were finally giving proper endings to shows that they had mishandled and cancelled in the past or broadcasting actual contained stories in a shortform series.
How sad for me to see that rather than act like the miniseries I thought they would be, all of them simply continued to act like they were just another TV show. I get that networks like finding new buzzwords to advertise their new stuff, but to outright lie to your audience or misrepresent your show is kind of crappy. It was the moment when American Crime got a second season that I realized I had been lied to. When Heroes: Reborn began with a graphic proclaiming it was “Volume One” I knew the writers weren’t trying to tie up anything from the original series, they were just angling for a new one altogether hoping the miniseries would get good ratings. Even 24: Live Another Day ended with a cliffhanger meant to beg for a second season that was less satisfying than the cobbled together ending the previously “last” season passed off as a series finale when it was originally cancelled.
I get why this makes sense from a business perspective. Why finance a full 22-25 episode season of a show you’re not sure will make money when you can finance a cheaper 6-10 episode season of a show that could conceivably but otherwise do not need a second season. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, what makes sense from a business perspective does not necessarily make sense from a narrative perspective.
So it was with trepidation I approached the X-Files reboot. The X-Files is a strange cultural artifact of the 90s from a time when we were for some reason fascinated by alien conspiracy theories. That’s mostly died down since the end of the Clinton administration though and nowadays going back and watching an episode of The X-Files is a strange experience. Everything from the story, to the music, the writing, and the aesthetics of The X-Files are all so terribly dated. So to see a “special miniseries event” appear—once more conscripting Californication’s David Duchovny and Hannibal’s Gillian Anderson into their old FBI outfits as Mulder and Scully—and act pretty much like it’s just the 10th season of the show and nothing really happened in between its original ending and now makes me really worried. Is FOX hoping it’ll be a hit and they’ll get to bring the show back full time? I have no idea. But The X-Files had its time and today it just seems strange for it to be back on the airwaves. It feels strange in the same way that making a film adaptation of The Giver felt strange because so many other properties (The Hunger Games, The Host, or The Maze Runner to name a few) had iterated on it that it felt stale. Why would we need The X-Files back when we had things like Fringe, which iterated and (in my opinion) improved upon The X-Files’s stale formula.
Maybe the miniseries will act like a proper series finale with equal parts fan-service thrown in to make old fans happy. But still, it feels cheap and out of place with where TV has come today.
Those are the shows I feel like need to realize that crafting an ending would be the best thing for them, what do you think? Do you agree? Tell me about the shows you think could do with a good series finale and be sure to click the recommend button up top if you enjoyed this article.