How Long Should Television Shows Last?

Red Summit Productions
Nov 1 · 5 min read

About a month ago, in its announcement of the airdate of the newest season of Bojack Horseman (and the fact that it was going to be split into two parts), Netflix also announced that the 6th season of the popular animated show would also be its last. While the announcement didn’t surprise many people, it was surprising to hear from people who worked on the show that it was Netflix’s decision to ultimately end the show, not the showrunners. However, as a viewer of the show, I agree with Netflix’s decision to end the show — it felt as if the point of Bojack had been told multiple times through. And while Netflix’s decision was most likely made from a business standpoint and not a creative standpoint, the choice to end Bojack may end up saving the show from its own creator.

It’s hard to end a television show. It’s especially hard to end a show well. Most finales leave viewers with a bad taste in their mouth. That is because television shows, by their nature, are not supposed to end. Unlike movies, which usually have a natural progression towards an end, television shows are supposed to have continuous storylines that last over years and rarely get wrapped up easily. However, there are many cases where television shows are either too afraid to wrap their show up, or simply, there’s too much money to be had to end it. What usually happens because of this is the plots become plodding, the characters become caricatures of themselves, and the quality of the show decreases rapidly. So the question becomes — How long should TV shows last?

There are many examples of TV shows lasting way past their prime. Shows like Dexter and Lost went on way beyond their expiration date, and in doing so, the legacy of the shows suffered. In the example of Dexter, the show had an easy out after Season 4, where, with one more season, the show could have wrapped up its storylines and given its characters suitable endings to their stories. However, the show decided to go on through Season 8, and because of this, not only the quality of the show got worse, but the legacy of the show became tainted. Ultimately, the shows finale is widely considered to be one of the worst finales in television history. When shows drag on too long, it ruins the perception of the show. Had a show like How I Met Your Mother wrapped up even 1 or 2 seasons before it did, it would have probably been held in the same space as Friends (also, Friends went on for like 3 seasons too long, but they were making way too much money on that show to end it).

And going back to animated shows, shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy have been going on for over a decade too long at this point. While both of those shows are arguably still FOX’s biggest cash cows, they are both shells of the cultural phenomena they once were and are coasting on their past. Animated shows are easier to keep around because the characters don’t change, and for the most part, they are incredibly episodic by nature, meaning that the storylines will wrap up at the end of the 22 minute episode. The difference between those shows and Bojack is that Bojack is heavily serialized and the show has a complete arc. Dragging that show on for more seasons will not only lead to a possible diminished quality of the program, but will also dilute the message that the show is trying to give to the viewer.

A somewhat recent practice that several shows have begun doing is ending the show during its peak. Shows will do this when they feel that the story they wanted to tell has been told. Shows like The Leftovers, which had 3 seasons, and The Good Place, which is wrapping up it’s 4th season now, have ended at the discretion of the showrunners. This is the path that more and more shows should take. Shows that stay on the air for too long oftentimes lose their edge very quickly. The Good Place is a very high concept comedy that had a great plan for its first season. It left itself some room for a second season, and was able to put together another great season. However, at a certain point, the show ran out of story, and because of that, it started to get tedious. Showrunner Michael Schur, creator of shows like Parks & Rec and Brooklyn 99, decided after season 3 that he would do one more season even though the show has been immensely popular by critics and fans alike. For shows like The Good Place, decisions like this can save the legacy of the program. Instead of plodding through another 3–4 seasons of the show, The Good Place will attempt to end their show on a high note and still remain a successful and popular show until the end.

We are currently in the age of the longest running scripted television program (The Simpsons) and the longest running live action scripted sitcom (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Shows will continue to run on the air as long as they are profitable. The inverse of this problem, of course, is what Netflix is doing to a lot of their shows. Netflix’s business model shows that the streaming platform will often times cancel their shows, no matter how popular they are, after 2 or 3 seasons. The reason for this is because new shows are cheaper to produce and usually after two or three seasons, shows get more expensive to produce. Netflix’s profit is not directly correlated to ratings, so they are able to cancel shows that are popular in an effort to save money before they get too expensive. Whether or not this is what they are doing this with Bojack Horseman remains to be seen, as that show is in its 6th season. But Netflix’s model for cancelling shows is calculated and rather heartless.

So, how long should television shows last? The answer is not that easy to decide. Shows are often times still lucrative and popular long after the quality of the show has gone. However, as shows become more and more serialized, showrunners need to start creating finite ending points for their shows. That’s not always a decision made by the showrunner, as it is usually a studio or network decision. But television shows will benefit as a whole from having a shorter leash. Plus, if you ever want to wrap up another storyline, networks are begging for old shows to come back so it’ll never really be over.

By Jonny Rasch

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