A modest proposal (to end TV as we know it)

November 3, 2008


Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover story about the series, “Heroes” (about which its editors seem even more obsessed than “Gossip Girl” or “Lost”), in which they asked, Can this series be saved?


But that’s the wrong question. Like so many other TV series on American networks, “Heroes” had a great freshman season, followed by a sophomore slump. It’s been scrambling ever since to figure out what it should be.


But what if “Heroes” had made the choice to end after the first season? What if, instead of tacking on scenes that opened the door to the second season’s plots in that first season finale, it had called it quits after a single season?


Imagine how it would stand out in memory. Imagine the DVD sales.


Or consider this: What if “Mad Men” had ended after its first season? Or even after this final episode of its second?


How great would that have been?


Sure, fans would immediately be jones-ing for new episodes but … tough. Move on. And remember it as the great moment in TV that it was.


Yes, it’s a radical idea but American television could only improve if the networks changed their model to create more worthwhile event television and less appointment TV. Why keep pounding out episodes until a show wears out its welcome and douses its own creative spark?


I understand that the economic model for American TV series is such that they don’t really earn back their expenses unless they stay on the air for a looong time. You’ll occasionally read about a party thrown by that fortunate series that lasted to its 100th episode, the magical number at which syndication becomes a much greater possibility because the show can run five nights a week for 4 months without repeating an episode.


But I have two words for you: “The Office.” And one more: “Extras.” Both of Ricky Gervais’ original British TV series ran for two six-episode seasons (followed by a special). The end.


Brilliant, as the Brits say.


The British seem to do that with regularity: create a series meant to run for a single season of episodes. Period. Think about “Prime Suspect,” for example, the incredibly complex and compelling show in which Helen Mirren played a police inspector battling the old-boy network as well as her own personal demons.


It ran as a limited series in 1991 – and, yes, it came back six more times (“Prime Suspect: The Final Act” aired in 2006), but never two seasons in a row. And even then, each series rarely ran for more than four hours – total. It only seemed to resurface when they’d fashioned a plot that was worthy of DCI Jane Tennison’s time – and ours.


Or consider “Rome,” which ran for a concise but rich two seasons on HBO (again, with a British pedigree). But those were two incredibly dense, action-packed, melodrama-dripping seasons full of memorable characters tethered in fascinating ways to history.


Americans, however, are addicted to success – and, in TV, that means series that run far beyond their expiration date. When actors sign on to do a pilot for an American network, the contract generally binds them to the show for seven seasons. But it’s the rare series that a) lasts seven seasons or b) maintains its quality if it does last seven seasons.


Unfortunately, the idea of a limited series will never fly with American networks for a couple of reasons.


First, as mentioned, there’s no way to immediately cash in; that comes later, with DVD or on-demand sales. The risk – that it will bomb and never recoup – is huge.


And second, it brings to mind the dreaded, unspeakable term: “mini-series.”


The American networks essentially squeezed all the juice out of that lemon by yoking the form to weighty, often dreadful novels by authors like Herman Wouk (“Winds of War” – gaaak!) and John Jakes (“North and South” – double gaaak!).


Granted, two of my favorite mini-series from the form’s 1970s/80s heyday were soap-operatic in the extreme: “Rich Man, Poor Man,” based on an Irwin Shaw novel; and “The Thorn Birds,” from Colleen McCullough’s best-seller. But it just goes to show that shlocky source material can still make engrossing TV.


Even when the mini-series was still a viable form, it was the rare American effort that blossomed from original material. More often, the networks followed the “Masterpiece Theater” model – except, instead of literary masterpieces, they spent huge sums on trash like the novels of Judith Krantz or on gassy dreadnoughts like “War and Remembrance,” which ran for a coma-inducing 1,620 minutes (not including commercial breaks).


It would take more strength of mind – and will – than American networks have but here’s an idea. The next time someone like J.J. Abrams or Steven Bochco or David Kelley or David Milch or David Chase comes up with a series idea that seems bold, risky and adventurous, consider trying this:


Create enough episodes for a single season. Cast them with the best actors you can. Pour the kind of production values into it that you would for a feature film.


And then stop. Wrap it up with a satisfying conclusion in 13 or 22 episodes – or leave it open-ended and walk away.


But leave it at that.






So brilliant it will never happen.






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