“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Andy Dufresne said those immortal words in Shawshank Redemption, mostly because he knew they’d sound totally badass when we found out he was tunneling out of prison with a rock hammer at the time. It’s pretty good advice! Unfortunately, very few TV shows these days know when it’s time for Option B.
The old goal of a TV show was simple: Get on air by any means necessary, then cling to that precious air like it’s hoisting the parachute protecting you from certain doom. More often than not, your show was merely the crap that came on in between commercials—not the other way around—and you just hoped to continue serving it until viewers refused service. Fortunately, viewers weren’t fickle! In the monoculture era, we would all rally around the same few Good Shows and be grateful for them because they were all we had.
That old model, unlike, say, The Walking Dead, now in its ninth season, has died.
So much has been said about Peak TV that it feels like we’re now in Post-Peak TV, where every show is amazing and nobody cares all that much. I have become immune to peer pressure. There are so many series like Better Call Saul and The Americans that look amazing but I may never get around to watching–because there are so many other great shows I’m watching. Finding a great TV series now is easy. Finding a great TV series to stick with is much harder because it no longer feels like a big decision to break up with a show after a weak episode or two.
In this brave new era of abundance, the goal of any TV show worth its salt should be to leave before anyone wants you gone, forever beloved for not outstaying your welcome. It’s time for creators to start planning their exit strategies as soon as they get going, so they can go out on top.
For instance, there’s The Good Place. I love The Good Place more than I love one of my two cats. Mike Schur’s brilliantly executed season finale twists provided the rare sensation of me wanting to plow through the show again to see what I’d missed. However, when the news came out the other day that The Good Place had been renewed for a fourth season, my first thought was “Please be the final season.” On the surface, it sounds like a masochistic request. In reality, I just enjoy the show so much that I never want to see it go downhill. If The Good Place continues operating at its current level for a fourth season and wraps up with a satisfying, mind-bending conclusion, it would enter the pantheon—television’s own Good Place, as it were. If it got canceled in its sixth season and jammed in a subpar ending, it would become a subpar show.
Then there’s Ozark. It started on Netflix last year with a hyperspeed pace and the highest stakes imaginable. In the first episode, antihero Jason Bateman realizes he cannot kill himself for life insurance money because the drug dealers who want him dead will just kill his family anyway. Oh dear! The entire season flies by in what feels like one long movie, and season two mostly pulls off the same trick, more a straight-up sequel than a fresh new chapter in these characters’ lives. There is no way any show could sustain this pace and these stakes forever, though, without sliding into cartoony territory. Why even try? The sooner the show’s producers find an elegant way to end the series, the less chance it has of making recovered addicts of its viewers.
Lost was one of the first shows to realize it had lost its way. After the show’s meandering fourth season, its producers announced they were mapping out a way to close up shop in two more years. Famously, they did not stick the landing. As a result, it’s harder today to recommend the series to friends who haven’t seen it and are curious. “Watch the first two seasons,” you might say. But why? Why watch part of a show you know you won’t want to finish? The most alluring part of a new show that slaps from the very beginning is the possibility that it will end up becoming one of your favorites. Any show that loses its mojo but keeps on cruising until it sputters out simply does not qualify.
Instead of the goal of perpetuity, creators should plan on a finite run. Make your mark, make it strong, end well, and move on.
Why is Biggie Smalls better than Tupac? Because Biggie left behind two classic albums, a bunch of standout guest spots, and that’s it, while the shine on Tupac’s classics is permanently dimmed by the sheer volume of his output (pre- and posthumous), thickly marbled with so-so material. In the age of Too Much, less is infinitely more. Biggie and Tupac are both actual icons, but only one’s back catalog is kind of a slog.
“Let’s just do it and be legends,” party planner Billy McFarland once reportedly said about putting together Fyre Fest. He had the right spirit: Everyone wants to be remembered as a legend, to write their name on the ground in gasoline and drop a match. The only problem for him was that he didn’t do any of the requisite long-range planning. Now he’s facing six years in jail for defrauding investors, and his best hope of an exit strategy is the Andy Dufresne route.
And if that sounds like a half-assed end to this rant it’s BECAUSE I DIDN’T PLAN IT FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.