NBC’s The Office was once one of the most praised, funniest sitcoms on network television. Community, on the same channel, was a brilliant, creative, original show that broke all the traditional bounds of what sitcoms were capable of. FOX’s House was an intelligent character study wrapped in a medical procedural. What do these all have in common? They were great shows that fell apart in the end.
Although I list House, which I still enjoyed through to the end, even if I admit I see the point many make about the creative sagging of the final couple of years, this is usually more of a sitcom problem. A show that is funny and beloved will frequently age and tarnish. I think it’s something about a certain type of comedy that just begins to wear thin over time. Jokes are only good for so long, and then they stop getting a laugh out of us. If a comedy series doesn’t adapt and grow with its audience, rather than deliver the same thing over and over again, it begins to wither and die.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Many criticized Friends as it approached its end, frustrated with an unrealistic Joey / Rachel romance. The Seinfeld series finale is renowned for how much it disappointed fans. But it’s also not going away, as The Office and Community prove. A show that once delighted can go sour.
Perhaps it’s a lack of passion. A new show runner may feel edgy and their creative juices may flow, but they can get tired after awhile of working with the same characters and premises. Or new writing staffs may come in and just not understand what makes the characters tick.
The latter is definitely true for Community. Abed used to be the linchpin that made the series work. Even in the installments that could be considered filler, his keen eye and specific viewpoint always made things rise above what seemed to be happening on the surface. Now in its fourth year, with series creator Dan Harmon ousted from the project, Abed is easily the worst character in the ensemble, and the show suffers mightily for it. It may go off the air for good this week, with no fanfare and a very unsatisfying ending.
The Office, on the other hand, is taking its victory lap. It struggled to find its way after losing the star of the show, Steve Carell, and his wonderful Michael Scott. After over a year of floundering, the team threw in the towel and began gearing up to send the characters grandly off into the sunset. It’s made the show seem a little better, with the players having some direction and the plot getting movement. But it’s curtain call, which, while well deserved, should have come much earlier.
A series can pull itself out of a creative rut. After several strong initial seasons, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother spiraled into unfunny drivel for a few years. It clawed its way back to being good by adding emotional heft. This was present in the beginning of the show, of course, before disappearing, but now it’s the bread and butter of every installment, with the drama being of a far better quality than the comedy. Even as the final push begins, as next season will be its last, all the major stories are based on pathos, not gags.
But reinvention isn’t always possible. Sometimes it’s better just to end things, whether the show’s story gets tied up or not. NBC pulled Heroes after a fourth season cliffhanger, and ABC didn’t give Brothers & Sisters its due five years in. But neither of these series were worth watching anymore, and the networks decided to cut their losses and move on. This outraged fans, but most soon forgot about it.
Maybe we’ll never know exactly why our favorite shows can’t remain our favorite shows forever. For every Lost and Battlestar Galactica, which maintained quality through the finish line, even with polarizing swan songs, there are plenty like The X-Files or Veronica Mars, which just never recaptured what once made them so special. I’m sorry Veronica Mars fans, I’ve donated to the Kickstarted campaign and am greatly looking forward to the film, but it’s true that each of the three seasons was weaker than the one before it. Storytelling is a tricky thing.
I do think series tend to be better if they maintain one creative vision. Gilmore Girls and The West Wing faltered after losing their guiding person (though the latter eventually found its stride again). A single voice having control allows better consistency than a production team; ask George R.R. Martin. However, if The Walking Dead can continue to thrive, even though it is now on its fourth show runner, this can’t adequately explain away the phenomenon.
Taste is not only varied, it is fickle. Catching lightening in the bottle takes a high degree of skill and luck, but to cultivate that lightening and to not let it burn out for one hundred and fifty or two hundred episodes is a very rare feat. Maybe this could be solved with shorter seasons, like the cable channels tend to do, as you’ll notice I’ve mainly talked about programs on the broadcast networks. But systems are slow to change, and there doesn’t seem to be movement on that front.
Awesome television that doesn’t age well will always be a part of life, sadly. For now, I guess we just enjoy what’s good while it lasts.