If television proves anything, it’s that you can have too much of a good thing.
Once a show is a success – a “ratings banker”, if you will – it can very quickly seem to the discerning viewer that a production-line effect is taking hold. What once were storytelling risks become standard fare. Important actors leave and others take their place, each subsequent series introducing new characters who aren’t usually fit to lick the originals’ boots. The rough edges become smooth, but in doing so begin to suck the life out of the product. And familiarity breeds contempt – it’s extremely difficult to come up with quality stories year after year, particularly in network US programmes with their oh-so-long seasons.
Once a series hits its high watermark, then, there’s no way left to go but down. Hit shows unfortunately often carry on until well after their life support machine should be turned off, resulting in a once successful programme limping towards inevitable burnout and cancellation. Take the case of ER, for instance (15 seasons!), or here in the UK, something like Heartbeat (18 seasons!).
But even when a show ends while it’s still standing, there’s always the temptation to take one more trip to the drying-up well. Exhibit A: something like Joey, the flop spin-off of Friends; or the always execrable one-off TV movie that reunites a cast. Even a revered classic like Only Fools and Horses should have ended with the triumphant three-parter in 1996, in which the Trotters finally became millionaires, but instead the show hobbled to its grave with the mediocre Christmas specials in the early noughties, before suffering the indignity of emerging as a shambling, zombified corpse with the “comedy” spin-off, The Green Green Grass.
So it’s great when, for once, everyone (including the creators) actually knows when a show’s going to end and it has the chance to go out on a high. Enter stage left what is mainstream television’s most batshit-mental show: Lost, a programme about the survivors of a plane crash stuck on a mysterious island. With polar bears. And a smoke monster. And more love triangles than you could set up a frame of snooker with.
In severe danger during parts of its second season of becoming a rambling bore wearing tortoise boots, Lost was reinvigorated in 2007 when its executive producers lobbied studio ABC to give them an end date to help them pace their storytelling. A run that would give the show six seasons in total was agreed, with the later seasons having fewer episodes than their early equivalents, helping the writers and crew to spend more time on each individual episode.
With its lifespan now set in stone, Lost soon hit full throttle, with answers to long-running mysteries finally being revealed, and the entire structure of the show changing from the previous safe and predictable flashbacks, to the intriguing flashforwards and subsequent time-jumping madness that bamboozled viewers. In short, Lost changed from treading water to a programme that took massive risks and seemed to have no fear of anything, not even if some of the bigger changes lost it audience share.
And that’s why the ending of Lost this year is a moment in television that should be reflected on by studios around the world. Not to commission Lost-a-likes, such as the currently comparatively mediocre Flashforward, but to empower show creators to have the power to specify exactly when they want to bring their baby to a close. An author doesn’t write a novel that has no end point. A film has an allotted runtime. A band doesn’t make a song last forever, unless it’s a live version of Hey Jude.
Stories should have a beginning, middle and end. It’s about time the television industry realised that giving the storytellers creative control of this structure is an essential part of making it work. Yes, they might make less money initially by being brave enough to put a line in the sand as an end date, but they will be able to make something long remembered, rather than a show that starts well but ends up as the dampest of squibs. And isn’t that what storytelling is all about?