Commitment to watching a stellar TV series is a glorious and momentous undertaking. It’s much like any relationship, beginning with an initially awkward period of wonder and adjustment, which spills into intense exhilaration as a viewer comes to understand a show’s on-screen characters and the story really hits its stride. This tipping point signals the onset of the honeymoon phase, and beyond it only the most prolific shows and their loyal fans can hope to keep the flame strong forever.
The strength of such a union is tested over the course of time by all sorts of volatility: production snags, new writers/showrunners, unfavorable characters, inevitable extra-marital affairs with fresher shows, and what have you. Maintaining a successful TV-viewer marriage over a period of five, seven, ten years, sometimes even longer, requires serious work, and if a show drags on well past its prime, a viewer’s resolve can become greatly tested. We’ve all been through shaky relationships, but whether you stick through the rough times until the end or decide to cut ties and move on depends on which character type you are: A or B.
Type A is the viewer that gets easily distracted, and thus becomes quickly disenchanted with a show when it loses its magic somehow. It’s painful to see a show overstay its welcome, but to this kind of viewer, it’s a no-brainer to stop watching when it becomes a shell of its former self. This is the person that stopped watching The Office after Michael left, and balks when you inform them that Weeds just recently ended its run after a monstrous eight seasons.
On the other side of the coin, there’s the Type B viewer that sticks with a show through the end no matter what, sometimes to a fault. For this tortured soul, there’s an immense sense of accomplishment from having watched each episode of a long-running show. Closure on the characters he or she has grown attached to is a necessity, even if the initial spark has disappeared long before the finish line. Those still clinging on for the final season of Dexter know this feeling. The show’s heyday ended long ago, at what will be the halfway point of the series when it’s finally over — with the season 4 finale.
So what is it that distinguishes these two personalities, and what exactly are the factors on the show’s side of the relationship that fuel either path? For starters, when a network has strong ratings for a show, it’s clear that money-related decisions contribute to longevity, even if it leads to writer burnout. While a show remaining on air for a decade is impressive, it’s almost always safe to say after ten years that its creative juices have been squeezed dry, whether by internal or external forces.
Take How I Met Your Mother, for example. It’s one of the biggest hits CBS has ever had, but it’s ludicrous that it took eight years for the show took to deliver on its titular promise. Along the way viewers were subjected to a never-ending cycle of relationship and friendship revelations that had already been exhausted for a decade on Friends. Just because we were promised how in the hell Ted met his wife, we kept watching, but not everyone has stayed on for the whole ride (ironically, these viewers had less patience than two teenagers listening to their dad tell a never-ending story). Would these viewers have salvaged their relationships with HIMYM if Ted’s wife were revealed three seasons earlier? Probably. But runaway successes have a way of getting into networks’ heads.
Procedural friendship/love/NYC life sitcoms aside, it’s the serialized show that can actually display the most obvious transgression of series stretching. The aforementioned Dexter is the prime example still on air. From seasons 1-4, the show was both critically acclaimed and loved by hordes of viewers. After a dip in story/character quality in season 5 though, Dexter really never found its groove again throughout seasons 6 and 7, handling one of the biggest reveals it had in its arsenal (Deb discovering the true Dexter) in a stiff and clumsy manner. What this led to following news that Season 8 would be its last was a feeling of relief amongst many viewers—hardly the emotion you want to trigger out of longtime fans. Forward momentum has to accelerate as a series progresses, or the viewer will lose interest quickly. This is one of the reasons why five concise seasons for a show like Breaking Bad is perfect — any stagnancy and the magic loses its luster, becoming nearly impossible to recapture.
One method long-running dramas employ to stave off mustiness is bringing in new characters to propel the story in different directions and instill certain “freshness.” This can easily have an adverse effect, though — viewers will often sense this technique easily, which draws attention to how the product has become stale in the first place. 24 suffered from this phenomenon in later seasons, turning viewers into nostalgic messes. “Remember when it was just us, Jack, and David Palmer?” we’d think. “And hopeless Kim! I miss the good times.”
Interestingly, even the heavyweights in TV suffer from bouts of less-than-greatness. Although deeply symbolic and thought-provoking during its most recent sixth season, Mad Men was agreed by critics and viewers alike to be less potent this year this year as in former seasons. It’s still better than 99% of shows on TV, but the bar the show set early on is not easily reached or surpassed, even by itself. Characters kept slipping back into the same vices we originally fell in love with them for, but this time around the excitement had lost its luster. Showrunner Matthew Weiner actually gave fans what they wanted (though probably not because of them, granted): after a faithful, straight-edged Don in season 5, more boozing, adulterous Don in season 6. However, this and the repeated downward spirals of key characters felt tired — again highlighting some relief that next season will be its last.
At this point, Mad Men is unlikely to lose any of the viewers that have been along for the whole ride. Consider if it was extended for another two seasons beyond its officially final seventh, though — the Type A viewers would undoubtedly show their true identity. Creating the perfect show is no small task — aside from the hurdles jumped to even get one on air and keep it alive past a season or two, the writing has to keep viewers engaged throughout the whole life of the show. Add in pressure from networks, advertisers, and the other powers that be, and you’ve got yourself a shotgun wedding — but the shotgun stays around for the honeymoon and full relationship to follow.
So what’s the most pure relationship out there? Has one ever existed? Will one ever exist? The Sopranos may be the closest we’ll ever get, and even that was full of its ups and downs. Total harmony between the viewer and a TV show might just be an impossible goal to achieve, and that’s actually fine. The human condition is to complain about the general state of things, and in an industry producing works of art that increasingly aim to capture all the ugly intricacies of life, it’s appropriate to see cracks in the hull. No relationship is perfect — all we can do is choose to either accept our partners’ flaws and ride it out, or cut ties and move on when the magic’s gone.