The Correct Lifespan: How Long Should TV Shows Last?

Post by:
24 Aug 12

You can’t please all the people all the time.
That mantra applies to television as much as to life in general…

Terra Nova Cancelled

Terra Nova

It is harrowing and disappointing when a programme ends before its time. We have all experienced this. It stands out particularly when the writers are not given an opportunity to tie up storylines before the cancellation order comes down from the executives. This scenario causes programmes like Flashforward, Terra Nova, or The Event (where the story effectively ended before we saw the eponymous “event”) to be very anticlimactic. It would be like leaving the cinema after watching three quarters of the film – you probably wouldn’t – and as such these abrubtly-ended programmes make for a less appealing DVD prospect.

On the other hand, where writers are given that opportunity, you end up with very satisfying closure such as House and Wilson easy-riding off into the sunset, or Sheriff Carter and his daughter bringing Eureka full circle.

However, the purpose of this article is not to discuss the issue of cancellation per se, but rather to look at what might be an appropriate lifespan for a programme. I don’t think anyone would disagree that, for every programme that is cut down in its prime, there are others that run on too long.

In my view, under most circumstances, the correct lifespan is about 8 years. Let me explain. House is a good example. In this case, the network and the viewing public probably recognised the terminal effects of the departure of a major cast member. In addition, there are really only so many complex medical conditions that can be diagnosed before repetition. 8 years seems about right.

Red Dwarf

Red Dwarf

Similarly, Bones, which I enjoyed immensely in its earlier years, has become rather samey. Whilst the Ross-and-Rachel-esque pairing of its lead cast has served to refresh the dynamic a bit, if David Boreanaz’s comments about season 8 being the last were correct, I would feel that is probably about right.

Closer to home, my favourite Red Dwarf episodes all come from the first four series (Future Echoes, Backwards and White Hole if you’re interested), and it is arguable that there hasn’t been an outstanding episode since Gunmen of The Apocalypse. So, 6 years is the magic figure in this case, although I am looking forward to, and will be watching Series X.

In my view, 24 ran a couple of years too long, 8 years for each of the CSIs probably would have sufficed, Spooks peaked with Adam’s death, The Mentalist ought to start thinking of some Red John closure in the next 2-3 years and Nikita might struggle to remain fresh and interesting for more than 2 more years (even Alias had to cover just about every permutation of character alliances to reach 5 years). If the real God doesn’t appear in season 8 of Supernatural I might have to argue it peaked with the Lucifer storyline, while Criminal Minds must surely be about to exhaust a realistic number of serial killers by the end of its 8th.

Firefly

The Genius of Firefly

On the other hand, Jericho definitely had more story left to tell and could have done with a few more years, Ashes to Ashes could possibly have done with a final series in the 90s (as I am sure there is enough of a audience who thinks that is “ages ago”), V could have done with at least a couple more years to flesh out the story and resolution, and make the journey a bit more worthwhile. And don’t even get me started on Firefly

Similarly, Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad each have a few more years of stories in them,  seemingly everyone wants to see more of Sherlock, and Hawaii 5-0, such a pleasant surprise, could reach the magic 8 as well (the quality of the writing – particularly the interaction between McGarrett and Danno – as well as the relative uniqueness of the locale and “that” music are what, I believe, help it to stand taller than many other procedurals).

All of this is highly subjective of course, and who doesn’t want to keep watching new episodes of their favourite show. But recognising that nothing lasts for ever, I feel the figure of 8 is as good an average as we are going to get. It allows someone who has missed the whole thing to revisit a meaty prospect on DVD, without overstaying its welcome.

The above commentary is not a reflection on the quality of the shows, as each and every example I have chosen is of a show I have watched and enjoyed in its entirety – it is rather a commentary on quantity.

There are bound to be exceptions, and many people feel that their favourite(s) should live forever, so by all means add your comments below.