For the last few years, Community has been one of my favorite shows on television. Cancellation threats and time slot changes made me anxious and inspired tweets with the hashtag #SixSeasonsAndAMovie (along with tons of other fans) to show support for the awesomely quirky show. However, something changed this season: Community’s creative force and showrunner, Dan Harmon, is gone, and the show is a shell of what it once was.
Like Community, many great programs continue past their expiration dates. Part of this problem is intrinsic to the U.S. television industry. When shows are pitched and sold to networks it’s usually for a set number of episodes, but with the understanding that successful shows will be renewed indefinitely to capitalize on what is otherwise a volatile or unpredictable market. Many British programs, on the other hand, are pitched and developed with the whole series in mind and on much smaller scales, meaning that stories can be mapped out in their entirety and creative energy is spread across fewer episodes. Both systems are still subject to the turbulent cancellation or renewal processes, but British shows rarely overstay their welcome the way American ones do. For example, the complete collection of the UK version of The Office is 14 episodes long, while the U.S. version ballooned to 200 before wrapping up this month.
American TV can go on forever! Law & Order has been on for 20 seasons, and The Simpsons has maintained its prime-time animated dominance for 24. Past TV shows, such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Bonanza and Dallas all extended to 14 seasons (14 years!) worth of episodes, and Gunsmoke has had more episodes than any other scripted show on TV (635 versus The Simpsons’ 526).
While getting to watch a show you love for multiple decades seems like all kinds of awesome, maintaining the quality and freshness of a show as it ages can be difficult. Roseanne is notable for its decline in later seasons. Roseanne featured lovable characters and explored class, race and sexual politics like no other show on TV through the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Gradually, however, the series gave way to what were clearly ratings gimmicks, D-list celebrity guest spots and John Goodman all but disappeared from the show’s plots because he was bored of playing Dan Connor. Also, remember when the Connor family won the $108 million lottery? One of the lamest plot twists ever, in my opinion.
Shows like Roseanne, Cheers, ER, That ‘70s Show and Dexter all overstayed (or are overstaying their welcome), and it’s often not hard to point to particular moments, episodes or seasons where these shows are “jumping the shark” and scrounging to find compelling plot ideas. This fear of declinism is what made Jerry Seinfeld want to end Seinfeld while he still felt the show was on top (although some people argue that Seinfeld experienced its own decline when Larry David left after season eight).
Beyond aging and the impossibility of producing such large quantities of TV, programs coming back from cancellation often signal exceeded expiration dates, too. This may be controversial, but I just couldn’t get into Family Guy or Futurama when they were brought back from the television crypt. And I fear for what may happen to my love of Arrested Development following Netflix’s resurrection.
Paralleling what’s currently happening to Community, major creative shifts can definitely be a sign that a show should be over. Gilmore Girls simply lost its sparkle and its total embrace of weirdness in the seventh season after show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left. Stephen Hillenburg leaving Spongebob Squarepants definitely lead to a decline in writing quality and the frequent reliance on exaggerated character traits that become all the characters are about (this is often called “Flanderization” because of Ned Flanders’ transition from a church-going guy to religious zealot on The Simpsons). Now on its third showrunner, Up All Night probably won’t recover from its setting shift last season, the retooling of its camera shooting style or the loss of the creative force that is Christina Applegate. While the show hasn’t officially been cancelled, I really hope NBC realizes that it is definitely expired.
As a fan, it’s especially hard because you want to stick around for the chance that you’ll experience bits of the happiness favorite shows brought you at one point. But sometimes, it’s best to say goodbye before your memories and enjoyment of the entire series may be tainted. So, with that in mind I am saying, “See ya, Community, it was fun while it lasted!”
Melissa Zimdars does think some shows can come back from decline, or she at least tells herself that in order to enjoy watching the hottness that is Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy.