Pop Prof #3: Did cancelling your favorite TV show actually save it?

I feel as though a personal TV era is coming to an end for me. Long-running smartcoms like 30 Rock, The Office and (likely soon) Parks and Recreation, are being shuffled off-stage, while some of the mid-range comedies I watch, like Community, Happy Endings and Up All Night, are on the verge of getting the ax.

Maybe that’s OK.

I’m a fan of little-watched, quality TV. I understand the mourning for Firefly, the wailing and gnashing of teeth that Arrested Development aficionados know all too well. But those bright-shining candles that were snuffed out in their prime have an advantage that other shows don’t: we never had a chance to watch them burn down the wick and sputter out.

Think about it. How many sitcoms (or dramas, for that matter) with more than, say, three seasons are good all the way through? Some, like Friends or 30 Rock, go through cycles, broadcasting a weak season or two before boosting the quality again, and fewer still – the Cosby Show, for my money – remain good through and through but lose some of their initial comedic edge. Most shows, however, go through a familiar build-up in quality before slowly declining throughout the rest of the run.

The way I see it, most sitcoms these days go through something I call “the four Cs.” The first stage of most sitcoms is caution. In this stage, the show’s writers have their premise and their characters, but they’re not quite sure how everything fits together. A show might try to put a running gag in every episode, or it might characterize one of its main players in a way that doesn’t really gel (a prime example of that is Parks, which had an OK first season but two characters – Leslie and Andy – that are nearly unrecognizable compared to their later incarnations). Through audience feedback, writers room discussion and actor observation, the show eventually figures out what types of situations and character pairings breed laughs and drama.

As a show figures things out, it transitions into stage two: confidence. Now that the show has achieved its perfect comedic blend, there are a wealth of jokes that have not been told, a gold mine of situations that have not been played out. Stories move forward with zeal, and characters develop untold complexities and quirks that just feel natural and right. Many modern sitcoms hit their peak early, in season two or three, and this is why. Everything is place, but nothing is stale.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and confidence eventually leads to comfort. The show’s audience knows these people now, knows the kind of hijinks they get up to and the trouble they stir up. Rather than an exciting new relationship, the audience and the writers now interact with the show as if it’s an old friend or a funny uncle. They are familiar with it and enjoy its company, but they also know its tricks. Surprise is a key element of humor, and when you know someone or something long enough, the less likely you are to be surprised.

If a show goes on too long, however, comfort can become complacency. This is comfort taken too far. The show’s writers know all the tricks; they know all the buttons to push, and it becomes an automatic, boring thing. Why spend time coming up with a compelling story when your studio audience will laugh when Sheldon says “Bazinga”? The magic is gone, and most of your viewers are hanging on out of habit, not genuine, sustained enjoyment.

This process is seemingly inevitable if you let it go on long enough, and only a major change-up can re-inject life into a show (Friends’ vitality is due in no small part to the fact that its writers frequently changed the living, relational and economic dynamics of the cast). No writer or writing staff is an unending fount of ideas – not even Mitch Hurwitz, as a brief perusal of Sit Down, Shut Up will show. Out of the current or recently completed long-running shows I watch, Parks and 30 Rock have both suffered through periods of diminishing returns (the second half of the fourth season through the present for Parks with its decreasing returns and awkward stabs at topical humor, and the fifth and sixth seasons for 30 Rock with its aimless plotting), and shows like The Office and How I Met Your Mother are shells of their once whip-smart selves. The first three seasons of The Office and Community both are great, great TV, but now each show will forever be branded with a big, fat asterisk: the slow decline into unfunny patter for the Office and a swift decline into an overreliance on old jokes and audience nods on Community.

If we like something, especially something built for serialization like a TV show or a tentpole movie franchise, we want more of it. It’s the most natural impulse in the world, but oftentimes the price a show pays for its popularity is the spark that warmed you to the show in the first place.

So I’ve decided that perhaps I’m OK with Happy Endings getting the boot this year, that I’m content with watching the two half-seasons of Better Off Ted on Netflix. We lament that the funniest, smartest TV shows don’t rake in the most viewers, but maybe it’s OK that our most revered series were cut down in their prime. They can then live on in their prime forever, untouched by the harsh realities of holding down a time slot for eight years.

Rather than mourn, cherish your Freaks and Geeks and your Heat Vision and Jacks and your Police Squads for what they were: glorious failures, hilarious and unsullied anomalies that were too beautiful for this world.

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