As my cohort Nina mentions in our intro post, if you talk to me about anything on television right now, the conversation is going to make its way to Breaking Bad immediately. It’s all that’s on my mind right now. There isn’t much though that I can write about the show here that hasn’t already been covered by greater television analysts than I. But Breaking Bad’s impending finale brings up something I’ve been harping on about for quite some time now; how long is too long for a TV show?
In my mind, Breaking Bad has had a near perfect run. In its five-act Shakespearean tragedy structure (something expounded upon beautifully by Todd VanDerWerff over at the AV Club) the show has never felt like it has overstayed its welcome, or that there are more story elements it has yet to tell. We have three episodes left (as of this writing) that will sum up what will hopefully be remembered as one of television drama’s most epic achievements. Of course, a lot of this is just hyperbole from an overeager fan of the show, but it’s really just in comparison to many other shows who have overstayed their welcome.
A lot of it comes down to the business of television. Breaking Bad is on AMC, on basic cable, so while it is still ad-fueled, it isn’t in the highly competitive mega-ad-fueled world of network TV (CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, yada yada). Networks try and pump up their shows with enough fuel to get them to enough episodes to allow for syndication, which leads to MORE advertising money. That’s the business side of things, which dictates most, if not all, of network television structure, with exceptions from time to time.
You tend to find much more longevity in comedy than in drama, but that just comes down to the structure of a series; for the most part, television comedy places its emphasis on character, while television drama places its emphasis in plot. With dramas, we’re following the characters through twists and turns, waiting week after week to see what happens next. Obviously the more creatively interesting dramas are the ones with compelling characters, but the plot is where the emphasis lies. With comedies, it’s more about the wacky, kooky cast of characters thrown our way, and it’s very much so more about the journey than the destination, if you will; more about the means than the end.
This is likely why it feels more grating when dramas go on for years and years. Lost ran for six seasons, setting up a complicated world in its pilot, and it just kept adding, furthering the mystery, and setting itself up for failure in not being able to answer the questions it so willingly threw at the audience. There was no question on Lost bigger than “What is the island?” That was the main component of the show, the island, rather than its’ inhabitants (not to say they weren’t important, but the island was the main focal point).
On the other hand, 30 Rock ran for seven seasons, but I’ll make an estimated guess that many of the people who watched it weren’t too concerned about how the series would end (not until the final season at least). We were dealt a cast of characters that we greatly enjoyed and cared about, and we focused more on them and how they dealt with their situations rather than the situations themselves. If a show gives us characters who make us laugh and keep us coming back for more, and the writers/creative team keep giving us new, fresh situations for them to finagle their way through, then a show like 30 Rock could run for years. Hence, it did.
But how far can we stretch characters, and how many crazy hijinks can they really go through? 30 Rock felt like it was dragging the most when it couldn’t find organic ways to utilize actors Cheyenne Jackson and Kristen Schaal in the cast (both wonderful and accomplished actors, just not able to become a part of the 30 Rock DNA). The Office attempted to continue even after its’ main character had departed, with not-so-well-received results. And How I Met Your Mother gave itself a death sentence by creating a premise that eventually become ludicrous for a long-running network comedy to have, despite the best intentions of the creators. (I’m sorry, but those kids cannot possibly STILL be listening to Bob Saget ramble on like this). And then we somehow find ourselves lamenting shows like Arrested Development being cancelled “too soon,” only to have one of the most divisive fourth seasons in a comedy series handed to us on a silver platter. Be careful what you wish for, readers. Sometimes when a show ends, a show ends (Looking at you, Family Guy).
But there isn’t really a situation where this is going to end soon. At this time, TV is going to continue to be a business model, and creative impulses won’t be enough to topple the wants and needs of advertisers. Thus we still have situations like The Simpsons which is nearing its 214th season. And somehow, Curb Your Enthusiasm, an HBO show, still isn’t technically over yet, even though it hit its peak a season or two back. Quite strange considering Larry David expertly made his departure from Seinfeld after it’s seventh season, right in its prime. Even George Costanza knows that it’s best to leave on a high note. Showrunners and network execs should heed that lesson, don’t you think?