Over the past year, I’ve fallen in love with a number of shows that told a complete story over the course of one very short season (an average of seven episodes). The Night Of, Big Little Lies, Feud, Godless, The Sinner, Alias Grace and American Crime Story: The People vs O.J, Simpson, each managed to present a rich narrative packed with complex characters and gripping storytelling, without being stretched out for years on end.
This got me thinking about a number a series I loved over the past decade that unfortunately lost a whole lot of dignity over the course of their run. Of course I’m not talking about shows like Lost, Arrow, Charmed, True Blood, and Suits – these series were suited for long-term storytelling thanks to potential-filled hooks (a plane crashes on a mysterious island, three sisters discover magical abilities etc..) but were subsequently robbed of their integrity due to shoddy writing and idiotic narratives. No, I’m talking about the kind of show whose premise is best suited for short-term storytelling from the start.
Take Prison Break (a man willingly goes to prison to save his brother), Revenge (a woman vows to get revenge against the family that wronged her father), and How I Met Your Mother (a father recounts the events that lead to meeting the mother of his children). When it comes to all three shows, one thing is painfully clear: they were never meant to go on for 5, 4, and 9 seasons respectively. At best, they were one or two season shows. In fact, Prison Break had one of the finest debut seasons of all time; imagine if it ended there and how much more impactful its legacy would have been. Season two was equally thrilling with the gang on the run, but returning to prison in season three cemented the show as ridiculous TV. As for Revenge, it still showcased glimmers of awesomeness after that first year, but it was never truly able to replicate that debut season magic. The show was more preoccupied with finding creative ways to stretch out its premise far past its expiration date. And the less said about How I Met Your Mother, the better. The show dragged out its central mystery for so long that the resolution we eventually got satisfied practically no one. Moreover, the show’s place in popular culture was severely tainted by that underwhelming finale; I can’t even bring myself to rewatch the show because I feel so burned.
But that’s the nature of television. A successful first season means networks aspire to milk a franchise for all its worth, even at the expense of narrative integrity (should Big Littles Lies even come back for a second season when the first gave us so much closure?) Thankfully, there’s a clever solution: the anthology format (thank you Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story). If the show’s a hit, the network can get more the following season with a brand new premise under the same template (American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace arrives in January!). TV’s a business after all, and the anthology format is the perfect way to get the best of both worlds: a show can thrive for years generating billions for the network, and we lucky viewers get to continue immersing ourselves in these highly addictive worlds without feeling like we’re subjecting ourselves to torture (because really, have you even seen the third season of The Affair?)