Television Endings and the Infinity Model

Update 5/10: The Hollywood Reporter sez Veronica Mars is likely to get a 4th season flashing forward four years, as previously rumored. This resonates with my point at the end of this post: shows about teenagers have a tough time transitioning to post-adolescence. This kind of series reset would be a novel solution to that problem.

Update a while after that: obvs, this didn't come to pass. Too bad...or maybe not.

Some TV news in the past week--Gilmore Girls is finished, Lost has an endgame--has seemed to confirm again that the aesthetic and economic goals of television production can be at odds. Both will end at least in part because they have come, or will have come, to a point at which the story profits more from concluding than continuing. But from the perspective of the networks, there is never any reason for a good show to end. Jason has called this the "infinity model" of television programming, and I like that term a lot. It's what I meant when I wrote a few weeks ago, in relation to Veronica Mars, that fans want their favorite shows to be love affairs that last forever and a day. Here fans and networks sometimes have a common interest in never having to say goodbye.

But of course there are other interests, namely those of the people who make television shows. In the case of both GGs and Lost, the network might not have wanted to see an end point, but the producers hold the power here. Network TV earns its income from selling ads, so it always needs content to attract viewers. But the creative labor, the cast and crew of a show, earns its income from a contract with a production company, and contractors have to decide what work to take on the basis not only of what will pay, but also of what will benefit a career and provide satisfaction. Satisfaction comes not only from earning income but also doing good work. The decision to end these shows is a product more than anything of this creative decision-making. But this also follows business logic. For TV producers, success is measured in profit from syndication, and both GGs and Lost will go off the air with a handsome syndication package. For whatever reason, the industry still believes that 100 episodes is the magic number for syndication. Lost will pass that benchmark in its final season. Gilmore Girls will conclude with a syndication package of more than 170 episodes. In both cases, the creative personnel who decided that ending the show would be preferable to continuing it made a business decision, not just a creative one. They have decided: this has earned us, or will have earned us, enough. Time for something else. (And yes, the new media landscape includes other revenue from online distribution and DVD sales, and in the case of Lost, all kinds of ancillaries. But we don't really know yet the extent to which these sources are significant economically relative to syndication.)

Jason makes the good point that having a finite narrative structure can be aesthetically advantageous in the kind of contemporary complex serialized narratives he has written about, of which Lost is a key instance. But the same might be said of shows like Gilmore Girls, which is not a mystery-fantasy-sci-fi program, and which doesn't really need to end to be dramatically satisfying. Shows like GGs that center around kids might benefit from having a finite narrative structure because their basic thematic material has to shift considerably when the characters grow up. Gilmore Girls was a show about a precocious 15 year-old and her hip single mom who are more like BFFs than mother and daughter. On a fundamental level, the show lost this cute, appealing premise when Rory grew up, moved away, and started getting drunk and stealing yachts and having sex. It was possible to extend the narrative into her young adulthood and it would be possible to keep it going until she gets old and dies. The visual style, the acting, the dialogue, the supporting characters are all still there, more or less. But it may not be aesthetically desirable to keep it going when the main characters are no longer the same. Likewise, Veronica Mars was much better when it was about class division in a high school setting. The show has lost its dramatic center in this third season as the characters have shifted to college and the conflict has lost its core meanings. This problem will always affect shows about teenagers. They have to renegotiate the contract with the audience in later seasons as the characters become adults. We still watch and they can still be watchable, but something is lost in the process. As I have said before, this is one reason My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks live on so purely in our memories. They never had to face this inexorable progress of time, and remain fixed in their original states.

At the top of my wishlist for Fall '07 is another full season of Friday Night Lights. But I fear for FNL if it gets too successful. The actors already look old to be playing teenagers. (This is a basic convention of American television, but still.) The show is about high school football and won't shift very naturally to college. Much as I love it, I don't know that it could still be good after several more years. Still, I'd like to see for myself.


Jason Mittell said...

Thanks for the shout-out - I definitely agree that the aging effect is a key constraint on the infinite (much like life...). No high school show I can think of has made the shift to college effectively, although most dramatic shows start to run out of steam after a few years anyway, so this could just be a more obvious example of a general tendency. One of the reason that The Simpsons has managed to persist is the anti-aging salve of animation - can you imagine if Bart were 28 now?!

I don't watch FNL (I know, I should, I will...), but one way they might resist the pull away from the high school mode is to focus the show ultimately on the team, not the players - as with any team, players leave but the institution remains the constant. (As Seinfeld notes, ultimately we're just cheering for laundry.) I don't know how FNL could make the soapier elements of the relationships survive waves of new recruits, but that would be a recipe to try - and given high school football culture, I imagine that many players never really leave anyway, lingering over their past glories (see Hank Hill).

Derek said...

One of the key tensions in TV today is precisely this idea of "how long do you go?" GG always had a "natural" finale looming (Rory's college graduation), and I'd always assumed that's when it would end. Lost clearly has an ending now. Most other shows, though, "stop," rather than "end," so the decision to end is more a business, creative, and even personal one.

For that reason, factors like syndication prospects (increasingly dicey), sales prospects in other platforms (DVD, iTunes), global sales, sustainable ratings and demographics, placement on the schedule (e.g., Friends as the anchor of "must-see-TV" for a decade), and pursuit of other projects are all weighed. Any of these could tip the balance of the decision, and it'd be interesting to see how they broke down in particular cases (e.g., was the end of Seinfeld a collective decision of the cast, or was it solely Jerry's call?)