It’s pretty much a truism that TV shows peter out in their final years. Networks milk every ounce of life they can out of a show and then continue to bleed its zombified corpse to death. But hey, everyone gets a paycheck, right?
Fortunately, this trend is slowing thanks to cable–and now streaming–networks investing in better writing and shorter shows. Few fewer seasons and fewer episodes per season help keep the storytelling more purposeful and focused. But even they are not immune to this curse. If they let a show go on too long, eventually, the writers run out of ideas.
There’s nothing notable about shows that decline over the years, but there is something–what’s the opposite of special?–about great shows that suffer in the end. But it’s not always a result of going on too long. Some just get lost and never find their way back.
So let’s take a trip down forgotten-memory lane and look at some of my favorite TV shows that, well, the end didn’t live up to all that came before.
11 Seasons: 1993-2002, 2016-2018
This is one of my all-time favorite shows, but in the end, 11 seasons was two and one too many. Let me explain that. The show had a great seven-season run. Seasons 4, 5, and 6 were some of the best sci-fi TV there is. Season 7 marked the last for Fox Mulder and should have marked the last for the series. Instead, they brought in two new agents and a whole new mythology (super soldiers) to pursue. The stories in seasons 8 and 9 were enjoyable, but the show had no drive without Mulder. IMO, they could have kept that drive by using Mulder for occasional guest appearances as Skully’s “Mr. X.”
After 9 seasons, the show ended, only to return years ago for a special 6-episode Season 10. I admit I enjoyed this return of the X-files, even though they stepped all over the previous mythology they spent years in the making. In the end, it invalidated much of the driving story of the show’s first 7 years. That was disappointing, but the stand-alone episodes were spectacular. They should have ended it there.
But again, the show went one more season in which they totally crapped the bed. Not only did they undo the entire final episode of Season 10, but they brought back and killed Cancer Man again. You can only do that so many times, people. At the end of the day, they destroyed almost all the show’s mythology and kept returning to long-dead characters that should never have returned, to begin with.
5 seasons: 2001-2006
Alias lasted a whole season and a half before it jumped the shark. It was such a great show with plenty of action, mystery, and intrigue. Then they aired their post-
SuperBowl Big Game episode that effectively killed all the mystery and intrigue. Aside from that unmitigated disaster, the only thing I remember about the show was early-career Bradley Cooper in a minor sub-plot role. Who knows, if Alias had lasted, maybe Bradley Cooper would be a star today.
9 seasons: 2001-2010
When Scrubs started, both ER and (the superior) Chicago Hope were currently airing. I remember thinking, “just what we need, another medical show.” But I was wrong. We needed Scrubs. While it was no doubt capitalizing on ER’s success, Scrubs was a different show altogether. Consistently funny, quirky, and entertaining, it never failed to deliver. At least, up to the final season, when Zach Braff exited. They tried to do something of a reboot, but the show never could recapture the magic.
4 seasons: 2003-2009
From the opening of the reboot mini-series, BSG had my attention like no other sci-fi. This wasn’t aliens in space; this was a full-on military show. With the mini-series a success, the show went into full production and opened with what I think is one of its best episodes, 33. And then the greatness just kept coming.
At least until they started venturing into myths, prophesies, and harbingers. That’s where they started to lose their way. Still great episodes all around, but trying to answer all of the questions raised proved to be too much of a challenge. While I still love the show’s ending, it wasn’t as good as the rest of the show deserved.
5 seasons: 2003-2006, 2013, 2018-2019
I can’t think of a single show that fell so far as AD. For three seasons, it was one of the best comedies of all time. This show was brilliant at setting up a joke only that would fully pay off several episodes later. Yet it never managed to hold an audience (mismanagement at FOX is at least partially to blame) and met an early demise. Fast forward seven years, and Netflix brings the show back. Oh, how I wish they didn’t. Season 4 was some of the worst TV in history, and then they followed that with the equally dismal Season 5. They should have left well enough alone. To me, Arrested Development is a 3-season show.
6 seasons: 2004-2010
Lost is the one show that catches a lot of crap for its ending, and, well, it’s deserved. The difference between Lost and so many other shows is that it stayed interesting right up to the end. The writers just failed to answer all the questions they opened sufficiently, and in many cases, the answers provided were insufficient at best and weak at worst. Despite this, Lost is still one of my favorite shows to re-watch, and I content that Season 4 is its best.
6 seasons (#AndStillNoMovie): 2009-2015
I always thought Community was an uneven show jumping between episodes of absolute brilliance and others that were just ho-hum. But the brilliant episodes made up for the rest, making this one of the best shows in sitcom history. Until that is, you get to season 4. The showrunner, Dan Harmon, was fired, and actors started jumping ship. The episodes continued to get worse, losing all of the magic of even the previous ho-hum episodes. Harmon returned for season six, but he was unable to bring the show back to its former glory.
The Walking Dead
10 seasons so far: 2010-∞
TWD might represent one of the greatest losses in TV in terms of how it started to how it (hasn’t even yet) ended. I still say “ended” because I stopped watching several seasons ago. The show was an exploration of human nature, and the zombies were secondary. I loved that premise.
But then TWD became an exploration in how many weird characters they could invent. (I know it follows the comics, but that’s no excuse.) In just a few short seasons we were introduced to a tribe of people who no talk normal, a king who talketh not normal, and the whisperers who only whisper. It was all just too hoakey for me. The show lost its soul and really left no characters to root for.
9 seasons: 2011-2019
Suits was a 4-season show that went on five seasons too many. I have to admit I stopped watching somewhere around season 6. Suits started fun and clever, but over time, it devolved into soap opera material. I enjoyed the friendly rivalry between the characters in the early episodes, but those soon turned unfriendly, and I got tired of watching everyone stabbing everyone else in the back. Pass.
House of Cards
6 seasons: 2013-2018
Watching the depths that Frank Underwood would go in his rise to power was absolutely captivating. His quest for power was unmatched, and in the end, nobody could stand in his way. But once Frank achieved his goal of becoming president, the show began to lose its drive. It was still good, but not great. But then there was the travesty of the final season. Once Kevin Spacey was kicked to the curb, Netflix should have ended the show. That last season is entirely unwatchable.
It’s always a shame to see good shows end badly. A bad ending almost ruins the greatness of all that proceeded. I’d like to see more shows with shorter but stronger runs like Breaking Bad. Keep the series to a handful of seasons with a limited number of episodes each season and stay focused on the stories you want to tell. Keep them strong.
These are some of my favorites. What favorite show did you have that disappointed you in the end?