The show mustn’t go on: the TV dramas that didn’t know when to quit
Renewal of 13 Reasons Why and rumors that Big Little Lies could return are just the latest examples of small-screen stories that should know when to sign off
The suicide-mystery series 13 Reasons Why has grown into a certified phenomenon: its an object of obsession for teens, a continuously mutating meme on social media, and a potential menace for parents to wring their hands over. And with the recent order of a second season, Netflix is banking that it can last longer than the moment of its zeitgeist. But as colleagues have already smartly noted elsewhere, this mandated extension appears doomed to fight the necessarily finite premise of the show.
As financial imperatives regularly take precedence over creative ones, plenty of seemingly closed-off programs have been forcibly reopened in the hopes that audiences can be compelled to return. Riverdale tied a ribbon on its motivating murder in the recent finale, only to hastily shoehorn in a new question mark so that season two can have something to resolve. Meanwhile, HBO wants more Big Little Lies, Netflix doubled down on The OA, and Hulu is toying around with the idea of expanding the universe of The Handmaids Tale.
Well reserve judgment until any of these sophomore seasons actually come into being, but theyre already fighting the current of their own narratives. Some shows just arent designed for longevity and have struggled to stay the course as theyve moved out of their debut seasons. Below, youll find a sampling of these shows that outlived their own stories, to varying degrees of success.
Save the cheerleader, save the world. The first season of NBCs superhero drama revolved around this mission, to prevent a nuclear meltdown by securing an indestructible teenybopper. That got the writers through the explosive (heh) finale of the first season, but following through proved difficult. They overcompensated by bogging season two down with new characters, new plotlines, and new powers for already introduced figures. Audiences first gravitated towards the show because of its human element, the way superpowers were grafted on to regular people as astonished by their newfound abilities as we would be. But in digging too deep into comic book arcana in search of a new purpose, the show alienated much of its core fanbase and the critics followed suit.
The burning question of who killed Laura Palmer guided David Lynch and Mark Frosts landmark head-scratcher through the midway point of its second season, but many viewers felt that the wheels came off the wagon shortly thereafter. As creative squabbles played out behind the scenes, the show took a few hard left turns into stranger, more enigmatic territory, and it lost some favor along the way. While modern devotees of Lynch have come to appreciate the later episodes for all their inscrutable power and beauty, a sizable faction of watchers agree that Lynch and Frost lost their way on the path to the Black Lodge. Regardless of where you stand on the post-Laura Palmer episodes, however, theres no denying that Lynch makes TV unlike anyone else.
The rare instance of a show that managed to gracefully forge past its sell-by date, this UK import eked out three arresting seasons from one investigation. The mark? The serial killer Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan, in the role that would earn him his 50 Shades of Grey gig), doggedly pursued by thedetective Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson, retaining the title of Queen of Genre TV left over from her X-Files days). Perhaps the series benefitted from its brief six-episode seasons, but the staffers managed to draw out the pursuit in a natural way that could provide a feeling of forward propulsion, instead of writing in circles. The show then had the good sense to excuse itself when the time was right, bowing out after 17 strong episodes.
When someone commits hours to following the winding plot of a murder mystery, they tend to expect a solution. (Smash-cut to me impotently yelling at my laptop upon hearing the mealy-mouthed non-finale of Serial.) So when this adaptation of a Danish crime drama surprised everyone by not revealing the identity of Rosie Larsens killer as promised, viewers felt betrayed, manipulated, and strung along. The reviews were vitriolic, reappraising a dark and dour saga of cruelty and depravity as just another procedural willing to resort to any cheap trick to maintain a captive audience. Somewhere around the eighth red herring, enough was enough. (Though the series proved inexplicably unkillable, narrowly evading cancellation three times over.)
Ever the masters at bungling a breakout hit, NBC thought it had struck gold with this post-apocalyptic adventure about a world thats gone a decade and a half without electricity. But significant mission drift followed the resolution of season ones conflict between our heroes and the despotic post-apocalyptic Monroe Republic. With the core antagonist dispatched, the show unsuccessfully reinvented itself, trading fantasy elements (mystical pendants) for something hewing closer to sci-fi (nanobots) and ditching the cross-country odyssey format for drama localized in a Texas small town. The series collapsed shortly thereafter, unable to adapt to its own changing climate. Fans grew frustrated; they wanted nothing more than to return to the world of season one, but the twisty finale conclusively sealed it off and committed to a new style.
At a time when terrorism paranoia had hit a dangerous high in the US, Showtimes espionage thriller took TV by storm. The cat-and-mouse game between an agent on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Claire Danes) and a patriot moonlighting as a mole for the enemy (Damian Lewis) made for nerve-fraying drama in the first season, but in the many seasons that followed, the show never quite managed to thread the needle between topping itself and going over the top. The first season finale ranks as one of the most tense, nerve-wracking episodes of TV ever produced, and while Homelandcontinued to enjoy a healthy following for a few more years, it never quite reproduced the alchemy of its original run of episodes. How ineffective could the CIA possibly be, really?