Adam Sternbergh wrote a great article in New York Magazine highlighting how innovative shows that succeed with audiences like Lost are doomed by TV’s business model which forces these shows to stretch their premises out way too long. He writes:
There is, however, a simple solution: Change the format, or at least reimagine it. When it so-called arc shows, we need something between a mini-series and an open-ended run. We need the TV equivalent of a novella: the limited-run show. Series driven by a central mystery (Twin Peaks, The X-Files) peter out precisely because they have indefinite life spans. The writers are forced to serve up red herrings until the shows choke on their own plot twists.
He’s right. Rather than use Lost as an example, I want to use Prison Break which I’m watching as I write this. Talk about a show with a limited life span, the title alone defines the limitation of the show’s central premise. I’m still watching and generally enjoying the way the story unfolds but I would be much more satisfied if the creators would actually stand up and say it’s a finite show (say 3 years). The fact that the show could potentially go on forever does affect my interest in sticking around to see the show “choke on its plot twist”.
Here’s a couple of examples of shows that did it right. Babylon 5 was always intended to be a 5 year story and that’s how long it lasted. It changed direction as circumstances dictated but it stuck to the basic 5 year plan that its creator had for it. Sleeper Cell and Wiseguy built their shows around multi-episode arcs which gave the viewers closure if they wanted to stop at any point but definitely didn’t play it safe with their storylines. I’m sure there are others but I’m stuck on the numerous shows that have done it wrong and disappointed us. I’m not holding out hope that a chance is imminent but I like Mr. Sternbergh’s thinking.