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How TV’s renewal / cancellation cycle hobbles great shows

TV’s annual, stop-and-start production schedule hobbles its best shows. Because a programs’s creators never know how many seasons they’ll get, they must pace themselves for a race that could end at any moment. Some plot lines get rushed, as the writers scramble to tell it in the current season. Others arcs get stretched to absurdity, as the writers try to delay the choicest bits ’til the series finale.

For example, Parks and Recreation, network TV’s smartest sitcom, flirts with cancellation every spring. Because the writers don’t know whether they’ll get more time to tell the story, every season ends with a finale satisfying enough to close out the entire series. This approach works, but it’s hardly ideal.

Conversely, when showrunners know their series’ precise lifespan, they can do some remarkable things. Take LOST, for example. By its third season, the sci-fi mystery had floundered, spinning its wheels. The writers just weren’t sure how long they’d be on the air. But once ABC agreed to grant the show exactly six full seasons, things came together nicely. Those final seasons, though alternately absurd and schmaltzy, had a certain satisfying rhythm.

Now, imagine if LOST‘s creative heads knew they’d get six seasons, even before the pilot aired? They might have woven the series’ mythology more tightly. Big payoffs could have been set up in season one, then finally cashed in during the last few episodes.

Instead, all shows—even ones that are expected to be hits—walk on thin ice. They opt for short-term, intra-season thrills, instead of mind-blowing, series-long plot arcs.

Fortunately for viewers, there are signs that this production model has started to give way. Streaming services like Netflix allow shows to build audiences over time (instead of following the studios’ impatient schedules). As Andrew Wallenstein points out, Netflix helped catapult Breaking Bad from cult favorite to ratings juggernaut, years after that show’s premiere.

Maybe the studio suits will agree to loosen the leash for other shows—guaranteeing them time to tell their stories well.