The Show Must Go On




The Show Must Go On by Elizabeth Alsop

Why Don’t We Want Our TV Series to End?

April 17th, 2014 reset - +

IT’S A GOOD TIME to be a canceled show. Last May, Netflix sent the viewing public into paroxysms when it released the fourth season of Arrested Development, which last aired on Fox in 2006. A month earlier, Rob Thomas made Kickstarter history when fans of his UPN series Veronica Mars massively overfunded — by three million dollars! — the show’s “return” as a feature-length film, now playing in theaters. Since then, former AMC series The Killing has been granted new life by Netflix, defunct soaps like All My Children and One Life to Live have been revived as streaming web series, and NBC’s Heroes, it was just announced, will return in rebooted and “reborn” form this summer.

There are, it seems, second acts in American television. Or, as Lacey Rose put it in The Hollywood Reporter, “canceled doesn’t necessarily mean canceled anymore.” Instead, shows like 24, Futurama, Unforgettable, and Cougartown have become the beneficiaries of a new televisual world order, whereby any series threatened with cancelation can be, in Rose’s words, “revived thanks to creative deal-making,” or — in the case of NBC’s Community — rescued by socially-mediated displays of viewer displeasure.[1]

All of this, of course, hardly comes as news. Back in 2012, New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz was already bemoaning the rise of “zombified” media; the byproduct, in part, of new and more potent forms of fan empowerment. Since then, critics have been eager to read the cultural tea leaves. There’s been no shortage of speculation about what this wave of revivals could cumulatively portend for television makers and viewers in the 21st century.

Yet despite the critical attention to this phenomenon, there’s been comparatively little curiosity about the psychology behind it. In other words, it’s not only how — or how well — these shows come back that should interest us, but why they come back. Why is it we want to revisit these shows in the first place? What does it say about us as viewers that we pine for the return of a favorite series, even years after its end? Wouldn’t it be better, perhaps, if audiences could just move on already?

It makes sense that the industry would want to keep capitalizing on a popular product, however long ago its demise — the motive, as Seitz points out, behind many a sequel, prequel, and rebooted franchise. But the audience rationale seems murkier, and TV shows, with their open-ended format, a less certain commodity than self-contained films.

I should admit that I’m biased here. When I heard the news of Arrested Development’s return, all I could think was, “Why?” It’s not that I didn’t love the original series. AD was smart, weird, screwball, manic, and intermittently annoying, and it was those things for three years on broadcast television. It’s a track record that should be good enough for anyone. Plenty of masterly shows — Party Down, Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, Deadwood, the original British Office — had similarly brief or abbreviated runs. And just as many have come undone over the course of too many seasons: Lost, Dexter, True Blood, and even (tragically) The Simpsons. Conflating longevity and quality is not a safe bet. So when it comes to retroactively extending the life of a long dormant series, my thinking is: why give a great show another chance to be bad?

Not that I’m advocating for premature conclusions. My most ardent media-related wish would be for another season of Enlightened. And I realize that how a show ends — deliberately, at the hands of the showrunner, or at the whim of a network executive — is crucial to how we perceive it. Too often, though, viewers seem to object to endings almost solely on principle.

On the one hand, such popular resistance shouldn’t come as a surprise. Humans have always been makers and consumers of continuous stories, however they’re delivered – in Homeric hexameters, print installments, or 15-minute webisodes. Whether we’re hard-wired for seriality, or merely acculturated to it, it’s clearly a longstanding preference. The new ability to binge-watch, Will Paskins suggests, may only have amplified our sense of emotional attachment.

But historically, at least, we’ve also been predisposed to an end. According to some scholars, the pleasure we take in narrative may even rely on such a stopping point. In Reading for the Plot, for instance, literary critic Peter Brooks suggests that for readers, “the concept of an ending is necessary to that of a beginning.” At the same time, he notes, the ending can’t come too soon. For Brooks, there’s a kind of erotic power to textual delay: we both long for, and long to defer, a story’s inevitable “climax.” Seen in this psychoanalytic light, it makes sense that the nation’s TV watchers might not want their series consummated just yet.

This fantasy of the neverending story is not medium-specific. In 1903, Arthur Conan Doyle caved to popular pressure when he un-killed-off Sherlock Holmes, so he could live to continue his ratiocinative hijinks. Charmaine Harris recently faced a similar outcry, when she revealed she’d be retiring the Sookie Stackhouse series that inspired True Blood. As film theorist Siegfried Kracauer notes, both the novel and the film are forms that “aspire to endlessness.” [2]

Yet the recent spate of revitalized shows raises other questions. There’s a difference, after all, between not wanting a series to end, and wanting to restart it once it has. For me, the Arrested Development redux or the recently released Veronica Mars movie lie eerily in the middle — not 1.0, but not 2.0 either. They may even be a little uncanny, a feeling Freud traced to our reencounter with something long repressed; something both familiar, and strangely not. A similar sense of the unheimlich haunts these reappeared shows, with their aged or absent starts, their careful recreations of once-familiar fictional worlds. It’s no coincidence that writers have routinely turned to the lexicon of horror to describe a show’s return: Arrested Development, for instance, was “brought back from the dead” and “from the TV graveyard,” while other series are being “resuscitated,” “revived,” or “resurrected.” Implicit in all these words is the sense that something unnatural has occurred: the laws of TV physics have been violated.

But however squeamish I may be at the prospect of reanimation, most viewers don’t seem to mind. Shortly after Arrested Development’s debut, the hashtag #showsthatneedtocomeback began trending on Twitter; months later, nominations were still streaming in. They ranged from the predictable (Friends, Full House) to the left-field (“ALF!!!”). Nostalgia is clearly the common denominator. As one user tweeted, “MTV go back to being MTV and dear Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon bring everything back.” Another, gunning for the recently ended Office, wrote, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

Call it cultural Gatsby-ism. Baz Lurhman’s recent adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel hit hard on that paradigmatic exchange: “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick chastises Gatsby. “Can’t repeat the past? ...Why of course you can!” Yet such do-overs seldom proceed as planned, as cautionary tales from Gatsby to Vertigo attest. Literal acts of reanimation go even further awry. Just think of that episode of Game of Thrones where the Khaleesi has a blood magician work her mojo on Khal Drogo.

That doesn’t stop viewers from resorting to similarly desperate measures. Mourning the absence of a beloved show, we take comfort in a bit of magical thinking.

And that may not be such a bad thing. When Arrested Development picked up three Emmy nominations last year, some saw it as an auspicious sign for online content providers; others, as the death-knell of the TV industry (a fear parodied by the Onion headline: “Netflix receives 10 Emmy nominations for Season 4 of Wings”). But the series’ success could have something even more meaningful to say about viewers: namely, that we’ll increasingly overlook the breach of narrative decorum for the sake of a story’s survival. When old shows resurface with an altered patina or new format, the differences automatically ask of viewers a larger than normal suspension of disbelief.

Significantly, it’s a demand that has more typically been made of fans of soaps or sci-fi, genres where production values or performance style more easily undercut plausibility. One anecdotal example: In 2006, I was watching an episode of Days of Our Lives when an unfamiliar actor strode onto the set. That in itself was unexceptional; the fictional town of Salem sees a steady stream of mysterious and well-coiffed newcomers. What was odd was the message that scrolled across the screen when he entered: “The character of Shawn Brady will now be played by Brandon Beemer.” As only an occasional soap viewer, I didn’t know that such shifts in “portrayer history” were regular events (now helpfully indexed on Wikipedia). For me, it seemed kind of liberating: a lesson in how the serial genre’s adherence to continuity — to the show going on — could override any concerns about realism.

What I wonder, then, is whether viewers may increasingly be approaching all serial television with a sensibility borrowed from soap opera — a genre with which, as commentators point out, many prestige dramas share not a small amount of narrative DNA. Not only are viewers increasingly able to overlook fissures in the fourth wall; they may even celebrate them as opportunities to intervene in the storytelling. As media scholar Jennifer Hayward points out, serial genres have long been defined by their open-ness to audience input – to “attempts to influence production,” which frequently find a “degree of success.” [3]

That more acclaimed series are now witnessing similar attempts at fan interference could be a hopeful sign that the barrier between so-called “quality” TV and shows at the less reputable end of the spectrum is continuing to erode. Soaps may still be reliable targets of disdain, but it could be that audiences would increasingly ascribe to their logic if it meant that their favorite shows — like Days’ perpetually resurrected villain, Stefano — could always be brought back to life.


[1] The Week Staff, “Community pulled from NBC’s schedule: The Backlash,” The Week, November 16, 2011, http://theweek.com/article/index/221477/community-pulled-from-nbcs-schedule-the-backlash; Sarah Anne Hughes, “Community Benched: Joel McHale, Dan Harmon, and Fans React,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/celebritology/post/community-benched-joel-mchale-dan-harmon-and-fans-react/2011/11/15/gIQAvupTON_blog.html; Ethan Sacks, “Community returns for another semester after fans step in to back show, says star Joel McHale,” The New York Daily News, March 5, 2012,  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/community-returns-semester-fans-step-back-show-star-joel-mchale-article-1.1039154; Bill Carter, “College’s Winter Break Finally Ends,” The New York Times, March 12, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/arts/television/nbc-brings-community-back-to-its-passionate-fan-base.html?_r=0

[2] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford, 1960), 233.

[3] Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Operas (Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky), 4.

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Elizabeth Alsop is an assistant professor of English and Film Studies at Western Kentucky University.

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