My wife just finished working her way through the full series run of Friends on Netflix. We were talking and she brought up how her mother got tired of Friends after a while. My mother-in-law apparently thought Joey got too stupid, Monica too annoying, and the Ross-and-Rachel thing got rather tired. I wasn’t the fan of the show that my wife or her mother were, so I couldn’t disagree with that consensus, where I mostly wondered why any of them would willingly hang out with hangdog mopester Ross.
That’s not an unusual phenomena. Many TV shows that run long enough can become a shadow of their former glory. Anyone who’s been watching The Simpsons long enough already knows that, though.
Now, it is true that many shows, even the better ones, start off rough. Watch the first few episodes of even the best shows and you’ll probably see the actors and writers still working out what works and what doesn’t for the show itself. That doesn’t have to mean it’s bad, just different. The first few episodes of Breaking Bad are rather quiet at times, not the manic paced thrill ride it became pretty much as soon as the twins showed up. Breaking Bad in season one would not have done what it did to Gus later in the run. Season one of Seinfeld is downright dour. Even cartoons aren’t immune. The first dozen or so episodes of Batman: The Animated Series had an inordinate amount of episodes dealing with Batman teaming up with kids, rescuing kids, or otherwise dealing with kids. Kids don’t really help Batman, and when they are, they shouldn’t be.
But after a while, characters and scenarios start to wear down. That doesn’t mean the show starts to suck. Everyone involved gets into a comfortable groove, but occasionally, the whole thing goes down the crapper.
Let’s take Dexter as an example of when it all goes bad.
Dexter in season one had Michael C. Hall playing a serial killer who worked as blood spatter analyst assisting the Miami homicide department. He didn’t really have emotions and had to use other serial killers as an outlet while using skills his adoptive father taught him not to get caught. His adopted sister was a vice cop who got tips from him in order to get transferred to homicide. He had a girlfriend, an emotionally-damaged woman who was wary of sex, because sex was something Dexter couldn’t fake emotions for. There was a central mystery and Hall was sufficiently creepy.
Dexter as a series got by based on the strength of Hall’s performance and the quality of any guest star playing the season’s big bad. John Lithgow? Excellent! Colin Hanks? Ugh! But the biggest issue that arose was when the season big bad wasn’t a particularly good choice for the role, the show’s various weaknesses all became much more apparent. There was less to distract the audience as to how inept the Miami Metro police department was, or just how much the universe itself seemed to bend in ways that allowed Dexter Morgan to quite literally get away with murder, or just how much the show seemed to feel it had to spell out for the audience. The network itself may have demanded that Dexter not die in the final season, which led to the bizarre ending that infuriated longtime fans where Dexter is, for no clear reason, now a lumberjack.
This sort of decay happens in many shows that don’t know when to quit, but there are ways around this sort of thing. True Blood was never what one might call top-notch television, but at least it seemed to know everything about it was stupid and went for the camp factor. Dexter took itself far too seriously for the entire run, forgetting the rules it established at the beginning, as Dexter learned to like sex and they tried to trick the audience in believing his sister Deb really was a good detective despite needing his help just to get into that department.
Casting changes may be almost inevitable, but sometimes even that can be something that can be rolled with, such as how Cheers dealt with the early departure of Shelley Long. Adding little kids or annoying sidekicks, especially those that might be little kids, just about never works.
TV decay is almost unavoidable, especially for network fare that requires as many as 22 episodes a year that need to be filled. Creators leave, writers are replaced, and shows coast on success. TV Tropes even has a name for it: Flanderization, named for how Homer Simpson’s next door neighbor started out as a nice guy and became a Christian stereotype over time. To prevent this, the only real answer is to keep a show moving in a distinctive direction and, essentially, know when to quit.