Why Can’t Television Shows Just Die Gracefully?

(Stop reading if you haven’t seen last night’s episode of Downton Abbey. Seriously. Stop.)

Back when I wrote this post about Arrested Development, it occurred to me that basically every single TV show I’ve ever loved has declined in quality over the years (the exception being Arrested Development itself, likely because it only lasted three short seasons – and even then, it had the debatable Charlize Theron arc). It seems all shows follow a familiar pattern: they tend to hit their creative peak around the second season, and then it’s just one long decline into mediocrity.

By way of illustration, let’s conduct a brief survey of the trajectory of some shows I have loved over the years:

  • Friends: For sentimental reasons, this is probably my all-time favorite show, but even I can concede that running ten seasons was excessive. The peak years were seasons 2-4 (season 4, in particular, stands out because of the trivia game and Chandler in a box). After that, the show became a never-ending series of increasingly implausible contrivances to keep Ross and Rachel apart. Sure, it was nice to see them finally get together at the end, but it would’ve been nicer still if I hadn’t had to wait ten damn years for that moment.
  • Alias: Seasons 1 & 2 were brilliant: the show was smart, fast-paced, exciting, and super-addictive. Then Alias went off the deep end by having Sydney “die” and Vaughn remarry the evil Lauren. I’m actually still not fully over that one. Vaughn, how could you?!?
  • The Office: Season 2 of The Office is, quite possibly, my all time favorite season of any TV show, ever. But the show declined in quality quickly, and I quit watching altogether sometime shortly after Pam and Jim got married. Now, the show is a shell of its former self, and I’m still baffled that they thought it was a good idea to continue after Steve Carrell left.
  • Lost: Much like Alias, this had a brilliant first two seasons. Then it delved into crazy mythology and became largely incomprehensible. I watched this through until the end, but by the time everyone reunited in that damn church, I had no freaking clue how we got there or what it all meant.
  • Grey’s Anatomy: Remember when this show was a perfect blend of medical ridiculousness and gut-wrenching melodrama? Those halcyon days when Izzie cut Denny’s LVAD wire, when Christina ran out on her wedding to Burke, and when Meredith did her “pick me, choose me, love me” speech? Then do you remember the days after that, when Izzie had sex with Denny’s ghost, Izzie and George “fell in love” (as if), and Izzie performed surgery on a deer in the Seattle Grace parking lot? Come to think of it, maybe we can blame this one entirely on Katherine Heigl.

Anyway, these are just a few examples – I can think of more (Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, Weeds, etc.). But all this is to say that it’s an obvious trend, and one that I know I’m not the first to point out. I get why it happens – if you’ve got a successful, money making show, I suppose any good TV executive would want to keep the money train rolling. I just wish it didn’t work that way. I wish TV shows were allowed to live out their natural creative lifespan and then die gracefully, well before we were treated to ridiculous spectacles like ghost sex on Grey’s and time jumping on Lost. Quite simply, I wish creativity trumped money. I mean, sure, I’d be bummed when an awesome show went off the air after just a few seasons, but in the long run, isn’t having a few great seasons more satisfying than watching something you once loved slowly devolve into really, really crappy television?

So, why am I talking about all this now? Well, recent developments on Downton Abbey have reinforced the idea to me. Namely, last night (or last December, if you watched it in the UK) Mary and Matthew had a baby, Matthew sped off in his fancy car to share the news with the family, and then you can guess what happened next: oopsies, he got in a car wreck, and before you know it, you’re watching the fake blood dripping down Dan Stevens’s face as a legion of Downton Abbey fans across the nation weeps. Womp womp:

dead matthew crawley

But here’s the thing: it didn’t have to play out this way. I remember, back when Downton first premiered, that there was talk of Julian Fellowes doing three seasons. Then the show’s popularity skyrocketed, and suddenly that plan went out the window. But what if it hadn’t? What if we had been treated to three well-plotted seasons, all working toward an endgame? The show might have been truly brilliant, but we’ll never know. Instead, the last two seasons have grown increasingly sloppy and haphazard, and now we have season four to look forward to, where we’ll watch the show cope with the loss of one-half of its defining couple. Plus, who knows how many more seasons we’ll have after that, and what crazy twists they’ll bring with them. (Note: This is not to say I’m above watching all of this unfold. I’m too invested now, so I’ll stick with the show to the end. Plus, even at its worst, I love Downton more than most things on TV).

I’ve read criticisms from outraged fans who actually blame Dan Stevens for leaving the show. This makes zero sense to me. In fact, I think he’s figured out something that most of the other folks involved with the production have not: that sometimes, it’s best just to call it a day. Maybe Stevens is the smart one for getting out now, while the show is still culturally relevant, as opposed to several years from now, when the magic will have worn off.

Did you watch last night’s episode of Downton? If so, what did you think of the loss of Matthew Crawley? And do you agree that it’s about time to wrap this show up?

(Image via The Daily Mirror)

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