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In Defense of “One Season Wonders”…

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, what with the US version of Life on Mars ending on FX over the weekend and the rumours that Caprica doesn’t have strong enough ratings to secure a second season. We live in what is increasingly the era of “one season wonders” – television shows that are lucky to get a full season (or maybe a full season and a half) before being unceremoniously dumped from the schedule. It’s easy to look at shows like Firefly and Dollhouse and bemoan executives unwilling to take a chance with edge material, but part of me thinks it might really be for these best. Although maybe I’m trying to put a good spin on a bad situation.

The network may nuke Caprica early...

The truth is that if there’s something good, we inevitably want more of it. And if it’s successful, we’re typically given more of it. It’s just a solid business model. That’s the logic behind movie sequels and franchises and even television spin-offs and long-runners. And, yes, that’s great. There are twenty-eight years of televised Star Trek, for example. There are a grand total of forty-two years of Law & Order and its spin-offs (forty-seven if you include the international shows) – and that doesn’t even count Homocide: Life on the Street. There are twenty-four seasons of CSI out there.

It’s easy to see why television fans might be a little ticked that you can have so many police procedurals on television, but you can’t foster the growth of a quirky little character comedy like Pushing Daisies. There’s an even stronger argument when you consider how many of these shows seem to be consciously sabotaged by their networks. Who in their right mind puts a new show up against American Idol if they don’t want it to get wiped out in the ratings? It doesn’t make sense.

I can’t argue with that logic, and I wouldn’t try to. I would, however, make a few minor observations. Long-running series are prone to decay. The Simpsons has been subject to accusations that “it’s just not funny anymore” (though I’m kinder than most to the twenty-one-year-old show) and The X-Files fell off the bandwagon around about the seven-year mark. Did anyone pay attention to ER in its last few years? It’s rare for a series to maintain a high standard over an exceptionally-long run, no matter how strong it starts out of the gate, and a weak ending does significantly undermine all that came before.

You might argue that it’s not really a fair argument. The Simpson was hilarious for a decade, and a decade is more than one season, right? Or that The X-Files hit its peak in the fourth season, after a relatively banal first run of episodes? Who is to say that Firefly didn’t have the best ahead of it at all? Seriously?

My argument is simple: we’ve had a good run with these shows, we should probably be happy for it. To demonstrate, I’m going to use the Heroes example. The first season was great. Subsequent years have forced a lot of people to go back and critically pick it apart, but I think that twenty-four-episode run holds together very well. It’s a nice, self-contained little story. Had it been cancelled then and there, it would have found cult success and been passed around on DVD between college buddies and workmates for years to come. Unfortunately for all of us, it wasn’t. It went on for three more years, getting more boring and mundane all the time – dragging in more and more credible performers and tarring them by association. Answer me this: are you more or less likely to recommend that first season to a random person now?

There’s also a more mundane reason to favour truncated runs: they are easier the follow, to track and to watch. Particularly for the home-media generation. I never caught Battlestar Galactica on the telly, I bought the box set last year. And I’m still working my way through it. Whereas when I pick up Firefly on DVD, it’ll take me about a week to absorb it. This colelction I hold in my hand is all I ever need in order to fully engage with the series – I can go through the entire run that easy. I know, it doesn’t seem like such an effort when we watch an episode a week, but we just don’t consume media that way anymore. Family Guy was saved by its DVD sales.

Arguably the British have had the same sort of idea for decades. Ignoring the fact that the BBC churns out iconic miniseries much better than their American counterparts, their series tend to be rather truncated. The British Life on Mars ran less episodes than its one-season American counterpart. Fawlty Towers is regarded as one of the best series ever, despite only having a handful of episodes. The complete Black Adder boxset has a shorter runtime than single season boxset of CSI: Miami. These series are classics, and deserve to be.

Maybe, due to their short runs, they won’t be cycled endless through reruns like Friends or Fraiser or Scrubs (100 episodes in the magic number), but that doesn’t really make them more likely to be of note. The advent of digital with ridiculous numbers of channels diluting viewer choice has arguably reduced the impact of these reruns. This isn’t the era where television is the dominant media form, a fact recognised by Sky’s on-going attempts to pioneer the medium (and, in fairness, their methods are certainly impressive). Wed downloads and box sets are the way to go. And the fact that one box set costs less than ten means that it’s a lot easier to rationalise picking up Police Squad! rather than starting on Dallas.

In my heart, I know this isn’t the most convincing argument. We want more of what we like. That’s the way we are. And there’s no reason why I would turn down a second season of Caprica or Life on Mars were it offered. But I accept that there are worse things and – to be honest – it certainly isn’t the worst thing that could have happened to the show.

4 Responses

  1. When Firefly and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was canceled, they were both crimes.

    • I’m going to check out Firefly on Bluray when I get a chance (after I finish BSG). Is Terminator that good? I’ve heard it had a weak firsroved drastically from there.

  2. Sarah Connor would have been great if it stopped after one season. Same for Dollhouse. I think sci-fi shows, in particular, have to keep reaching for crazier premises the long they’re on, and they become less believeable.

    Another good one-season wonder is Defying Gravity.

    • Never heard of it, must check it out. I thought the accepted logic on Sarah Connor was the reverse: it got better as it went along? But I’m not sure.

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