Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Septembers shock, Octobers surprise, early Novembers can knock a campaign sideways. In a presidential race’s waning weeks, almost anything can happen — bedlam in the Middle East, financial panic at home, a scandal in the headlines. And candidates have little time to absorb the blow.
Sometimes the kind of jolt known as an “October surprise” matters in the end. Other times it doesn’t. But every campaign knows enough to worry about what might come.
“A fall general election is a very wild ride,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed Sen. John McCain’s campaign and served on George W. Bush’s re-election team. “It’s a volatile ride. You’re always on guard.”
Often the unforeseen sweeps in from overseas. Anti-American protests spreading through Muslim countries this week and the armed attacks that killed the ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, grabbed a presidential race focused on the domestic economy and spun it around to foreign policy.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney seized on the unrest in Libya, Egypt and then Yemen to criticize President Barack Obama as a weak world leader willing to appease Islamic extremists. Obama portrayed Romney as untested in foreign policy and rushing to politicize a tragedy before fully understanding the facts.
How much of that is remembered by voters on Nov. 6 will depend on what happens in the meantime. Does the anti-American violence in Muslim nations flare or fade? Other surprises, such as skyrocketing gasoline prices or escalating trouble between Israel and Iran, might emerge and be fresher on voters’ minds.
“Every day matters. Every moment changes the needle,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a veteran of the Bill Clinton and Al Gore presidential campaigns. But she says it’s unlikely a late surprise will reset the race because “the basic threads of this election are already implanted in the minds of voters.”
The classic definition of an October surprise — a term popularized by Ronald Reagan in 1980 — is timely news orchestrated by a president to help his own re-election. Now it’s more broadly applied to any unexpected development with potential to sway the race toward one candidate or the other.
In 2008, Obama’s campaign benefited from the autumn economic shock that, in its aftermath, now threatens his re-election.
“Four years ago at this exact hour, John McCain had a lead coming out of a very successful convention. Nobody had any idea a series of events was going to unfold that brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse,” Schmidt said Thursday. “It effectively ended the campaign.”
On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for the nation’s largest bankruptcy ever, setting off a stock market crash and global financial panic that voters largely blamed on the Republicans in power. McCain didn’t help his cause by declaring that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” — a statement mocked by the Obama campaign. That’s not to say Obama wouldn’t have won, anyway, but it would have been a different race.
The most famous October surprise is one that never happened.
In 1980, Republican challenger Reagan kept suggesting that President Jimmy Carter was trying to time the release of 52 American hostages held by Iran for just before Election Day. It didn’t happen.
Instead, Iran freed its hostages just hours after Reagan’s inauguration, sparking rumors that his campaign had secretly negotiated with the Iranians to delay the hostages’ release. The allegation lingered for years, further cementing the term “October surprise,” until the story was laid to rest by a bipartisan congressional investigation in 1993.
The idea of the autumn game-changer dates at least to President Lyndon Johnson, who announced a halt to bombing in Vietnam on Oct. 31, 1968, giving a boost to the campaign of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon won that race anyway. Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign benefited greatly from an October announcement by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, which proved premature.
Other autumn surprises that rocked presidential campaigns:
— Oct. 29, 2004: Osama bin Laden releases a video threatening more attacks unless the U.S. changes its ways.
It was widely reviled as a terrorist calling for Americans to vote against their president, George W. Bush, and instead strengthened the president’s campaign. John Kerry would later contend that the video cost him the race. “It changed the entire dynamic of the last five days,” Kerry said.
— Oct. 12, 2000: Al-Qaida in Yemen terrorists blow a hole in the USS Cole as it sits in port, killing 17 sailors.
The gut-wrenching shock to the nation didn’t have a clear impact on the race between Gore and Bush. Later, a minor November surprise — the revelation that Bush had been arrested on a misdemeanor drunken driving charge back in 1976 — stirred Republican indignation because it came just five days before the election. Voters shrugged it off.
— Oct. 1, 1992: Billionaire Ross Perot, who had impulsively quit his third-party presidential bid in July, jumps back in.
Perot got a spot in the presidential debates alongside President George H.W. Bush and Clinton, leaving them scrambling to respond, and ended up siphoning votes from both sides.
“Sometimes it seems that we’re at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events,” Romney told supporters Thursday. He was referring to the United States and its role in the world.
The same could be said, however, of presidential campaigns.
"Californication" (seven seasons)
"Entourage" (eight seasons)
Much like “Californication,” this man-centric show started strong and buzzy -- a perpetual nominee at the Golden Globes and Emmys, and a perceived gender-swapped “Sex and the City.” Then it ground on and on, and what might once have been read as a sophisticated satire of Hollywood materialism became a grinding conveyor belt of self-congratulatory guest-star appearances.
"Will & Grace" (eight seasons)
Hey, did someone say “self-congratulatory guest-star appearances?” Look -- it’s Jennifer Lopez, and Cher, and Janet Jackson, and Madonna! The latter seasons of “Will & Grace” effectively ruined the fun of watching the show in syndication now -- will it be a fun and jaunty early episode, or a later episode in which title characters enact an Ibsen play about having a baby together (really) while Jack and Karen meet one pop star or another? The fact that the show hastened a widespread acceptance of gay people that, then, made the show something of a throwback by the time it ended is one thing; the fact that the show itself seemed uninterested in relying on its actors’ sharp comic timing is quite another.
"The King of Queens" (nine seasons)
This CBS stalwart just kind of kept going, exactly as long as was needed to launch Kevin James’ film career. In the show’s final minutes, a formulaic sitcom became a mile-a-minute soap, with the central characters considering divorce and then having two children.
"Frasier" (11 seasons)
Though it ended strong, "Frasier" had something of the opposite problem as “The King of Queens”: While the CBS comedy chucked a whole bunch of plot at viewers toward the end, NBC’s Emmy magnet stayed stuck in familiar ruts, with Frasier questing endlessly for love and Daphne and Niles in fairly unthrilling domestic bliss. The jokes stayed good, but this maybe could have gone one or two years shorter.
"Weeds" (eight seasons)
As “Homeland” viewers may be learning, Showtime isn’t particularly good at keeping its shows coherent over time. (Maybe this is “Californication”’s issue -- we wouldn’t know!) This show changed settings and, effectively, organizing conceits so many times that by the end, it had few earnest defenders.
"Nip/Tuck" (six seasons)
This FX series, too, changed settings midway through, moving from Miami to Los Angeles four seasons in for no compelling reason. The show’s most gripping subplots had a way of petering out (remember the anticlimactic solution to the mystery of the Carver?), and its bizarre tendencies overtook any sense of fun.
"Glee" (five seasons and counting)
The series has, like its sibling show “Nip/Tuck” (Ryan Murphy created them both), switched locations, moving in large part to New York once its core cast graduated high school. But what’s the point of a high school series when the stars graduate? Despite some lovely moments, the show’s heat seems gone, and attempts to get back into the conversation (the school shooting episode, for instance) have been more desperate and tone-deaf than effective.
"Grey's Anatomy" (10 seasons and counting)
Here’s the thing: By all accounts, “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a creative failure. And it’s still widely watched. But when you begin your life as a world-beating hit, anything else seems somewhat marginal. “Grey’s Anatomy” has shed more regular viewers than many shows will ever hope to get in the first place (same’s true of “Survivor” and latter-day “ER,” to name just a few). Those who stopped watching once the Golden Globe nominations petered out may wonder why the show is still on; loyal viewers know better.
"The Simpsons" (25 seasons and counting)
Like the “Grey’s” doctors, the Springfield clan and their neighbors still draw a crowd. But “The Simpsons” is so omnipresent in syndication and in pop culture that the first-run series seems besides the point (not least because, though there are good episodes here and there, the show’s best days are universally agreed to be behind it -- like way behind it, in the 1990s).
"The Office" (nine seasons)
There was a natural break for this show, where it ought to have ended -- with the departure of lead actor Steve Carell in Season 7. The latter years were a creative fugue state, and as NBC’s Thursday night lineup continued to flatline in the ratings, one-time fans could be forgiven at their surprise that the adventures of Jim and Pam kept on unfolding.
"The X-Files" (nine seasons)
Once one of the show’s leads departs and has to be replaced -- as Steve Carell did on “The Office,” or David Duchovny did here -- the show faces a reckoning; if the lead is so central to the show’s plot as to make people wonder how the show could possibly go on, maybe the show shouldn’t. And even “X-Files” superfans might have been happier with fewer seasons of drawing out the conspiracy string toward a famously unsatisfying ending.