Read it on Salon
Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
HBO’s “Enlightened” finished its second season last night, amid deep anxiety from its devoted admirers that the second season will also be the show’s last. The series, created by Mike White and starring Laura Dern, is truly like nothing else on TV: Lyrical and unflinching, poetic and brutal, idealistic and incisive, gorgeous and painful, it is steadily, quietly up to something new. It has a searching thoughtfulness, an earnest interest about how one should be in the world, and how this can run afoul of how one is in the world. It is genuinely philosophical, which perhaps means it’s up to something old, something much older than TV anyway.
“Enlightened” is not watched by many (300,000 people or so), but it has become a source of evangelicalism for the few. Mike White has been tweeting and talking about his fears that the show will not get a third season, an endearing and highly anxious cheerleading routine. He has been encouraging admirers of the show to be vocal, to tell HBO about their love before it is too late. “Enlightened” is so good that critics have obliged, doing more than just praising the show, but flat out advocating for it. “Enlightened” has done what really singular shows often do— think of the kind of focus and encyclopedic TV appreciation “Community” both demands and fosters in its fans — it has inspired idealism and activism in its audience. It has turned its fans into Amy Jellicoes.
Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, the star of the show, is a hugely intense, hugely idealistic, hugely flawed character. I watch and admire her especially aware of and grateful for the buffer that is the TV screen. She vibrates at a frequency dangerous to those around her, but more dangerous to herself. This season, she successfully took down her corporate overlord, Abaddon, in a far-fetched coup that seemed unlikely to come off until, in last night’s finale, it just did. (Should “Enlightened” get a third season, the cost of getting what you want will be a major subject.) Amy alone could have brought about Abaddon’s undoing: She alone was the necessary mixture of aggravating and implacable, crusading and crazy to demand justice.
Over the weekend, the New Yorker’s TV critic Emily Nussbaum, inspired by Amy, wrote a piece about “hummingbirds,” a new female archetype: “They’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive.” Their numbers include Amy, “Parks and Recreation’s” Leslie Knope, and first season “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison, among many others. It’s very touching to me that “Enlightened” has amassed its own army of hummingbirds, a cadre of advocates (not just women, but a lot of women) who, for the moment are, like Amy, intent on trying to make change, idealistic that a huge media corporation will see reason if they raise their voices, and who are willing to bang the drum for the show even at the risk of causing “Save this Show” fatigue. It may not work, I hope that it does. Either way it’s sweet that “Enlightened,” a show all about the cost of caring too much, should inspire such dedication.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer. More Willa Paskin.
"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.
Read it on Salon