Don't mourn "The Good Wife": A great show should be allowed to go out with its head held high

It's understandable to lament the end of a beloved show, but TV history suggests season 7 is the right time to exit

Published February 8, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife"   (CBS)
Julianna Margulies in "The Good Wife" (CBS)

Network TV’s best—and most criminally underrated—show will bang its last gavel at the end of this season. In an unexpected move, CBS announced during this Sunday’s Super Bowl that it would be pulling the plug on “The Good Wife” after seven acclaimed seasons. In a 30-second spot, the network promised “the biggest ‘Good Wife’ surprise yet” for the twisty legal drama: “This is the final season. The final nine episodes begin next Sunday.”

Despite the bold proclamation, the cancellation was hardly unexpected. Showrunners Robert and Michelle King previously confirmed that they would be departing after the current season to work on a new show for CBS—”Braindead,” a Beltway satire about aliens who come to earth and start feasting on the brains of D.C. politicians. There was talk that because “The Good Wife” remains the network’s critical darling—winning five Emmys throughout its run—that CBS would find a way to continue on without the Kings. It’s not unheard of: “The Walking Dead” has replaced its showrunners twice and still scores over 15 million viewers a week.

But as the Washington Post’s Emily Yahr points out, the result was more likely to be akin to the misbegotten final season of “Gilmore Girls.” Following a contract dispute during the sixth season, the CW dramedy’s creative team—showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Dan Sherman, who served as the executive producer—left the show. “When the Palladinos left, it simply wasn’t the same—no one could capture the Gilmore universe like Sherman-Palladino did,” Yahr writes. “[M]any viewers refuse to even watch the last season under showrunner David Rosenthal.”

If Yahr warns that “The Good Wife” without the Kings will lack their distinctive auteur stamp—and “feel like a completely different program”—there are other reasons to bow out after the seventh season. Seven tends to be a magic number for veteran programs looking to end their runs: In addition to “Gilmore Girls,” “Mad Men,” “The West Wing,” “Buffy,” “The Golden Girls,” and “Futurama,” all wrapped in seven seasons, as did every “Star Trek” spinoff. Shows like “Pretty Little Liars” and “Game of Thrones” will likely follow in their footsteps—even though “GOT” co-creator D.B. Weiss also left the door open for an eighth season.

HBO reportedly wants “Game of Thrones” to last forever, but there are numerous reasons to follow TV’s “Rule of Seven.” The first comes down to the simplest explanation of all—money. Although television shows only need 100 episodes to be eligible for syndication, Reddit user zwonker explains that shows that amass seven seasons are uniquely positioned to make bank:

“As it happens, seven seasons is the sweet spot for running reruns of a show on daytime TV. That allows them to show a different episode Monday-Friday for long enough that when they restart, it won't seem too repetitive.

“The suits in charge of paying the production costs will therefore push for seven seasons, and usually they have the clout to get it, even if the writers/actors/showrunner feel the show can only support six seasons properly, or that the show needs an eighth season.

“From a monetary perspective, the amount of profit per dollar spent goes down in seasons eight and beyond, and hasn't yet reached maximum potential until after season six.”

That decline in profitability following long-running programs’ seventh seasons has to do with contract issues. When actors sign onto a television show, their contracts usually only cover seven-season runs, meaning that if the show continues on, they will have to be renegotiated. If a show is successful enough for executives consider that proposition (see: a ratings-smash like “M*A*S*H”), the actors are likely to ask for hefty pay raises. Unless the network is pulling in “Friends”-size numbers (whose Season 7 finale pulled in 30 million viewers), it simply doesn’t make financial sense.

In addition, it’s extraordinarily difficult to maintain consistent quality throughout a lengthy run. There are exceptions to the rule: “Cheers” ran 11 seasons without ever jumping the shark. However, those cases are extremely rare. Far more common are shows like “Weeds,” “The Office,” “Smallville,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Dexter,” “Supernatural” and “Bones,” each of which continued on well past its expiration date. “Dexter” famously ended its eighth season by having its titular killer sail off to be a lumberjack, while “HIMYM” finally introduced “The Mother” just to immediately kill her off and get Ted back together with Robin.

Shakespeare once wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, but it can also be a boon to veteran shows—in order to prevent fatigue in the writers’ room. “The Good Wife” has never quite recovered from losing Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) in Seasons five and six—two of the show’s most compelling characters. Last season featured a state’s attorney campaign plotline widely considered by fans to be the worst thing the show’s ever done (Yahr calls it the “Luke’s daughter” of “The Good Wife,” to go back to "Gilmore Girls" for a second), while the show shoehorned in Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) this season as a makeshift Kalinda replacement.

If “The Good Wife” peaked in season 5, when Alicia’s (Julianna Margulies) firing from Lockhart/Gardner rejuvenated an aging show, setting an end date helps the show end on a relative high note, rather than becoming a shell of the show fans once loved. Many critically acclaimed shows barely last a few seasons before they are axed by a ratings-starved network, but at this point, what has “The Good Wife” gotten to say about moral and systemic corruption that it hasn’t already gotten a chance to say? As difficult as it might be to say goodbye to a show fans have loved for the better part of a decade, what’s the point of continuing on?

Should it be any consolation to grieving superfans, Robert and Michelle King say that they always intended “The Good Wife” to run for seven seasons—following a season when Alicia is forced to decide between a loveless P.R. marriage to her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), and her budding attraction to Jason, the sexy investigator played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Can Alicia finally choose to be happy? Fans should be thankful they only have to wait nine more episodes to find out.

By Nico Lang


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