When Good Shows Go Bad

Just to put your mind at ease, the following blog contains no spoilers for any of the shows that I'll mention, so feel free to read on with confidence.

I just finished watching the fifth and final season of the Wire and it got me to thinking: why do good shows go bad? And, yes, that is an indictment on the last season of the Wire, although I should make it clear that while the last season is rather poor, it's not nearly bad enough knock the show out of my "Two Best Shows Ever" list (the other show on that list has seven episodes left).

It does seem that every television show I've ever been a big fan of has had at least one bad season. I think I've come up with two reasons why this happens: a) a lack of ideas and b) choosing bad ideas. Allow me to explain those further.

1) Lack of Ideas

Examples: The sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the fourth season of Six Feet Under.

My lack of ideas theory stems from a few points, not the least of which is the stink of despair. On both Buffy and Six Feet Under, I got the distinct impression that the writers for those shows no longer knew what to do with the characters. It seemed apparent, to me, that they were so out of ideas that they went with the "throw everything against the wall and hope that something sticks" theory of storytelling. The problem is that, on the rare occasion they came up with something that did stick, the execution was awful, because by that point they were already knee deep in bad storytelling.

The last refuge for those lacking ideas is, of course, fan service, something both shows engaged in, but in different ways. There's no denying that season six of Buffy was just chock full of story lines that a certain segment of their fan base was clamoring for. Sadly, it was a segment whose desires ran counter to what the rest of the fan base wanted -- not just against what they wanted, but completely opposite to what they wanted, what they came to expect.

For Six Feet Under, it was a different type of fan service. In fact, it was probably more accurate to call it management service. One of the extras on the DVD set for the final season is an interview with Alan Ball. In that interview, he mentions how, after the first season, HBO requested that the creators "push the envelope" more. When I heard this, it was like a fog had lifted. Suddenly, the steady decline of a show I loved (I still consider the first season to be one of the single greatest seasons of television ever) made perfect sense. As the show progressed, the writers decided to take things as far as they could, as opposed to sticking to the rather grounded story of a repressed family with an unusual family business.

I don't think it's coincidence that both of the seasons I mention were the penultimate seasons for their respective shows.

2) Choosing Bad Ideas

Examples: Season five of The Wire, season two of Friday Night Lights.

The problem here is that both of these shows were (and are) bursting with story ideas. It's all the sadder, I suppose, that both shows decided to decide on such bad stories to follow.

Friday Night Lights has proven just how true this is by coming back for a third season and ignoring its second season entirely and, lo and behold, it's actually enjoyable again. The fact that it was actually able to return to a level of quality is a pretty good indication that the show wasn't out of ideas, and that the second season was just full of bad decisions. The fact that it's able to ignore everything that happened last year is a testament to just how god awful it was, and how thankful the writers (and the fans) should be that it didn't do any permanent damage.

The Wire is a bit more problematic. As bad as the main story points were, there were a couple of smaller stories going on that were just as good as the show always was. You can see the good ideas right there on the screen, yet sadly they were sharing time with the bad ideas, which actually made it all the more frustrating to watch. But even with the show over, it's pretty clear there were plenty of great stories left to be told. I'm willing to bet, had The Wire continued, it would have returned to its usual standard of quality.

It seems like even the best shows put out one bad season. I suppose I should be happy Firefly and Veronica Mars got canceled when they did.