Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email email@example.com, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
Should people (I) stop watching shows that are destined for cancellation or are, like A to Z, already essentially cancelled? —Jesse
This is a question that comes up every fall, but it becomes a more common question in falls like this one, when there are no major breakout hits and a lot of shows seem to be clinging to the bottom rung of the ratings ladder. Plus, shows are getting burned off a lot this season, and now there’s even “necro-streaming,” which is catching up on a show that’s just been given the ax. There are a lot of ways for a show to be dead.
So, should you watch shows that are not long for this world? Well, yeah, if you like them. Because every single show ends. You can’t base show love on longevity, otherwise everyone’s favorite show would have to be 60 Minutes, and we would have had a national day of mourning when Law & Order ended. Every show you’ll ever love will end! It’s like having a dog! As a piece of poetic graffiti once told me, if you get in the ring, you’re gonna get punched. Luckily, the sting of a show ending vanishes quickly because, unlike a romance that ends or a job you get canned from, you can go home again. You can rewatch the show from the beginning, which is like strapping your heart into a time machine and transporting your feelings back to when you never associated the show with loss. After you do this once, your heartbreak will basically be cured. I was bummed that Enlightened and Trophy Wife got canceled last season, but I can still watch them whenever I want. That’s not such a bad deal, really.
We talk a lot about one-season wonders here at Stay Tuned, and one that I think about often is Wonderfalls. That show aired before I was writing about TV professionally, so I was perhaps a little less savvy about how networks operate, but I remember watching the pilot and thinking, Oh, God, this show is going to get canceled. Boy, did it! That show didn’t even last a month. But I also remember calling my BFF during a commercial on the first episode to encourage her to watch (we were home from college on spring break, I think?), and from then on, Wonderfalls being a show we shared, and one that brought us mutual joy for many years. Should I have never watched Wonderfalls? What would I be writing about now if I never had? Especially now that canceled shows make their way to streaming and DVD options almost immediately, what’s the harm in opening your heart to something? I can’t think of a single show I’ve loved that I wish I’d never seen. TV is the anti–It’s a Wonderful Life.
Every show I love turns to shit. Alias, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, America’s Next Top Model, Brothers & Sisters, Glee; even Happy Endings was on a decline when it was unjustly canceled. Some I abandon, some I stick with out of residual affection and familiarity, some I even go back to after they’ve ended, groaning as I do. I’ve loved Mad Men consistently (though there’s still a half-season for it all to come crashing down), but I think that’s the only thing I’ve loved start-to-almost-finish. I’m afraid to commit to new shows. Have I been burned too many times before? Are all shows fated to decline? —Ryan
And this is the opposite problem. What happens when shows don’t get canceled, and instead make their way into a state of slow (or rapid) decline? That’s no fun, either.
The overwhelming majority of shows eventually lose their luster, sadly. Mathematically speaking, as the number of episodes approaches infinity, the probability of any show becoming bad approaches 1. (Draw that asymptote in your head and thank a math teacher.) I don’t think every single show approaches its personal suck zone — The Good Wife, going strong! — or that shows can’t work their way out of one. But a show’s decline shouldn’t erode your initial affection for a series. One of the many reasons TV shows are better than human beings is that, as a viewer, you’re never responsible for the bad days. In a human-to-human relationship (what some might just call “a relationship”), there’s a two-to-tango idea. Once stuff got bad, it got bad for both of you, and maybe you have some culpability in how things went sour or why you both stayed for so long. When a show gets bad, well, you didn’t write it. It’s not your responsibility, and thinking about the good-old days shouldn’t conjure a feeling of ah, if only I had known then what I know now. It should just be a fond memory. (Except for How I Met Your Mother, a show that betrayed us all.)
TV fans have two options: Love a show and feel heartache at its end, or watch a show stay on past its prime and feel your love wither and decay. Life is kind of terrible, and this is but one example. Having experienced both these outcomes many, many times, I personally prefer a show to get cut down in its prime rather than linger past the point of enjoyment. That preference doesn’t hold true for everyone, and maybe it’s not true for either of you, Jesse or Ryan. But as you go forth on your TV journeys, I want you to think about what you’re really afraid of. What if your show does get canceled? What if your show does crap the bed? What will happen then?
Your TV heart will be okay. I promise. You will have the early seasons to go back to. There are new shows premiering left and right. Loving a show means never having to say, uh, I don’t love that show — you get to keep those favorite parts with you. The pilot of Wonderfalls thrilled me ten years ago, and it thrills me now, no less so because of the show’s scanty network run. I can rewatch the scene of Shandi on ANTM scream-crying with her boyfriend (“You had seeexxxx? [guttural noises]”) and still think, Holy shit, this is great TV, and that has nothing to do with how utterly awful this season of Top Model is. There’s no halflife on TV delight. As just as inevitable as shows ending or shows failing is a new show that brings you tremendous happiness. That’s how TV is. There’s always another show to love, and another, and another. Yet another reason TV is better than humanity.