What the U.S. Can Learn from British TV

Sometimes even a hit series needs to pull the plug

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There have been plenty of attempts to adapt British hits for American TV, but one — The Office — makes up for a lot of Men Behaving Badlys or Couplings. For that reason, I’d like to propose looting another television idea from across the pond. Not an individual show, but a concept: the limited run.

In the U.S., a hit can air for the better part of a decade or more, amassing millions of fans, hundreds of episodes and complete DVD collections the size of encyclopedias. In the U.K., the BBC’s version of The Office ran for two seasons and two Christmas specials despite being one of its biggest hits ever, and it’s not unusual in that respect. NBC’s version has also turned in some of the best comedy of the past decade, but as it plods through its eighth season with no lead and little left to say, one can’t help wondering if it would have been better to remember it as a shorter-lived burst of televisual genius, as Ricky Gervais’ original brainchild always will be.

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There are underlying economic reasons for the two different models. The goal of almost any American commercial series is to air at least 100 episodes, because that’s when it can be sold into syndication and aired as reruns on other stations or networks. That’s where the real money is. But the BBC is publicly financed, so not every show has to earn its investment back with a multiseason run.

That means that in the U.S., the schedule is often clogged with shows that aren’t as good as they once were, to the point where the phrase jump the shark has itself jumped the shark. It’s a familiar pattern: a show debuts and finds an audience (either quickly or less so), it runs a few successful years, and then, usually around the sixth season, the writers run out of ideas (or the original creators bail entirely), and it’s just marking time until the inevitable announcement that this season or the next will be the show’s last. So we tune back in to see how it all ends, and then we’re left with the fond memories of its better days. But it seems like we could have saved a few years there in the middle.

The few American shows that do follow the British model, usually on cable, are often the most highly acclaimed. HBO’s The Sopranos ran only six seasons, most of them clocking in at a baker’s dozen episodes each. Since then, it’s become common for some channels to commission series with shorter seasons that stop when their stories are over. Battlestar Galactica, a network-defining hit for Syfy, ran four seasons rather than stringing its audience along indefinitely, and AMC’s Breaking Bad, with its well-known five-season timeline, is considered by many to be the best show currently on TV. It has that in common with its predecessor in that spot, The Wire (HBO), which also aired just five short seasons.

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TV storytelling has changed a lot over the years, from a time when stand-alone episodes of long-running series could be viewed in any order some station programmer cared to air them in, to the present era when serialization is the norm, supported by DVRs, Netflix, Hulu and the aforementioned DVD collections. A TV episode these days is more like a chapter in a novel, and novels have beginnings, middles and ends. If more shows followed suit, individual TV series might become less profitable, but higher in quality overall — which would likely make TV as a whole more profitable in the long run. Let’s find out “how I met your mother,” for example, while anyone still cares, so we can look forward to the next sitcom that makes us laugh with fresh jokes, characters and situations. We can’t miss the old classics if they never go away.