There is a quote from The Patriot that has been rolling around in my head for a while now, Mel Gibson’s character says at the start of the movie, “I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me, and the cost is more than I can bear.” You may wonder, “Why is he thinking about this?” I have been thinking about it in terms of television shows and so the quote, in my mind is altered slightly; ” I have long feared that the number of seasons would return to haunt me and the cost is than I can bear.”
Television shows start out with an idea, characters and a vision for how they should evolve as the show progresses. If you are a good creative, you may have an outline that stretches quite far into your character’s future and hopefully you have some ideas where they land in the end. On American television there is an inherent difficulty involved because our television seasons tend to last 23 to 24 episodes. As writers, you are required to fill these episodes, so you create drama through problems between the characters and from outside them to drive story lines, while hopefully creating something people want to actually watch. It’s never easy.
As a show grows and becomes successful, it becomes a balancing act to keep it all together. How does the story keep going strong and at the same time remain true to the premise and arc for each character and not just devolve into another stat for the rule of diminishing returns? This is the struggle. For every show that has been a hit for 7-10 seasons there are a plethora of others that have just fizzed out, the fire died and therefore they did as well. There are some prime examples of shows that stayed beyond their time, ER and The X-Files are two of the most prominent. Each one wore out it’s welcome and failed to end satisfactorily for it’s fans; so much so that The X-Files is about to be brought back after 13 years for a short stint. They both failed to economically tell their stories so that characters arcs and show mythologies had a clear beginning and ending.
This happens a lot, creatives have a successful show, that should only have 4-5 seasons, yet because of it’s popularity they stretch it out. Like Bilbo with the ring in Lord of the Rings, the story lines become like too little butter on too much toast. On top of that, outside influences begin to affect the story being told. Instead of doing things for creative reasons, the real world intrudes on the make-believe and dictates terms. Actors want to move on to other things, actors die, creatives get famous and create other shows and the original show begins to suffer. It’s no longer driven by the story of the characters and where they need to go it’s driven by the quota of the season and who’s still left in the cast to tell it. It is the hubris of continuing to extend television shows past their true story potential,
For a show to be popular and to last in the in maelstrom of Hollywood, it must connect with people. The characters and story must reach them on a fundamental level. If they don’t, people will just not watch. If a show does make it and succeed, it takes the commitment of the fans to keep it on the air. As we watch we get invested in the characters and what happens to them. It might not be real, but it does have an impact. After watching a show for ten or more years, it’s a part of you, there is an investment there, you care what happens. Television is also the place we go to escape. When it comes down to it, we want the happy ending because we know that real life isn’t like that. The problem becomes that when you continue to make show for so many seasons you begin to loose the ability to end on the right terms. Characters die that shouldn’t and story lines don’t conclude to anyone’s satisfaction because the resources to do so aren’t around anymore.
This is what has happened to Grey’s Anatomy. It has lost the ability to give us the happy ending and the resolution we all want because it’s outlived it’s actors. Seriously, this show starts with two people, Meredith and Derek. From the first seconds of the show we can tell that no matter what other stories they tell, this is the important one, it’s the beating heart of the show. With all that they went through, there was one constant, we knew they would be together. Callie Torres said it best in a recent episode, “…Look, you and Derek are living proof that love exists, that it works, that there is hope. You guys are a freaking romance novel. And I, for one, am rooting for you two. Team MerDer!”.
Because Grey’s is in it’s 11th season there has always been a looming danger that each successive season would ruin the previous more that help the whole. This is possibly the biggest danger of having a show endure past it’s optimum end, that it will taint the previously loved story lines. I believe this is what has happened to Grey’s. Now the entire show will forever be altered because of the knowledge that there is no happy ending for the first two people we see on screen. In fact, Meredith’s story is a tragedy of epic Greek proportions. The amount of death that surrounds her is astounding. Someone on Facebook posted, “Grey’s Anatomy, this is not what I signed up for”, and I can’t help but agree. I don’t need this show to remind me that life is not fair or that bad things happen. What I did want was there to be a good payoff to my years of investment in the characters.
What gives it that bitterness is that there have been great exists on this show, none more celebrated than Sandra Oh. She had a whole season to celebrate her character and it was deserved. She had been such a major part of the story from the beginning. What is most frustrating in this loss of Derek Shepherd is that there was no celebration of this character. He spend most of the season away from the show, fighting with Meredith, had a heart-warming realization of what was important in life and came home finally, only to be killed unceremoniously. In fact his death and the way it happened is so similar to George O’Malley that his loss stings all the more. Seriously, this is the second character we see on screen in the pilot (well his butt is) and this is the best we can do sending him off?
In the end, it is just a show and life will go on. It’s unfortunate that a show I’ve enjoyed for ten years has irrevocably been changed for the worse, all because it forged ahead when it should have found resolution a long time ago. Ferry boats crash and so do our McDreams of a happy ending.
I’m on The Seriously Grey’s Podcast discussing the episode as well.