In praise of shows that didn’t overstay welcome

'Seinfeld,' 'Mary Tyler Moore' left on time, 'Boy Meets World,' 'Moonlighting' did not

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” ran for over seven years and left at the top of its game. “Moonlighting” ran less than four, but it stopped being exciting long before it ended. It’s not really how many years a show has lasted that determines whether it’s ready to end its run, it’s something less tangible.

“For us, the characters had become such icons that there was nothing left to explore,” says Jason Alexander, who with his “Seinfeld” cast mates knows something about letting a show come to an end while it’s still ahead. “We could have continued to be funny, because we had great writers, but the characters were just going to have the same reactions to stranger and goofier situations. There wasn’t going to be new turf, and to us that meant our mission was done.”

Missions ended for a slew of shows this year, most of which stayed a while past their prime. “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Party of Five” both had high-rated finales, but in many ways that only demonstrated that their audiences had stopped watching and returned only to say a fond, but not regrettable, farewell. Like the characters, the audience had grown up and moved on.

“Boy Meets World,” once a mainstay of ABC’s TGIF lineup, stopped being true to its concept a couple of years ago as it dealt with marriage and college rather than adolescence. Ratingwise, it ended with a whimper.

The bigger, and perhaps more surprising story this TV season, is that some aging shows have exhibited surprising strength.

“Any show that gets into its fourth, fifth, sixth year is going to have some struggles,” according to producer Stephen Bochco. “There are going to be little ravines that you go through.”

At the beginning of the TV season, it looked like Bochco’s own “NYPD Blue” was in deep trouble. ABC kept it off the air to give “Once and Again,” a Disney-owned show, a chance to build an audience in the slot. But as soon as rumors floated that “Blue” might be moved to another night, Bochco called out the troops.

“That dust-up with ABC generated an enormous amount of focused loyalty from our fans,” he says. When “Blue” finally reappeared, and aired its entire season almost without interruption, viewership spiked significantly from the previous year, an unusual occurrence for a show in its seventh season.

“I also think our show creatively was wonderful this year,” says Bochco. “In its seventh year, our show has matured — and that’s not a euphemism for getting old. It’s a show that has a real memory.

“We tell stories in a seventh year that you couldn’t tell in the first year because it requires too much pre-existing knowledge. I’ve been involved in shows where I felt they were out of gas after five or six years, but I do not feel that way at all about ‘NYPD Blue.'”

The show also benefited from the successful addition of cast member Henry Simmons as Baldwin Jones. Whether or not a show can weather, and perhaps grow, from cast changes, is essential to its survival.

“Law & Order,” a show that’s story-focused rather than character-driven, is showing little signs of wear after 10 seasons and multiple exits and entrances from stars.

NBC signed it through 2004, and the show’s finale this year was its most watched yet.

“Chicago Hope” managed to eke out another struggling season, after bringing back Mandy Patinkin and replacing most of the cast. And producer David E. Kelley even brought in actor James Garner, but the ratings never lifted.

The jury is still out on how “ER” will fare as its original cast gradually leaves the show. Its ratings dropped this year, and it was knocked from the No. 1 spot by “Millionaire,” but it remains a force to reckon with, especially when NBC showcases its “event” episodes.

When star Julianna Margulies announced she was planning to leave, though, Warner Bros. offered her $27 million to stay for another two years. She declined.

“She was part of a very profound ensemble when it began,” says Alexander, who knows Margulies “only a scintilla” but sympathizes with what couldn’t have been an easy decision. “When a show takes off, there is a certain chemistry or a magic to its core, and when the core starts to break up, it’s very possible that the spirit of it, no matter how successful the show remains, starts to dissipate.”

It’s ultimately all about chemistry, which in TV, Bochco readily admits, “is an inexact science.”

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