When the flame flickers out

After early heat, it's natural for a series to cool down

Critics cheered the final season of “The West Wing,” but the show went out with an audience of about half its peak.

That’s hardly surprising though, since there seems to be a window of opportunity for a hit series to bask in the zeitgeist — and once shut, it’s virtually impossible to crack back open.

The highs and lows of hit series can vary greatly, but most skeins exhibit their greatest watercooler potential in the first few seasons.

“The difficulty with any show is not the latter part but the middle part of the series,” says “West Wing” exec producer John Wells. “After you come on, the show is hot, there are lots of press and magazine covers, and then there’s the (next) new show that comes along. It’s that period where you’re no longer the hot thing.”

One show that has experienced such a roller coaster in just two seasons is ABC sudser “Desperate Housewives.”

After a phenomenal first season that saw it climb to the top of the Nielsens and rack up 15 Emmy noms, “Housewives” has lost a chunk of it audience — as well as some of its critical support. And there’s a widely held belief that replicating that magical first season may prove a difficult, if not impossible, task.

“Its popularity hasn’t waned that much, but when it comes to getting that buzz back, I think that boat has sailed,” San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman says. “Once you’ve been overexposed, irregardless of quality, there’s something of a backlash that goes on.”

Emmy nominations are expected for “Desperate Housewives,” which may have to settle for being a good show that was once something special.

Matt Roush of TV Guide says critics sometimes walk a fine line between keeping an open mind regarding a show that’s attempting a comeback but also accurately reflecting its level of quality.

“Are we piling on or reflecting the truth?” Roush asks. “I’m still waiting for ‘ER’ to come back (in quality), but it hasn’t. There is a sense that shows still doing good work can be taken for granted, but there are some that have just slipped.”

CBS heavyweight “CSI,” by all accounts, has not slipped. The crime drama has kept things fresh by telling stories from new perspectives, and it remains TV’s most-watched drama.

But it failed to net an Emmy nom for best drama last year after being up for the award the previous three years.

“The show understands that there’s always something new and hotter,” says “CSI” exec producer Naren Shankar. “There are so many things that are out of your control, so you just make the best show you can.”

He’s been through this before with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when it nabbed its first drama nom in its seventh and final season.

“When you don’t have characters screaming or crying, like on the more classically rewarded shows, it’s tough,” Shankar says. “A lot of shows get overlooked or forgotten.”

The best example of a show that exhibited resiliency — and was never forgotten for long — was NBC’s “Friends.”

It was overshadowed at various times by, among other things, a hotter show on the same sked (“Seinfeld”) and a hotter show on the competition (“Survivor”) — but even in its “off” seasons, it was never far from a comeback.

Series co-creator David Crane says the team behind “Friends” would refer to its comeback as a “‘Friends- aissance.” The 10-year show was nominated as best comedy in its first two seasons of eligibility, then had a three-year dry spell before getting recognized in two of its final three years.

“It was never a reaction the public had, but the press and industry,” says Crane. “We would have a series of backlashes and then revivals. It’s not like we said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to come back,’ but we just came up with storylines the audience liked. Some shows don’t get that opportunity (to come back).”

The outgoing “West Wing” made a creative comeback, in the minds of critics, even though it never lost that Emmy feeling.

“A year ago, having the ‘West Wing’ on the (Emmy) list irked me,” Roush says. “But maybe knowing it was the end helped rekindle the spark, gave it a sense of urgency again. It deserves to finish as a nominee.”

Wells, while appreciative of “West Wing’s” Emmy glory, suggests that the kudos be reserved for younger shows.

“The Emmys serve a useful purpose in helping shows that need attention, but there’s an appropriate period of time shows should be winning, and then it should stop.”

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