TV dramas: The appeal of a graceful exit

Shows like 'Homeland' are best served when producers know when to end them

This may come as a surprise, but the smart people responsible for Showtime’s Emmy-winning “Homeland” could take a lesson from the gang behind “Jersey Shore.”

MTV’s signature series will come to an end later this month, a mere three years (seriously, where did the time go?) after its introduction. Explaining the decision, MTV exec VP Chris Linn told the New York Times, “Rather than drive it into the ground or milk it to the very, very end, we wanted to give it a dignified sendoff.”

Admittedly, “dignified” was never part of the program; indeed, using the word in connection with “Jersey Shore” is funny enough to qualify for the 10:30 slot on Comedy Central.

Still, there is something to be said for the philosophy “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” as articulated by the Replicant creator in “Blade Runner” right before Rutger Hauer squishes his head.

Simply put, scripted TV is still rooted in a model predicated on replicating success as long as possible. As a consequence, networks aren’t very nimble about recognizing when a show paints itself into a corner and, however prestigious or popular, should start working on a graceful exit plan.

Enter “Homeland,” a series whose white-knuckled thriller aspects worked terrifically well the first season but have foundered in the second. With only the season finale to come and key missteps behind it — perhaps foremost a tedious subplot involving the teenage daughter — it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the program could run much longer and remain plausible without completely hitting the “reset” button.

Now, there’s no shame in this. Not every series is built to sustain itself for five years (once the “We’ve made it!” benchmark for syndication), much less seven or eight — especially today’s wildly intricate serialized dramas.

Why arbitrarily lock even hits into such a template if that ultimately taints the overall experience? It’s a lesson AMC learned the hard way on “The Killing.”

Yet as Fox Entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly noted at a recent forum, the industry doesn’t adapt as fast as it should. Yes, there have been welcome and progressive steps in this area, starting with “Lost,” whose producers realized the tenuous nature of the show’s high-wire act and devised an end date, albeit three seasons away. Other programs, like “Breaking Bad,” have followed suit.

Reilly, however, also discussed varying the length of episodic orders and escaping the 22-episode-a-year imperative. And what almost nobody has figured out is when to say, “You know, a couple more episodes just to wrap things up would get us out in good shape, without potentially flying off the rails.”

Perhaps inevitably, pay cable has led the way in this regard, including the four episodes Showtime will use to conclude “The Big C,” a series about cancer that never quite clicked but which — given the life-and-death premise — cried out for closure. HBO sought to do the same with a truncated season (which then became a couple of movies) to finish “Deadwood,” but creator David Milch was so insulted about the you’re-not-wanted-here implications that those plans never came to fruition.

Granted, TV programs are major enterprises, and it’s not always simple to abruptly hit the off switch. Still, in today’s Netflix-using, have-it-your-way world, negotiating such arrangements should not only be doable but — with the ability to promote mini arcs as “See how it all ends” — marketable as well.

Despite how much the TV world has changed, it still flies in the face of conventional logic to discard assets like “Homeland” after two or three seasons and change. But that may be preferable to letting such programs wind up looking as haggard as Snooki and her buddies probably would in “Jersey Shore, Season XXIV.”

In the movie “Amadeus,” the tin-eared emperor memorably tells Mozart that one of his compositions has “too many notes.” Incredulous, the musical genius replies, “There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.”

And therein lies the challenge. Showtime once used the slogan “No limits.” But knowing where and when to set boundaries acknowledging this reality — tailored to a program’s unique creative needs — might become TV’s new standard for boldness.

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