5 Signs a TV Show Needs to Pack It In

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Orphan Black has announced that its fifth season will be its last. On one hand that makes me sad because, until Stranger Things came along and ate my freakin’ soul, Orphan Black was my favorite show not starring an angry time-traveling Scottish alien. On the other hand…good.

Television has a pretty bad problem of ending long after it’s over, and all of us have that one show that just kept going on way past the point where anyone had any idea what they were even doing anymore. Here are some bad signs.

Warning: Some Spoilers

5. A Musical Episode
Don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling” a whole lot, and can sing the entire score by heart. However, even though it was done probably better than any other show has done a musical episode, there’s no denying it was a bright spot that sort of makes you forget how bad the post-resurrection episodes usually are. The same can be said for How I met Your Mother. The season after “Girls vs. Suits” was still pretty good, but quality and critical acclaim deteriorated rapidly once Season 7 got going. I’m going to give Scrubs a pass on this one, though. They had so much else going on around that time with the writers’ strike and a network change that their musical episode was actually kind of impressive.

4. The POV Character Leaves
There are very few truly ensemble casts in television. At best you get something like Friends, where the characters' collective relationship to each other is sort of a character in and of itself, but in the end there has to be someone that we as the audience can ground ourselves in. So when Topher Grace leaves That ’70s Show to be replaced by Josh Meyers, or when The L Word killed off Erin Daniels, or when Zach Braff isn’t on Scrubs anymore, it’s not just a cast change. Whether those sorts of characters are the best part of the show is irrelevant to the fact that they are the base of the soup. Unless you’re talking about something like Doctor Who, where such cast changes are built into the fabric of the show, it’s usually time to move on. 

3. Death Becomes Meaningless
Speaking of shows that reset themselves, American Horror Story has a death problem that started hardcore in Coven. Death needs to be a big deal. I know killing popular characters is a way to get attention, but it’s a terrible way to tell stories when you bring them right back to life. Coven is the worst example I can think of, but Jon Snow’s cheap murder and rebirth on Game of Thrones is also right up there. Buffy was also terrible at this, sacrificing Buffy at the end of one season, rebirthing her at the beginning of the next, a trick so good they repeated it with Spike on the series finale and his rebirth on the next season of Angel

2. Things Get WAY Too Complicated or Apocalyptic
One of the reasons I am glad Orphan Black is wrapping up is that it’s gotten to the point I couldn’t explain the plot to you over the past four seasons if my own life were the prize. There are just too many threads that were sort of trotted out and left to rot. Or look at a show like Desperate Housewives. When they took what was essentially Twin Peaks with more WASPiness and fewer dancing dwarfs and started throwing tornadoes at it, that was when you knew things had gone awry on some writer's desk. The Royals (way better than it has any right to be) and unReal are starting to fall into this category as well. I’ll believe a lot in the name of entertainment, but believing a reality show could cause a police shooting and not get canceled is a bit much to swallow. 

1. The Unnecessary Heel Turn
Some good characters have been secretly evil the whole time, the difference being able to tell when the people writing the show actually knew that the whole time. Scandal was terrible about having good and evil switch back and forth almost without rhyme or reason, and allies-become-enemies-become-allies may be a side effect of the moral nuance of Orphan Black, but sometimes it feels less believable than in ’80s wrestling. Not to pick on Buffy forever, but the whole Dark Willow trying to destroy the world thing was weak, and Joss Whedon’s assertion that the big bad of Season 6 was “life” was even weaker. There’s nothing wrong with a fall from grace arc or a redemption arc, but you shouldn’t do them just to do them, especially with characters ill-suited for the arc. Or if they’ve already gone through it. Jamie Lannister, I’m looking at you.

Every one of these indicators is not in and of itself a sign of creative demise or eventual cancellation, but they do tend to illustrate that a show has lost its way a little. Sometimes they correct, and sometimes not, but keep an eye out.

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