Though there are some shows that get cancelled after a single season (like Firefly), and some shows that run for over a decade (like Law & Order), I’ve noticed a pattern that the majority of one-hour dramas seem to follow that ultimately leads to their downfall in about five seasons. It goes something like this:
The show’s premise is fresh, with the possibility of thousands of different scenarios stemming from it to create drama, like patients coming into a hospital or crimes being investigated. But the actors and writers are still finding their way with the new characters. No one’s quite sure how the relationships are going to shake out, so it’s not perfect yet.
Example: In the first season of Bones, the premise of forensic anthropologist + FBI agent as a crime fighting team yields plenty of interesting cases involving everything from suicide bombers to pirate treasure. However, Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and Booth (David Boreanaz) are still a little wary of each other and haven’t settled into their full partner dynamic yet.
I feel that we should have some sort of ritual. Perhaps involving diners and pie?
The show has hit its stride. The characters are all fully rounded now and have intricate interpersonal relationships. Their jobs/lives provide a seemingly limitless source of external conflict, and it seems like with the premise they picked, the writers can keep coming up with great new ideas for stories until the end of time.
Example: During Season 2 of Alias, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) helps to bring down the villainous spy cell she unwittingly worked for, freeing her up to do a myriad of different official missions for the CIA and to give in to sexual tension and actually have a relationship with her former handler Michael Vaughan (Michael Vartan).
This is so perfect! I’ve been wanting to kick ass and suck face since the first episode!
The show is still operating at peak efficiency and there still seems to be plenty of drama to be had from the premise. In fact, the show is so popular that the network execs are preparing to give some supporting characters their own spinoffs. Sometimes these spinoffs are introduced during episodes in this season. In preparation for filling the gaps next season, the writers introduce some fresh new secondary characters.
Example: During the third season of Grey’s Anatomy, the character of Addison (Kate Walsh) leaves Seattle Grace Hospital to take a trip to Los Angeles, where she meets up with an old friend and is invited to join her practice, thus setting the scene for the Addison-centric show Private Practice, which will start next season. Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) moves into the hospital to fill her spot.
NAOMI: You should so totally move here.
ADDISON: You are so totally right!
The departure of the spinoff characters alters the dynamic of the show. In addition, the writers are running out of credible interpersonal problems to give the remaining cast. Writers force secondary and guest characters to step up and shoulder more responsibility, often forgetting that those characters were secondary because they weren’t very interesting. The writers put some of the original characters in mortal peril (or if the show is an action based show, in really serious mortal peril) as a way of forcing fans to stick around and find out what happens.
Example: In the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the characters have graduated from high school. David Boreanaz, who plays Buffy’s vampire boyfriend Angel, departs for his own show, Angel. His place is rather inadequately filled by a college TA named Riley (Marc Blucas).
RILEY: I’m your new TA. Bone me?
BUFFY: My vampire boyfriend cut out on me, so why not?
Things are starting to fall apart. Some of the other actors are leaving to pursue other projects, forcing the original secondary cast to become the primary cast. Any remaining original characters have long since exhausted all avenues of interpersonal conflict with one another and now interact almost entirely with guest or supporting characters. Additionally, the writers are running out of story ideas that have to do with the original premise, and they turn more and more to extra-premise storylines and mortal peril to keep things going. For many shows, this is the last season.
Example: By the fifth season of McLeod’s Daughters, main characters Claire and Becky are gone, as are a lot of popular secondary characters. The writers bring in previously unmentioned friends and cousins to round out the cast. Episodes, which were previously based on the trials and tribulations of running a cattle station, start to be more about other things, like drag racing, organized crime, and mining rights.
You got run over by a car? But I only just rescued you from being kidnapped yesterday!
If the show has a strong, loyal fan base that is miraculously not driven away when the show’s premise stops being relevant to what’s happening on screen, the show may malinger for several more seasons. After this point, the cast has often been almost totally replaced. Secondary characters are repeatedly introduced and discarded when they don’t fit in, and the external conflict becomes increasingly ridiculous. Eventually the show slips quietly under the waves to die.
Example: By the seventh season of One Tree Hill, the writers are really reaching. They lost their “high school” premise at the end of Season 4 when the characters graduated, and they lost main characters Lucas and Peyton at the end of Season 6. Episodes in this season revolve around pregnancy scandals and moviemaking. Lucas’ brother Nathan is now the main character and his wife’s new sister Quinn and former secondary characters Clay, Mouth, and Millie moving up to the main cast.
JAMIE: So daddy went dancing with another lady, and now I’m going to have a half brother?
HALEY: Something like that.
I was thinking of this because Private Practice seems to be devolving at an alarming rate. Last season was only Season 3, but already they had a bunch of car crashes, were lost in the wilderness, were attacked by psychos, and killed off. Now in the beginning of Season 4 they’re entering into random chemistryless marriages. It smells like impending show death, so I’ve jumped ship.