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‘Boardwalk Empire’ achieved a great ending – but most TV shows don’t

🕐 7 min read

Caitlin Moore (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Some television shows end well, with a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion worthy of the critical acclaim and rabid fans it has kept to the end.

And then there are all the others.

“Boardwalk Empire” offered a “pitch-perfect” series finale on Sunday, joining the ranks of other acclaimed shows that managed not to wear out their welcome (“Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” “30 Rock,” etc.). But they are among the rarities.

Forgive us, oh TV gods, as we list some of the shows that went on too long — and a few that still need to be put out of their misery. (Spoilers abound.)

– “The Office” (2005-2013)

A great workplace comedy for many years, “The Office” was also one of the first “mockumentaries” that really took off on network TV. After a middling first season, the cast caught a groove and went on to perfect the art of the awkward laugh. Viewers cringed and guffawed in equal measure. But right around the end of Season 7, the wheels came a little loose. When you replace a lead actor on any show, it’s a distinct gamble. But when you replace Steve Carell, the heart and well-intentioned soul of the whole thing? You’re betting the house. There were a few great episodes and arcs in the last two seasons — some serious rifts between Jim and Pam, the big reveal of the folks behind the camera — but it all felt a little too late, especially amid the confusing mass of office newbies. (Remember Clark? Exactly.)

When it should have ended: After Michael’s sad farewell. Wrap up a few loose ends and boom, roasted.

– “How I Met Your Mother” (2005-2014)

With any incestuous friend group, you run the risk of wearing out relationships — and plot devices — rather quickly. As the show progressed, main character Ted (the “I” of the title) became less of a hopeless romantic and more of a lovelorn snob. The relationships became more exhausting than exciting. Ted and Robin at first? Yay! Barney and Robin at first? Yay? Barney and Robin again? OK … Ted and Robin again? It seemed liked the writers stopped trying to create new situations and just played a game of Sitcom Musical Chairs — while, in fine CBS style, the network indulged them too long because the ratings were too good.

When it should have ended: Any time before Season 9. We can count the number of people who were satisfied with the conclusion on one hand. With no fingers.

– “Scrubs” (2001-2010)

This hospital sitcom survived not only a brisk rotation through new timeslots but a shift over to an entirely new network. The seamless melding of J.D.’s daydreams with his actual work life gave the show a sense of magical realism that was unique among primetime series. But these fantastical elements soon became more crutch than flourish. (Who cares about emotions? Let’s do an episode entirely in a fairytale world!) However, the move from NBC to ABC for Season 8 seemed a rare chance to give the show the heartfelt finale it deserved, in a season with more character focus. But ABC couldn’t leave well enough alone, and Season 9 happened — but it was really “Season 9,” a sorta-kinda-spinoff-but-technically-the-same-show that should have never existed. Even creator Bill Lawrence didn’t like it.

When it should have ended: With the finale of Season 8. While some may argue Seasons 6 and 7 were rough (J.D. managing to impregnate Kim without having sex; way too many dream sequences), J.D.’s final walk through the hospital is a perfect ending.

– “Lost” (2004-2010)

Don’t get us wrong, “Lost” was great. One of the best. But a show that centered around characters in a plane crash peppered with mythology slowly became a show about mythology peppered with character development. On low points in its roller coaster ride, more questions were raised than answered, providing a frustrating (if intermittently enthralling) experience for the viewer. When producers announced during the third season that they already knew when they wanted the series to end, they appeared to acknowledge the bumpiness of the show’s ride. A scheduled finale “gives everyone a feeling of certainty that the story is driving to a conclusion. It’s time for us now to find an end point for the show,” executive producer Carlton Cuse said. Whether coincidentally or not, the following Season 4 was quite strong, but not necessarily long-lasting.

When it should have ended: For “Lost,” it’s less when it should have ended, but how. Yes, just come out and say it: They were all in purgatory. The end.

– “Friends” (1994-2004)

A giant hit in its day, it’s become part of our cultural DNA in syndication, the characters remaining archetypes for our time (“He’s a controlling nebbish: Such a Ross”). But it got mired in melodramatic relationships and simplistic solutions. In the fifth year of the show alone, after Ross mistakenly says Rachel’s name at the altar, his new wife Emily gives him an ultimatum, Phoebe gives birth to her brother’s triplets, and Ross and Rachel get drunkenly married, beating a newly coupled Chandler and Monica to the punch. While the show was still well-written enough to have memorable jokes and iconic characters throughout its 10 seasons, it floundered for played-out plots in the second half of its run.

When it should have ended: Before they ever tested the whole Joey-Rachel thing in Season 8. It put Ross in a weird place, strained the dynamics of the group, and seemed to be more of a try-hard ratings ploy than a natural development — especially considering Rachel was pregnant with Ross’ baby at the time. Obviously.

– “True Blood” (2008-2014)

A steamy show set in the sexy South where humans and vampires live in — discordant — harmony. What’s not to love? Well, towards the end, a lot. The signs started to come about halfway through the bloody HBO series. As Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever noted in his review of the beginning of Season 4, “the cast keeps expanding into an overpopulated mishmash of disparate story threads that no longer weave together as a whole … Characters I care less about (waitresses, extraneous vampires, panther hillbillies on meth) are getting as much or more time as characters I initially adored.” When showrunner Alan Ball stepped down after five seasons at the front, the show seemed to lose its last bit of cohesion, providing a simply messy and overly campy final two seasons.

When it should have ended: With the end of Season 5, while it was still on top. We could’ve avoided that odd series finale.

(Optional add end)

As for shows still on the air. . .

– “Grey’s Anatomy”

Why it should end: Listen, we all love Shonda Rhimes and her melodramatic shows. But there is such a thing as too outlandish, and “Grey’s” has crossed the line a time too many. We were out as soon as Izzie performed surgery on a deer in the Seattle Grace parking lot just to prove a point.

– “Bones”

Why it should end: Bones and Booth are together, Sweets is dead, and there are only so many times you can reasonably be targeted by a serial killer before you just quit your job and live in a bunker.

– “Two and a Half Men”

Why it should end: This is supposedly the last (and 12th) season, so that’s a relief. Is anyone really demanding an Ashton Kutcher-Jon Cryer television show? Charlie Sheen and Angus T. Jones have moved on. So should the rest of us.

– “The Big Bang Theory”

Why it should end: There’s no plot, just the endless reinforcement of awkward nerd/ hot girl stereotypes played for cheap laughs. The humor is so dated: It cleaves to the idea that superhero fandom is the realm of hardcore geekery, instead of the biggest thing in pop culture today. (And it’s terrible.)

– “Cougartown”

Why it should end: The switch to TBS did not do the show any favors, and it lost its flow. In the words of our sage TV critic Hank Stuever, it looks like the actors are “blinking out ‘please come rescue me’ with their eyelids.”

– “Glee”

Why it should (and is) end(ing): There’s music that enhances a storyline, and then there’s just music for the sake of album sales. And pregnancies for the sake of pregnancies. And cameos for the sake of cameos. It pretty much went downhill as soon as they left high school. (“Saved by the Bell: The College Years,” anyone?)

(A caveat: We didn’t include shows under five seasons. Go big or go home.)

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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