Of the TV shows that manage to reach pure greatness, however temporary, very few retain that level of quality throughout their entire runs. It’s hard to pull the plug when a series is in its ratings prime, and networks are much more likely to go well beyond the point of common sense if the audience isn’t completely absent.
Here are 13 shows that should have come to a close well before they actually did; at least for those that have ended already, as some are still airing. Such wise decisions would have stopped some series from reaching notoriously low depths, while allowing others to be solely remembered for their stellar early seasons. Alas, those decisions weren’t made, and the episodes just kept on comin’. Now find your dark passenger and read on.
When Dexter premiered on Showtime in 2006, it boasted clever writing, a tension-filled string of situations, and the first major post-Six Feet Under role for the consistently engaging Michael C. Hall. Then as the years went by, the situations became less intense and the antagonists got goofier and goofier, while every single character dynamic got stretched out longer than it should have. Particularly the one between Dexter and Debra, which took some weird left turns. But you know what? All might have been forgotten had the serial killer drama stuck the landing, but the series finale stumbled more than almost any other episode.
It almost feels like a daydream to think back to a time when Family Guy was one of the freshest comedies on TV. That was back in the ripe old year of 1999, when Seth MacFarlane first entered the ring to become Matt Groening’s most successful Sunday night co-headliner. Of course, that success wasn’t immediately recognized or appreciated, and Fox put a halt to Family Guy in 2002. But rather than a constant entry on “Canceled Too Soon” lists, Family Guy returned to Fox in 2005 and has been there ever since, turning cutaway gags into its own language and beating a dead horse with that same language. Even though the ratings have drooped in recent years, there’s still no end in sight.
The Real World
I might be wrong, but I think there are more seasons of The Real World than there are cities in the world. Premiering back in 1992 when reality TV wasn’t a term that people used with derision yet, The Real World became a major hit for MTV, offering an intriguing look into what it’s like when young and brash people are allowed to co-exist on camera. And it definitely worked. For quite a few years. Even for some years into the crossover with Road Rules. But definitely not for 30 seasons. (Soon to be 31 seasons.) The episodes somehow even managed to double in size after Season 20. I don’t get this.
For a good patch of the 1990s, ER was the perfect counter-balance to NBC’s Must See TV comedy block. It boasted the likes of George Clooney in his pre-superstar years and Juliana Margulies before she became The Good Wife, plus a bunch of other extremely talented actors who brought life to the complex characters and soundly dramatic situations created by novelist Michael Crichton. But then the steam ran out once most of the original cast exited the show, and even though the performances remained largely enjoyable, the stories and writing just got cyclical and tired well before the Season 15 finale aired.
Two and a Half Men
For most of eight seasons, the Emmy-nominated Charlie Sheen played the vice-driven playboy Charlie Harper on CBS’ hit sitcom Two and a Half Men, and then in 2011, Sheen stepped off the deep end and had an epic meltdown both on set and in other places as the months went on. You remember the tiger blood. A year later, Angus T. Young decided that the show was filth and went completely against his religious beliefs, so he quit. Were those two calamitous events enough to get CBS to yank the show? Nope, they just added the less exciting Ashton Kutcher and trudged forward for another four disappointing seasons.
Grey’s Anatomy is a prime example of a show that retained a good portion of its popularity despite turning into a skeleton of its former self. So many cast members from Grey’s Anatomy’s first few seasons are long gone, and those that remained have experienced a conveyor belt of melodramatic and unrealistic situations. Just last year, the show finally bid farewell to Derek using such a ludicrous scenario after behind-the-scenes talks started overshadowing what was happening on the screen. Grey’s is still capable of bringing out shocks and surprises, but ones that probably could have happened long ago had the show been a tight seven seasons rather than sprawling for twelve and possibly more.
Although the consistency of the ensemble cast cannot be faulted here, Weeds is one of the first shows that always comes to mind when considering those that lasted too long. When the Showtime dramedy began, it successfully dissected the underbelly of suburbia through the prism of marijuana growth and sales. But then the plot overtook the theme, and later seasons saw many of the characters moving to completely different locations, where Nancy got with drug lords and almost got killed a lot and everyone’s relationships turned extremely over-the-top and cartoonish. It’s basically an outline for how not to let a popular series develop. Although I would have easily taken a spinoff with Kevin Nealon’s Doug.
You thought this list wouldn’t take shots at one of the most famous TV dogs ever? Sorry, but Lassie is getting put down. What is the first thing you think of when Lassie gets mentioned? Exactly, someone being in a well and the dog alerting everyone to that fact, and that’s basically it. Well guess what? Lassie lasted for 19 seasons and racked up an astonishing 591 episodes. Dogs barely ever even live that long – the part of Lassie was played by a handful of canine descendants – and the show took the titular pup from the farm to the Forest Rangers to a children’s home. I can only hypothesize that the dog actors were using telepathy to keep the show on the air that long.
CBS’ ratings monster CSI was on the air long enough to see pretty sizeable advances happening in forensic science, and was a big reason why that branch of investigation became a major aspect of fictional dramas in the years since. But it would have been okay for the show to be influential AND on the air for less than 15 years. I know ratings were definitely the impetus for CBS to keep renewing it, but this was another case where several of the show’s original leads had left and the magic just wasn’t the same anymore. (Spinoffs can also be to blame for that.) Thankfully, the network saw the light last year and allowed for a proper and enjoyable series finale.
Though Martin isn’t oft-cited when popular shows are discussed, it was a surefire hit for Fox throughout its five-season run. But shit got weird during that final season, as Tisha Campbell dropped a lawsuit against co-lead Martin Lawrence and the sitcom’s producers that claimed she was sexually harassed, as well as verbally and physically abused. This kept her out of the majority of the Season 5 episodes, where her absence was blithely explained away, and though she did return for the series finale, she refused to interact with or film any scenes with Lawrence. That created a highly awkward ending for a season that should have been shitcanned as soon as the troubles split up its central couple.
When American Idol began, it was insanely popular both for introducing American audiences to Simon Cowell’s catty judgments and for pioneering the modern version of the televised talent show. Cut to 15 seasons later, and the judges’ table is about as milquetoast as it can be, while the winners no longer command universal recognition. Fox grasped that the ratings were only a fraction of what they were in the show’s heyday and officially called for the currently airing Season 15 to be its last. And then host Ryan Seacrest started jabbering about a possible relaunch already being considered. I can’t be the only one with some Simon Cowell-ish words to say about that.
Even with its stumbling first season, The Office has to be championed for spinning a successful adaptation out of one of the best British comedies to ever exist, and Steve Carell was a fine quasi-substitution for Ricky Gervais. But like so many other shows, many of which are on this list, the comedy lost its lead actor in later seasons when Carell left. And rather than wrapping up the (admittedly not that interesting) handful of plotlines that didn’t involve Jim and Pam, the creative team decided to bring in a revolving door of new bosses, and almost all forward momentum ceased. Thankfully, the finale was really something special, despite being years too late.
As a Simpsons fanatic, I kind of want to make myself walk into a field of rakes for putting it on here. But as much as I love the show, I cannot with good conscience defend some of the truly laugh-free episodes that have aired in the past decade and then some. Granted, it’s almost impossible to do something amazingly well for 27 years, and there are still hundreds of solid episodes to make up for the rotten ones. But at this point, the show is more of an entertainment convenience than a necessity, and though the end could likely come in the next few years, there’s seriously no telling how long it will last. So yeah, I retract this entry and declare my hope that The Simpsons will air on Fox forever!
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Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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