I understand the business and political imperatives that militated keeping “The Daily Show” alive. The series was a critical element of Comedy Central’s brand and a beacon for progressives during a Republican presidential administration. But I can’t help but wonder if Noah might have been better off developing a new show under his own imprimatur, rather than trying to fill the precise emotional void Stewart left behind, much as it was better for Stephen Colbert to go off and create something odd and amazing and entirely his own as he did with “The Colbert Report.” And though it’s true Stewart inherited “The Daily Show” from Craig Kilborn, he consolidated the series’ identity; his departure might have been a natural end point.
And it’s not merely late-night satirical news shows that are running too long. Everywhere, it seems, it’s become a truism that every television show ought to run as long as possible, and wrapping a series up in a conclusive way is absolutely vital, even if a show is stretched beyond its creative or narrative breaking point before that conclusion arrives.
“Community,” Dan Harmon’s experimental, self-aware sitcom about students at a community college, moved to Yahoo in 2015 after it was canceled by NBC, bolstered by its audiences’ cries of “six seasons and a movie,” a riff on a joke the show made about what constitutes success in the television business. When ABC announced that it was canceling “Nashville,” its addictive, uneven soap about the country music, CMT was quick to swoop in to pick up the series, albeit minus a few cast members. And “Supergirl,” the latest in showrunner Greg Berlanti’s stable of superhero series, will be moving from CBS to the CW, where Berlanti’s “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “Legends of Tomorrow” already air.
To a certain extent, I understand all of these choices. “Community” fans had become a community unto themselves, lobbying to keep the show alive; it would be hard to admit that it might be more exciting to see Harmon do something new than to see the series continue on into creaky obscurity. “Nashville” ended its run on ABC with a massive cliffhanger; I don’t blame anyone for wanting to know what happened to Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). “Supergirl” is a show that might well work better on a network where viewers have already been trained to crave Berlanti’s winning brand of sunny superheroism. And it’s absolutely true that in a saturated television environment, some good shows need their off-season and support from streaming outlets to find the audiences they were meant to have.
But cliffhangers, cult classics and perfect seasons are also the price we pay for killing some shows off before they get bad, or embarrassing, or become something else entirely.
I adore “Better Off Ted,” Victor Fresco’s deeply odd sitcom about a giant evil corporation, but I would be the first person in line brandishing a stake against the possibility of its resurrection. The twenty-six episodes we have of the series are a delightful marvel, and I would much rather have just those thirteen hours of television than watching the show contort itself to try to get renewed or to see it come back to life with a slightly different writer’s room or cast. It’s perfect as it is.
In the same way, I both love “Game of Thrones” and have reaped the traffic rewards of writing about it for years, but I don’t want to see it unnecessarily extended. George R.R. Martin and the writers who inherited his work are telling a single, coherent story. Seeing that epic narrative get stretched and baggy simple for the sake of more episodes feels like an artistic sin.
The truth is that the television landscape is a pretty friendly place for those of us who love low-rated, cult shows right now. Passion is more valuable than it used to be. But having fought so long to keep our favorite shows alive, we might be better-served by learning when to let go. Better a dignified ending than a descent into bro jokes.
Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Craig Kilborn, not Craig Ferguson, hosted “The Daily Show” prior to Jon Stewart’s tenure.