Working towards known outcome = TV death knell?

I was listening to the most recent TV Talk Machine podcast episode, where they discuss Better Call Saul. For those who don’t know, Saul is a character from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is a prequel series to Breaking Bad, with the titular character still being a nice guy, something he definitely isn’t in BB.

In general, prequels don’t seem to have the greatest track record. I merely have to mention the words “star” and “wars”. But isn’t this worse for TV? With a movie or even a book or book series, the writer knows how many installments they have and can plan the amount of story accordingly (or the other way around).

But with TV, if you’re successful, you have to keep going for an indeterminate amount of time, usually losing some characters/actors along the way. And even one short season is a long, long time to wait for the other shoe to drop. (One complaint about Better Call Saul, which I haven’t watched, is that it’s slow as molasses.)

And this is not just about prequels: the same issue comes up with shows like How I Met Your Mother. Or shows with an important will they / won’t they component: you can’t keep the boy and girl apart for a decade, but you also can’t really get them together because then the tension is lost.

And conspiracies / mysteries. See X-Files and Lost. When the payoff doesn’t come, viewers feel cheated. If it does come, the viewers often feel cheated anyway, because the payoff can never justify a hundred or more episodes of buildup. And it becomes painfully obvious that the writers were making it up as they went all along. Which they have to, as they have no idea how many hours they have to fill.

Basically, the viewers watch because they’re interested in X, but the writers can never give the viewers X because then they’re out of a job.

I guess there’s an exception for shows that wrap up by the end of the first season, but as stated in another thread, it’s unAmerican to cancel a TV show that still makes money, so that rarely happens.

Anyone have any examples of shows that were working towards a known outcome and didn’t end up disappointing a large fraction of their viewers along the way or at the end?

You do it the way Buffy, the Vampire Slayer did – have a one-season story arc. It was known that Buffy would defeat the Big Bad at the end of the season, but the next year a new on would show up.

I can’t answer the question about “shows that were working towards a known outcome” off the top of my head. I’m sure there are some, and if I think of them, I’ll come back. But I just want to offer that if anybody can pull this off it’s Gilligan. His track record of superior writing and plot development is a plus to keep me watching Saul. I recently watched all of The X-Files just for something to do, and Vince’s credits are all over the better episodes there. Breaking Bad has to be one of the top ten series of at least the past ten years and maybe longer.

So I will be surprised (even shocked) if they (writers and showrunners) can’t pull it off.

If you tell the story well, you can make it work for a l-o-n-g time. Scheherazade managed to pull it off for 1,001 nights.

MASH* lasted 11 years compared to 3 for the actual Korean War.

One word: Friends

I give The Shield credit for avoiding this. In the very first episode, Vic Mackey crossed the moral line and it was clear he could never be redeemed. So for the next seven seasons, the series was about Mackie’s fall as a consequence of what happened in that first episode.

What you do is, you have them break out of different kinds of prisons, both real and metaphorical, each season. Yeah, that’ll work.

The thing is TV shows SHOULD have a death knell. The problem is not the premise coming to a conclusion, the problem is trying to continue milking the product after it should have ended.

Also factor in the unwillingness of audiences to emotionally commit when they’ve been disappointed so many times in the past, either by premature cancellation or, as you’ve stated, disappointing conclusions. If enough people don’t watch a show for those reasons, it kind of becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

I agree. I think it helps now that shows aren’t necessarily going on forever. Breaking Bad had just 62 episodes. That’s not a small number, but it was a pretty big success, and could have kept going for at least a few more seasons if they wanted it to, but it was allowed a natural ending point. I’m guessing it will be the same way with Better Call Saul, that it will be a few seasons, and that they have some sort of plan on where to end it where it can naturally transition to Breaking Bad.

The problem with a lot of network shows is that they weren’t allowed a natural ending point because of their success. If How I Met Your Mother ended after a few seasons, it would be thought of much more highly and the planned ending would have fit much better. But since it was stretched out the quality didn’t stay as high, and with the mother being a real character, and the marriage of Barney and Robin, the planned ending didn’t fit as well anymore.

Prison Break is another good example. If it was a cable show now, it could just be a season or two, and it would have been fantastic. But since it was a success, it kept going on and got sillier as it went.

I think Heroes was originally planned to be an anthology type show like that are getting more popular now. If the first season had ended how it did, and then the new season had started with all new characters fighting a new different threat, it would have been great. But since the show was a big hit, and Sylar and Hiro and a lot of the characters were popular, they had to keep their stories going past what made sense.

I’d say that working to a planned ending is good, but you also need to have a bit of flexibility, and the discipline to end when it makes sense.

This. I like American Horror and Fargo because I know the season will tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Shows like Under the Dome piss me right off when they don’t end the story when they should.

I was reminded about this as I was rewatching the Mythbusters escape from Alcatraz episode…

Yes, Prison Break is an example of a show that got sillier and sillier every season, but it’s not an example of the problem where a known end point creates trouble: they got out of prison at the end of the first season. That was great. Think how terrible it would have been if the escape would have to be thwarted at the end of every season as the show got renewed!

I think there’s a good reason that writers make it up as they go along: nobody has 100 or more episodes of foresight. When writing, sometimes what seems like a good idea never pans out. Actors have strong and weak points, which aren’t always known beforehand. Sometimes they hit on something unexpected that can be mined.

However, that doesn’t mean that writers can just come up with crap like polar bears on tropical islands and killer smoke with no idea what all of that is supposed to mean.

I’ve only watched the first season of Gotham, so I can’t speak for s2, but the way they handled the prequel nature of this show irritates me. I wish they’d just have good stories and arcs, without all of the winks and nods to future villains and Batman. It just feels like Batman without Batman. They could’ve done it a lot different, and better imo.

Better Call Saul, to me, is much better and doesn’t feel the need to lean on future events too much. At least so far it doesn’t.

A pre-set ending is just one limit a good writer can reasonably cope with. The problem is that there aren’t that many good TV writers and worse, network execs are incredibly good on forcing changes that ruin a long term story arc.

Of course, having a an actor drop out of the series during the run can also ruin things. Esp. common in British shows due to the short “series” and disinclination for long term contracts. (Some US TV actors have to sign up for as many as 8 seasons when the series is picked up.)