I Wish More TV Shows Ran For Just One Season

Must the reward for a successful TV show always be for it to keep going until it's not as good as it used to be?

I loved the first season of Killing Eve — loved Jodie Comer's murderous fashion icon Villanelle, and Sandra Oh's (finally) starring turn as not-so-straight woman Eve Polastri, and the static charge of their mutual fascination. Most of all, I loved the way the series teetered between border-hopping pursuit and maladjusted romance, as though its writers were right there alongside the audience, waiting with bated breath to find out what would happen next. The series set up a dynamic that couldn't reasonably conclude with either a kiss or a kill, and then (spoilers!) opted for a bit of both, with Eve stabbing the object of her obsession as they lay in bed, then frantically rushing to save her. It was an unsatisfying ending, an ideal ending, the only ending that made sense for these two characters.

But, of course, it wasn't really an ending at all. Villanelle and Eve are due to resume their chase in Season 2 of the series, premiering on April 7, and I've been feeling an undue amount of trepidation about it. Some of that is the regular old “please don't fuck this up” dread that can accompany any fresh season of a beloved series — the worry that something will go awry in the delicate balance between new elements and the things that make the show the show. Mostly, though, I've been feeling something complicated and entirely personal — which is that I loved that first season of Killing Eve too much to want more of it.

Don't get me wrong — I'd happily bask in hours more of Eve and Villanelle's fabulous dueling. I'm just not all that eager to see their world get bigger, to learn more about the shadowy-ass organization that's been employing Villanelle, or, god forbid, to witness what feels like it'll become more and more inevitable as the show goes on — an eventual teaming-up against a common foe. Initial showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been adamantly against predictability in her writing, but she's handed the reins over to Emerald Fennell for the new season — and regardless of how that turns out, the longer any show runs, the more chances it has to fall back into convention. I'm not looking forward to Killing Eve having to come up with a whole new season's worth of plot, I guess, when it's not plot that I came for. It's easy to imagine the show's subversive effervescence getting crushed under the weight of additional explanations.

Sometimes you just need less of a thing you love.

I've been having this urge a lot, lately — to seal up the near-perfect first seasons of my recent favorite shows in amber so they'll be preserved forever, untainted by future disappointments, immune to the commercial insistence that the best reward for a show's success is to keep it going until it's no longer successful. My desire is admittedly perverse, and indifferent toward what anyone who creates television shows (or ponies up to underwrite and profit off them) actually wants. It's a fan's strongly felt and entirely hypocritical conviction, because it's not as though I'm not going to tune in to these second seasons when they arrive.

I'm going to watch Killing Eve when it returns, and Season 2 of Fleabag — which writer and star Waller-Bridge set aside Killing Eve to work on — as soon as it hits Amazon Prime on May 17. I'll tune in to Big Little Lies when it comes back to HBO in June; when Russian Doll gets its inevitable renewal from Netflix, I'll show up for that too. It's entirely possible that these new seasons will be good too, which doesn't make me wish any less that they'd ended after their fully formed first runs.

I can't explain why it is that a remake like Oldboy or City of Angels will never be able to touch my feelings about the original, but future seasons of TV can, somehow, retroactively taint the existing ones. (Look, I don't make these rules, I just abide by them.) Mostly, I want things to be able to stay compact if their material calls for it — to not have quality and quantity so tangled up. I wish more shows ran for just one season, and I wish more shows were allowed to. Sometimes you just need less of a thing you love.

Because of the way television works, especially in the US, when something becomes a hit, much less a full-fledged phenom, there's inevitably going to as much more of it as the people making it are willing to sign up for. That's become true of studio movies as well, but it's built into the TV model in a way that has, for the most part, carried over into the Peak TV era, in which a thousand platforms have bloomed and no one can settle on how to measure success.

What everyone can seem to agree on is that IP is too valuable for things to ever really end anymore. Ideally, you get as much out of any given title or franchise as possible before it's up for a reboot, reuse, or recycle. But it’s become clear that that model is best suited to constant action, to story developments, to what happens next — and then, and then. And the greatest thing about this age of Too Much TV is that it's created space for different kinds of television, for fare that's driven by characters or a sense of place, instead — the relationship studies, the niche dramedies, and all the stuff that resists being classified by genre.

What everyone can seem to agree on is that IP is too valuable for things to ever really end anymore.

The call for more seasons of any given show tends to be synonymous with the call for more plot, which doesn't always do favors for series that are driven by other mechanisms. I realize, in the group of shows I listed above, that it might come across as though I'm somehow on a mission to shorten the lifespan of acclaimed work from women creators. But the fact that Killing Eve and Fleabag and Big Little Lies and Russian Doll are mostly made by and all focus on women feels related to their repudiation of the TV landscape's muscular "let's see how far this can sprawl" tendencies.

Killing Eve is much more interested in its characters than in reluctantly doling out of bits of mythology about its global conspiracy, while the climax of Big Little Lies was less about who committed the murder than about the moment of wistful, wordless solidarity that led to it. Fleabag was a satisfyingly self-contained portrait of a young woman slowly realizing she's in crisis, and Russian Doll cleverly closed its own loop after letting its characters grow and change by running through it repeatedly.

The fact that the internet is littered with articles about the "unanswered questions" left by most of these shows speaks to how narrow the way we tend to talk about TV really is — as a collection of twists and cliffhangers and puzzles to be worked out. The reason why Russian Doll's Nadia ended up unstuck in time is just as uninteresting to me as whatever the deal is with “The Twelve” in Killing Eve — in both shows, the heroine's emotional journey is the point.

One of the signs that a TV show was genuinely serious used to be that the creator would talk about how it had all been planned out from the start, with multiple seasons mapped and the ending certain years in advance (and, for what it's worth, the creators of Russian Doll pitched their series as running a possible three seasons). That’s an interesting contrast with the way that Waller-Bridge describes coming up with that final scene of the first season of Killing Eve only after she was able to playact it with Oh, letting her lead actor's energy guide the writing. Vast storytelling scope isn't the only proof of artistic ambition, and having an intricate plan hasn't turned out to be a surefire way of making great work, either. One of the things that made Big Little Lies so gratifying is that it felt complete as is, not distracted with the need to plant seeds for future twists and emerging antagonists. And that was by design; the show was based on a novel and was first described as a miniseries, until its success made a continuation irresistible to its cast, creators, and cable network.

It would be great if, rather than treating every single season of great TV as a sign that someone, somewhere, fucked up, more of them could simply exist as is.

The internet is littered with lists of the greatest TV shows that only lasted one season — like AMC's conspiracy-minded Rubicon, or the Claire Danes coming-of-age classic My So-Called Life, or Joss Whedon's sci-fi favorite Firefly, or the star factory that was Paul Feig's terrific Freaks and Geeks. The default attitude when describing these shows is usually to mourn what could have been — that audiences were denied future greatness because these titles were cut short in their prime. But it seems just as likely that, given more runway, some of them would have averaged out into something unexceptional — a series that started off with a bang and eventually (or immediately) ran out of juice.

A show like Lifetime's Unreal would have been a regular fixture on these lists if it had ended after its bruisingly good first season. I really wish it had left off there, instead of spiraling through three more, the last a curtailed run that went widely unnoticed when it got a surprise direct drop on Hulu last year. Same for Hulu original The Handmaid's Tale, which followed up its culturally resonant first stretch by slowly squandering its audience's goodwill over a second season that felt capricious and punishing, off the deep end of its Margaret Atwood source material and unsure of where to go. It would be great if, rather than treating every single season of great TV as a sign that someone, somewhere, fucked up, more of them could simply exist as is — a complete, coherent work of art.

This is all Monday morning quarterbacking on my part; no one can predict when a project will start going downhill, or which ones would have kept their quality up for years. But not every story worth telling lends itself to being sequelized on demand. I may be in the minority of wishing more things would end sooner, but I'm hardly alone in longing for more constrained storytelling and finite endings; the continuing rise of the anthology series speaks to the desire to be able to keep working with a network while also starting largely from scratch each new season, with a theme or a mood providing continuity. Sometimes, if you love something, and you want to keep loving it, you have to let it go. ●


The language in this piece has been updated to reflect that the television adaptation of Big Little Lies was written by David E. Kelley; the novel it's based on was written by Liane Moriarty.

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