Why no TV show should go beyond five seasons

Every show, regardless of genre or format; regardless of idea or characters, has a shelf-life. No show can possibly exist forever and be as successful or as good as they were when they first began. Furthermore, most shows actually go through their best years very early on, within the first five seasons.

That is why it’s really important that any show knows its boundaries. Every show creator should have an exit strategy, an idea of how they would want the series to end. An ending that could, within reason, happen at any time, and definitely happen at the end of season five. This serves two purposes. A show will have direction and focus and never feel tired or worn-out and it means that a show never gets stale or changes to such a point that it doesn’t resemble the original series anymore.

Beyond five seasons but not really offering anything new.

The major issue is that no idea can go on forever without losing quality or running out of ideas. Even shows that have interchangeable cast, for example ER or CSI, reach a point where nothing new is really happening. There are only so many ways to investigate a murder or to treat a patient. Even the backstories of the characters become very similar, each person bringing with them some unknown baggage that gets revealed and affects the main thread of the series. This isn’t a bad thing, but does become very repetitive when a show reaches season 7.

That is even more the case when a show has a very unique, central idea. Prison Break, 24 and Lie to Me all have a unique edge that makes them stand-out. Prison Break is the tattoo blueprints and the excellent planned escape of the first season. 24 is the groundbreaking, real-time, shocking story and events and Lie to Me is the catching of criminals by reading their expressions. Unfortunately, these have a short impact and don’t have the same, unique effect when you reach later seasons. Luckily for Prison Break, it ended at season 4, Lie to Me was cancelled at season 3 (for that very reason I imagine) and unfortunately, 24 is trying to continue.

Great idea for two or three seasons but was always going to become stale and formulaic.

One show that highlights this issue even further is House. The first two or three seasons are fantastic. The cases are interesting and the characters are compelling. Unfortunately, past season four, the best season of the whole series, the show becomes formulaic. You can tell the pattern of the show, when the case will be cracked and sometimes guess how the side story will trigger House’s revelation. It was lucky for the show creators that House and his colleagues are such good characters that you kept coming back to watch their lives, and the medical cases became the side stories instead.

That’s not to say that a show can’t have a good season past five, it’s just that I don’t know of any shows which have their best season that far into their run. Friends, one of the longest running sitcoms, peaked earlier than five seasons. The Simpsons, the longest running show on tv, is way past its best, which could be found in the first five seasons. Both those shows continued to be watchable past season five but why keep making or watching television that is past its best?

The best seasons of this show were within its first five.

If you stick to the five seasons rule, you will have a long enough run to tell the stories, flesh out the characters and develop key, interesting and expansive stories, without over-stretching or out-living your quality. You also get the chance to end a show before it becomes something only vaguely resembling what it was at the beginning, for example, Smallville.

You can also prove this rule by its successes. Three of the best shows on television ended before or around their fifth season. The Wire – five seasons. Sopranos – Six seasons (but best is with in the first five) and Breaking Bad (ending on its fifth season.) All these shows have concrete, well-rounded, focused stories that never seem like padding and still feel as authentic and quality as the first ever episode. Could you imagine the quality continuing into a seventh or eighth season of The Wire?

Overall, I don’t know of any show that is good enough, original enough or innovative enough to last more than five seasons and maintain its quality. Five seasons offer enough time to create characters, story and world’s that are entertaining without then beginning to stretch the shows credibility or capability. Imagine how much better your favourite show would have been had it stopped at season five… or worst, how bad your show would have become had it continued past five seasons.

Can you imagine this show’s quality continuing into an eighth or ninth season?
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13 thoughts on “Why no TV show should go beyond five seasons

  1. This is way wrong about the Simpsons. At least to me, Seasons 6 and 7 were by far the best seasons of the Simpsons. And I am not alone.

    Certainly, shows shouldn’t last too long, but every show has a different limit. For the simpsons, it is the 8-th or 10-th season. For Community, it seems to be the third season :/

    1. Ok, I may have to concede this one, but only just. Its hitting its peak at the fifth season and then has some classic episodes in seasons beyond that but its certainly beginning to lose its way into the seventh and eighth seasons. You look down the list of episodes and there become many more “meh” episodes than there are “classics.”

    1. Any show can continue to be good past five but not as good. I argue that past five seasons the quality begins to noticably shift. Season Five may well be the best season but I will almost guarantee that beyond that, it will begin to lose its way. Can you honestly see stories, arcs and characters continuing to be as good as they get to seasons 6, 7 and 8?

  2. I think this rule applies more to live action TV shows than animated ones. However, even cartoons have their limits. The Simpsons only had about ten good seasons, as others here have pointed out, but unfortunately they’re still going with more than twice that number of seasons now and it’s horrible.

    But back to live action TV, it does seem difficult to go beyond five seasons without going downhill. Breaking Bad is one that’s being smart about it and ending on the fifth, though it’s annoying that they felt the need to cut that in half and make us wait a whole year for the last of it. The X-Files, another show Vince Gilligan helped with, would have benefited from ending shortly after their fifth season and first movie. It tanked after season six or so. And there are some other live action shows that seem to tank even before their fifth season, like around three or four.

    All in all, while there are some exceptions to the rule, I’d have to agree with you on this. Like you said, writers and show creators need to have an exit strategy in mind. Unfortunately, greed often overrules creativity and common sense, and once something becomes popular, they feel the need to milk their cash cow dry, even if that milk has gone completely sour.

    1. Its not always the shows creators either. I’m pretty certain Lost’s creators had an exit strategy that was supposed to happen way before a sixth series but the network sees a shows worth and milks it dry, often to the series detriment.

  3. Supernatural should have ended after season 5. they ruined the show after that, But Sopranos is a great show. You got The Shield 7 seasons. Great. Entourage 8 seasons. Rescue Me. 7 seasons, Great drama. The Mentalist, Sons of Anarchy and True Blood starting on season 6 which i all belive to be great.

    1. The shows themselves are great but should they be going for more seasons after 5? Can you honestly say all those shows were as good after five season as they were within the first three or four?

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