When you really love something you want to hold on to it forever. Relationships; the car you had in high school; your stash of fun-size Twix. But the truth is, nothing good lasts–and if it does, the appeal fades long before the attachment does. You can’t tickle the same pleasure center in your brain over and over again without diminishing returns. The same holds true for our expectations of TV shows, though, and fans have to let go of that thinking.
Look, I’m not talking about giving up a long-term, healthy relationship with Grey’s Anatomy or Two Broke Girls if it’s still giving you what you want. (Though if it is, you might want to look at some of your life choices.) Nor am I talking about leaving a show after it finally breaks your heart in some disastrous shark-jump. What I’m saying is that it’s fine for shows to just end after a single season. That way, you can enjoy a torrid, all-consuming affair–and then break up before things get messy. It’s better for everyone that way.
Nothing exemplifies this more than last night’s fantastic finale of HBO’s The Night Of. Tense, bleak, and heart-breaking right up to the end, the climax delivered on all the promises of prestige television. It also, I feel compelled to mention, ended the series. That’s what made the show so gripping: It told a story without taking eight seasons to do it (the last three of which doubtless would have slid from inconsistent to mediocre to execrable). Just thank The Night Of for all those great summer nights and let it go.
But fans won’t do that. TV viewership now requires that people all want too much of a good thing–and that networks, looking for advertisers or subscribers, will want to provide it. In fact, viewers feel entitled to it, as if television episodes were ketchup packets at McDonald’s–available in abundance, ready to drown out all flavor. There are already murmurs of a second season of The Night Of, and while the idea is that it would (rightfully) be an anthology format, revolving around a story that has nothing to do with the tale of Nasir Khan, this still may not be the best idea. Not because creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian aren’t talented, but because the longer people force them to hang on to their old show idea the longer they’ll have to wait for their new one–or any new one, for that matter.
This same “more, more, more!” vibe is in the air for Stranger Things. A second season hasn’t yet been confirmed, but creators the Duffer Brothers have indicated one will likely happen. Stranger Things is another show that could easily be serialized American Horror Story-style and given a whole new set of characters and new story, but in an interview with IGN, the Duffers indicated things would pick up where Season 1 left off. Instead, guys, how about telling us a strange new story? The last one was fine where you left it. (Insert obligatory “RIP, Barb” here.)
For a reminder of what could go wrong, let’s revisit the winter of 2014, when #TrueDetectiveSeason2 was all the rage. For the most part, the trending Twitter hashtag was a joke, a way for snark alecks to posit really dumb duos to be the next pair of investigators on Nic Pizzolatto’s uber-hyped show. The sad reality, of course, is that the real Season 2, while cast well, stunk like a garbage fire made of Ray Velcoro’s dirty laundry.
These things happen. Creators, be they Pizzolatto or Duffer, spend a lot of time coming up with the big ideas for their shows, but then after Season 1 everything is on a much faster timeline. Having exhausted much of the Big Idea early on, subsequent seasons fizzle. ShondaLand-style primetime soaps get more mileage because they can kill off characters, add new interns, or create a new scandal, but shows built around a single central conceit–a question that needs to be answered–have a much harder time maintaining momentum.
Mr. Robot seems to be suffering from a similar issue. After a humdinger of a first season, the current chapter of USA Network’s hacker psych-drama has been routinely falling flat. Season 1 slowly and energetically laid out the creation of fsociety, the near-collapse of the financial world, and the shattering of its main character Elliot’s psyche. It was a brilliant build up with a great payoff. Now that those things have happened, creator Sam Esmail–who seems to be a doing most of the lifting on the show–is struggling to keep up with the pace he set.
This doesn’t happen all the time, though. Halt and Catch Fire, now back for its third season, actually got better in Season 2. That, however, says more about the rocky start the show had in its initial run than it does about the second season besting its predecessor. Sometimes stories take a while to find their true heroes (or, in the case of Halt, heroines), and with AMC’s computer-programmer drama that’s certainly been true.
All of which leads to a more existential question: Why do people need TV shows to keep going? It’s human nature to want to keep watching something you like, but is that devotion worth it if it’s never as good as it once was? If time is indeed a flat circle, would it be better if audiences came back each fall to find love in new shows and have nothing but happy memories of the old ones? One of the drawbacks of the era of prestige television is that it seems to mandate that everything has to be the TV equivalent of The Odyssey. Fans, many scarred by seeing beloved series like Firefly or Freaks and Geeks cancelled too soon, have rallied behind beloved shows with more fervor than ever. And networks seem to think, now that everything lives on in perpetuity on streaming services, that they have to fill their coffers with sprawling, elaborate deep cuts–even if they don’t go anywhere.
This doesn’t have to be true. When The Knick shut its doors after just two seasons, fans were surprised. Its period setting and serious actor cast indicated the kind of show that would go on for at least five seasons, if not more. But after the initial shock, it was nice to have one truly brilliant series that never got the chance to disappoint its fans. Same goes for Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. Creator John Logan went into that show with three seasons planned out, made them, and got the hell out before he ran out of gothic romances to adapt. Fans may miss Eva (I certainly do), but if the show had started looking to Charles Dickens for source material, it would’ve been a disaster.
And so now we return to The Night Of and its potential future installments on HBO. Yes, some things went unanswered following the conclusion of the murder trial of Nasir Khan. Like Naz trying to piece together the events of the night in question even as he was on the witness stand, viewers have been left to fill in some blanks. But they are the perfect blanks, intentional redactions between facts that allow us to make the show our own. They do not need to be filled with another season. Drop it. The Night Of had a nearly perfect finale. It should be treated as such. “Finale” means “last,” so this is the end. The more fans look for another thread to pull, the more the simple brilliance of Night will fall away–and no one wants to see that unravel.