Bowing Out Gracefully: Long-Running TV Sitcoms That Ran Too Long (And Some That Ended at the Right Time)

posted Oct 21, 2013, 7:12 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:34 AM ]
I’ve been a fan of
How I Met Your Mother since its debut on CBS eight years ago. I was among the passionate fans who, like the cast and crew, waited nervously until the very last minute every year to find out if CBS was going to renew the then-perpetual bubble series.

In those days the writing was sharp and crisp and the stories were fun and sometimes even outrageous.

Then a funny thing happened: the series managed to make it into syndication and more people started watching the originals – which led to an increase in ratings. By this point, money-grubbing CBS wouldn’t dare cancel a now solidly-performing series leading off its strong Monday night comedy lineup and adding more and more episodes to its profitable syndication package.

Then a funnier thing happened: the series started to age. How I Met Your Mother started to veer into latter Friends territory where stories were replaying themselves out, talks of a final season began to surface and you could tell they were just stretching the series out as long as they could.

This became a problem. Because How I Met Your Mother played so much with time and backstory and became more serialized than it had been previously, there needed to be a set end date years before there ever was one in order to better close out the title story. And as the series started to age, longtime fans such as myself started to become impatient with the series and its continuous teasing about who the mother is and how she and Ted (the “I” in the title) met. In the meantime, the series became less about that and more about the breakout supporting character of Barney and his own extended is-he-or-isn’t-he-in-love-with-the-Robin-character storyline.

Even as a longtime Mother fan, I was very disappointed when it was announced in the middle of last season that after tenuous negotiations, there would be a ninth and final season of the show. A sitcom of this nature should only have about five or six seasons with a long-established end date. But when a creative business becomes 90% business and 10% creative, you come to expect a creative show to be on the annual cancellation bubble until it becomes a more popular, but more generic show. Then they never want to let it go no matter how booming side movie careers and other interests become.

So as this final Mother season progresses, I thought about a few other sitcoms that stayed (plus two that are staying) at the TV party a couple seasons or more longer than they probably should have.


Bewitched (1964-1972) 

The later seasons were wildly popular in syndication for several decades but from a fanpoint, the series should have ended with the health-related departure of Dick York at the end of the fifth season. Instead, viewers were stunned by the Infamous Darrin Switch of 1969 when Dick Sargeant took over the role for the show’s final three seasons – and a solid Top 15 series quickly fell to #24 and then out of the Top 30 altogether.


Good Times (1974-1979) 

Initially, the show set out to be a reflection of urban ghetto life for a poor but a close-knit nuclear black family. But all that fell apart when the father was killed at the beginning of the fourth season (John Amos was fired from the series, reportedly after interviews he gave about his dissatisfaction with the show’s direction). Perhaps the series should have been killed as well.

Then the mother re-married and moved away at the beginning of the fifth season (Esther Rolle left the series over the killing of the father and the stereotypical nature in which the JJ character was written). Perhaps the series should have moved on.

A Top 25 series for the first three seasons, the show remained in the Top 30 for its infamous fourth season but fell well below that for its final two seasons despite the return of Estelle Rolle for the latter season. Oddly, it is those latter three seasons that are the most well-known in syndication.


Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983) 

When a show shifts from a long-established location to California or New York, it’s usually an indication that a show is running out of creative juice. But Laverne & Shirley hung on for three more seasons after its first five, which were set in Milwaukee.

Despite the shift, ratings held steady and the show remained in the Top 25 (with the exception of the sixth season during which it fell out of the Top 30 following a time slot change).


The Cosby Show (1984-1992) 

This one pains me to have to admit. But when a show with five children can’t come up with stories for them after five seasons and therefore has to bring in more, then it’s time to refocus or end the series despite a top Nielsen ranking.


Perfect Strangers (1986-1993) 

Though never a major hit by Nielsen standards in that only its abbreviated first and final seasons even ranked in the Top 20, this series about an immigrant to America (Bronson Pinchot) who moves in with a distant American cousin (Mark-Linn Baker) should end when that cousin gets married and moves into a house with his new bride.

Instead, the immigrant cousin’s relationship with the distant American cousin’s best friend is accelerated so that they can marry and move into that same house. And then the series continues on for a seventh and eighth season.


A Different World (1987-1993) 

Any series set in a college setting (which, at its creative height from 1988-1991, was the finest such series in television history despite a rocky first season) is going to have problems when popular characters age out of the premise but somehow need to remain a part of the show’s main storylines.

So they become teachers and administrators for the new characters who have to be introduced in order to carry that storyline on. The result is an expanded cast, which gives everyone involved just a bit less to do and sends the show in a myriad of directions.

Furthermore, any series on which a romantic entanglement between two main characters takes center stage has no choice but to eventually have them marry before the viewers stop caring. But of course, once they do, then where does the series go?

In this case, it goes to a rather heavy-handed fifth season and an unfortunate sixth and final season that focuses on them as a newly-married couple who falls on hard times but still finds ways to maintains ties with the nearby college they both attended.

As Glee is finding out (and probably should have already known), sometimes it’s just better to let people graduate – and the show with them.


Family Matters (1989-1998) 

From a creative standpoint, two grave mistakes were made here: what was originally conceived as a spinoff of the aforementioned Perfect Strangers (which co-starred JoMarie Payton-France as sharp-tongued elevator operator) quickly shifted focus to its breakout supporting character.

While this proved to be popular move that gave the series a longer life than the original conception probably would have, it also painted the show into a corner once the actor’s voice became too deep to reasonably speak in that character’s higher register.

The solution? Create other characters for him to play.

The result? Four additional seasons (including a “what was CBS thinking?” pickup for a ninth and final season after ABC cancelled it) of a series that still ranked in the Top 30 but had already lost most of its rooting in actual family matters.


Seinfeld (1990-1998) 

The series may have ended its nine-season run with a #1 Nielsen ranking (becoming only the third series in television
history to do so after I Love Lucy in 1957 and The Andy Griffith Show in 1968), but Seinfeld was at its creative best when it was actually about nothing -- as epitomized by “The Chinese Restaurant” from the second season.

But most viewers never saw these episodes during their initial airings as the show didn’t grow in popularity until a time slot move to Thursdays at 9:30 following the departing Cheers in early 1993. Once Seinfeld took over the 9pm slot that fall and became a Top 3 show, it had begun employing multiple storylines that usually intertwined by the end of each episode.

And by the last two seasons, the series had shifted its brand of comedy away from the minutiae of everyday life to broad, often absurdist humor and evolved from a show about nothing to a show about a lot of nothing.

Regardless, ratings for those latter seasons were impenetrable despite the comparisons to those earlier episodes once the series entered syndication.


Frasier (1993-2004) 

Its record 37 Emmy Awards notwithstanding (including ten over the unnecessary final three seasons), there were some storylines not worth exploring such as the previously one-sided relationship between Niles and Daphne as well as the short-lived sexual relationship between Frasier and Roz.

Unlike Cheers, which was a true ensemble with a leading character, Frasier was a true leading character heading an ensemble in the same vain as The Mary Tyler Moore Show of the 1970s – which wisely lasted four fewer seasons. With much more story potential that doesn’t necessarily have to involve the leading character but typically does, the eleven seasons of Cheers is far more justifiable from a creative standpoint than Frasier which absolutely HAS to involve the leading title character.


Friends (1994-2004) 

Being one of the few shows in television history to rank in the Top 10 for its entire series run (including a #1 ranking after its eighth season), it’s obvious why the show last for ten seasons.

But the last two seasons showed how the series was just being creatively stretched out as long as humanly possible by the moneyheads at NBC who failed to create any new hits during the show’s last few seasons. The result was an overreliance on their biggest hit to keep them at the top of the demo ratings despite a cast that was clearly ready to move on to other projects.

Ratings remained largely unaffected by the creative weakening and longtime fans were richly rewarded with a satisfying but long-in-waiting finale.


Two and a Half Men (2003-2014+) 

Sure, Charlie Sheen’s off-screen antics curtailed the seventh season by two episodes.

Sure, Charlie Sheen’s complete meltdown the following year curtailed the eighth season by eight episodes – leading to his termination from the show and the killing off of his character.

Sure, many fans clamored for the show’s demise as they swore they’d never watch a Sheen-less Men.

Sure, Ashton Kutcher’s addition to the series as a replacement for Sheen to maintain the “Two” in the show’s title kept it afloat ratings-wise but the situation created for him was very lacking in plausibility.

Sure, many fans clamored for the show’s demise as they swore that Kutcher was no Sheen.

Sure, Angus T. Jones’s public criticism of the show during the tenth season and his expressed desire to be departed from it hastened his already reduced status on the show to that of “recurring” for the show’s current eleventh season.

And while the “Half” in the show’s titled needs to be maintained, how does the addition of the departed Charlie Harper’s long-lost lesbian daughter do that? And how do writers plausibly explain that when they couldn’t plausibly explain the addition of Kutcher’s Walden Schmidt?

Clearly, you don’t. And, creatively, the show suffers mightily from it. But it’s still averaging more than 9 million viewers this season.


Glee (2009-2015?) 

The show became a huge phenomenon by the middle of its first season – winning a Golden Globe for Best TV Series (Musical or Comedy), an ensemble SAG Award and 4 Emmy Awards. Each download of a cover song ranked highly on iTunes. And each cast member became a household name.

Then the show became very aware of itself and the story-driven first half of the first season that now serves as the show’s creative peak gave way to musical tribute episodes and one-off issue-oriented plots that put actual storytelling on the backburner.

And as was the case with A Different World and its college setting, popular characters began to age out of the premise. And was the case with A Different World, those popular characters remained with the show. By the fourth season, the show was going off in two divergent directions – one in New York City where the characters aging out of the show’s original premise were sent and one in Lima, Ohio, where the actual show actually takes place.

Naturally, the ensemble grew to the point where no one set of characters were being properly served by either storyline. And like Two and a Half Men, any level of plausibility relating to the show’s original premise has been lost.

Ratings, even it its young target demographics, have declined steadily with each passing season; yet FOX surprisingly, inexplicably and ill-advisedly renewed it for a fifth and sixth season.

 

Despite this list, some shows have gotten it right in terms of when to call it quits: 

- I Love Lucy went out on top of the ratings after six seasons in 1957.

- The Dick Van Dyke Show ended after five seasons in 1966 (though some, include cast member Rose Marie, maintain it could have gone on a season or two longer – perhaps in color).

- The Andy Griffith Show went out on top after eight seasons in 1968, though some maintain the show suffered from Don Knotts’ departure in 1965.

- The Mary Tyler Moore Show followed its predecessor’s lead by going out strongly, though it had lasted two seasons longer when it went off the air in 1977.

- 11 seasons is way too long for most series, but M*A*S*H in 1983 and Cheers in 1993 proved that a show knows no time if the stories are still fresh, funny and engaging.

- Declining ratings stemming from a time slot move from Thursdays nights following The Cosby Show to Sunday nights may have hastened its demise, but Family Ties remained a truly 80s sitcom by going off the air in 1989 after seven seasons.

- Roseanne (1988-1997) may have had a questionable ninth final season but not from a lack of story ideas – just bad creative decisions.

- Though it hurt the series in syndication, Murphy Brown remained just as in tune to current events by the time it went off the air after ten seasons in 1998 as it had when it premiered.

- The kids aged, one left and the stories matured to the point that there weren’t many more to tell so Home Improvement wisely ended its run in 1999 after eight seasons.

- No series epitomizes going out at the right time than Everybody Loves Raymond, which it did in 2005 after nine seasons. Not only did the show end its run as one of the top-rated comedies, it also won a well-deserved Emmy as Outstanding Comedy Series for a fantastic final season (the fourth comedy series to do so after The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1966, The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977 and Barney Miller in 1982) over the hot new show Desperate Housewives.

- Will & Grace may have veered into Will & Grace & Leo territory during the show’s fifth season, but Leo’s status as a doctor without borders made it easy for the show to veer back to Will & Grace territory before toying with Will & Grace & Vince two seasons later and then appropriately ending its eight-season run in 2006 as Will & Vince; Grace & Leo.

- After a couple of comparatively lean seasons, 30 Rock roared into its seventh and final season in 2012 with an intent on going out creatively strong, which it did over the course of 13 episodes leading up to a wonderful finale in early 2013.


The Big Bang Theory is riding high in its seventh season, but let’s hope CBS and Executive Producer Chuck Lorre know when to close the lab.