Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Missing the Exit (The Ends of Television Shows)

“Endings are never easy; I always build them up so much in my head they can’t possibly live up to my expectations. And I just end up disappointed. […] And even though it felt warm and safe, I knew it had to end. It’s never good to live in the past too long.” – J.D., Scrubs

It’s a known and oft-spoken cliché: “All good things must come to an end.”

The problem, of course, is that people don’t want things to end. We want to hold onto what we love and cherish as long as possible. It’s not a bad desire – it means that we’re human. We have emotions and form attachments to people and things. We even form attachments to television shows. So when we hear that they are ended or cancelled, a part of us – however small – grieves.

But how do you know when a television show should end? How do you know if and/or when a cast member or character should depart? What does this introduction paragraph have to do with Chevy Chase’s abrupt departure from Community? You’re about to find out.

Let me preface this entire post by reiterating what you all already know: I love Community.

I absolutely and completely adore this television show about seven lovable misfits who form an indescribable bond at a community college. If you doubt, for even a moment, that my feelings for the show are anything but genuine or that I have any other desires at heart than the show’s best interest… I will wordlessly point you in the direction of the sixty-or-so blog-reviews I have written about the show.

So it is with care and trepidation that I write this post. If my Twitter feed is any indicator, most of you will not see eye-to-eye with my beliefs about the current and future state of the show. But that’s okay – I will still vocalize them (well, print-vocalize them). So let’s tackle one of my aforementioned questions, shall we?

How do you know when a television show should end?

I think that this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. There is no formula or solution in order to determine when a show should leave television sets. But let’s discuss a few options.

First, there is when the show is forced to leave the air. Prime examples of this are Firefly, Awake, and Ringer. All three shows were cancelled and thus, ended before they even really had the chance to begin. These are often the most bitter because… well, things change when a season finale becomes a series finale. There is a lack of closure for fans and for the writers and cast as well. It’s painful to watch a show dissolve before its time. But, unfortunately, it happens quite often.

As a television viewer, I believe that every show deserves to have closure. When storylines are approaching their ends, when cast members begin to feel constrained by their characters, or when writing goes downhill, that is when shows should end. To extend Friends further than the series finale with only Joey Tribbiani… well, that idea flopped (see the short-lived series called Joey). The audience, at that point, had rapidly approached and reached a point of closure in regards to the six friends from New York. Of course, this closure was driven by the writers – they, admittedly, almost didn’t give the audience the Ross/Rachel end they all waited with bated breaths ten years for. (I just learned that this week, to be honest.)

Each television show is different, though. Glee, in my opinion, should have ended after its first season. The second and subsequent seasons have seen a rapid decline in the quality of writing. The characters have become caricatures of themselves. The plots have grown weaker and thinner than ever (and more absurd, mind you). And the problem with Glee is that they KNOW this – Ryan Murphy was so desperate to keep his audience throughout the second season and piled guest star after extraneous guest star onto the show. Buried underneath the weight of these actors and actresses were his original characters, some lovable pairings, and mountains of character development. I like to think that Murphy glared at that pile, tapped his chin, said “screw it” and then began tearing everything to pieces like an overeager toddler on Christmas morning.

(But that’s merely conjecture. And the fact that Murphy admitted to breaking up couples on his show because he got “bored.”)

So, with cases such as Glee, television shows deserve to end when the quality of the writing and acting begins to slip. Of course, since the musical New Directions are still on my television weekly, we know that the world does not work according to my desires or beliefs.

But you don’t care about Glee or Friends – you want to know when I think Community should end. There’s no easy answer, like I said earlier, to this question. Here is my complicated answer, then.

I believe Community should end when: there is enough closure to justify a conclusion, when characters have shown enough growth to warrant departure, and when the producer and writer’s visions are accomplished (and, consequently, if they’re compromised).

You’re sitting there, frowning at your screen.

“So… what? Do you think Community should have ended last season? Do you think it should never end? You’re being kind of cryptic, Jenn.”

Of course I am being vague and slightly cryptic, dear friends. I do not know a date in which I would like my favorite television show to end. I’d like it to stay on the air forever, but we all know that this is a hyperbole we often use. I’d never REALLY want Community to be on forever. Nor would I want any television show to run that long, no matter how wonderful. The cast, crew, and writers will move on. And they deserve to – Joel, however amazing as Jeff Winger, deserves success elsewhere. The same logic applies to everyone else in the cast and crew.

For everything there is a season, though. For Community, I believe that there have been enough signs to point us in the direction of a justifiably permanent conclusion this season. Between Dan Harmon’s departure, a further delayed premiere date, and now news of Chevy leaving the show, it seems that we’re driving toward our highway exit.

So, in that metaphor, let’s explain WHY I feel it’s important to not miss our exit (and then, of course, I’ll elaborate on why I feel the show could end well if it ended this season). I hate driving and I have a perpetual fear of missing the exit I need to take on the highway. It’s intimidating to watch something approach its end, especially if it is beloved, and as someone who is a bit of a control freak, I enjoy clinging onto the things that give me comfort. And I enjoy clinging rather tightly, because those things (people, television shows, and workplace environments) become my security.

But what happens when you hold on too tightly to something? What happens when something insists on traveling past its exit? Let’s turn to a brilliant show called Scrubs for the answer.

Scrubs should have ended during the eighth season of the show – the cast and producer, Bill Lawrence, believed it should have. Over the course of the eighth season, miraculously, the comedy managed to survive a network move (from NBC to ABC for the eighth and ninth seasons), and – while suffering a bit in the ratings – overall pulled decent numbers. I still recall the beautiful ending – the not-series-finale-series-finale. J.D. walked through the hallway of Sacred Heart and thought about endings – about how he always built up the expectations so much in his mind that reality could never compete. In the end, he realized that even though Sacred Heart was safe and comfortable and familiar, his time there needed to end.

(Of course, Scrubs was extended for another season, and it failed miserably.)

Scrubs didn’t end when it should have. Now, people don’t remember the heartfelt and tear-jerking season eight finale – they remember the trainwreck of Scrubs 2.0 before it ended. What happens when you miss an exit? You have to turn around or chart a new course entirely. Scrubs without J.D., Turk, Carla, Elliot, and Dr. Cox together was… well, it was Scrubs 2.0. It survived for thirteen episodes, before it was laid to rest. But the damage was already done.

Can Community survive for a fifth season? Scrubs 2.0 did. Do I WANT Community to survive for a fifth season? Probably not. And the reason is simple – Chevy Chase (and potentially Donald Glover) will not be present.

I’m one of those rare people who loved Pierce as a character. Sure, he’s no Annie Edison in my heart, but “Beginner Pottery” is an episode where I really felt proud of Pierce for being as determined and optimistic as he was. The elderly man provided a perfect foil for Jeff Winger. He was an example, after all, of what Jeff’s life might look like if he shut out the people who needed him most. But that’s not all Pierce Hawthorne was necessary for – Pierce provided the seventh piece of an intricate jigsaw puzzle. No matter how many times he messed up, no matter what he did to insult or hurt those around him, the group still came to his rescue.

In the season two finale, “For a Few More,” it appeared that Pierce would leave the study group forever, moments after heroically saving the school in the paintball war. Jeff called Pierce’s bluff – he’d walk back through the door in a few moments’ time. Pierce would come back. He’d ALWAYS come back. And yet, as the study group craned their necks, the eldest member of their group was nowhere in sight.

In “Biology 101,” even though Pierce agitates Jeff, he (falsely) admits to causing Jeff’s trouble with Professor Kane. When Jeff confronts him about the lie, Pierce explains that Jeff has a harder time being seen as the villain than he does. It was a small moment, but it was something that exemplified a glimpse of selflessness in Pierce. And even when Pierce is at his most unbearable, his most selfish, his most unnerving -- the study group is STILL there for him. They still are looking out for him. They care about him. Why? Because in spite of the fact that he's a racist, crazy old man, he's THERE'S. I heard a message the other week about value. Value is not set by price. I can price the laptop I'm typing this post on at $10,000. Do you think I will sell my laptop? (Very, very likely not.) Value is not set by price -- value is determined by what someone is willing to pay. And the study group? Well, they're willing to do just about anything to keep their group intact.

Chevy Chase is a difficult person to work with, I’m sure. I don’t work for Community, so I can’t imagine his demands or personality. What I do know is that the writers and Dan Harmon created seven characters who were intended to weather the storm of community college life together. These seven people grew together, loved together, laughed together, and cried together. Regardless of your personal feelings toward Chase, it’s hard to argue that Pierce is a less important character than Troy, Shirley, Abed, Britta, or Annie (and yes, I’ll exclude Jeff because we do know that the series is rather centered on him). Each of the study group members plays an important and integral role in the development of the others.

Annie makes Jeff kinder. Abed makes Jeff human. Shirley humbles Abed. Britta grounds Troy. Pierce protects Annie.

Community’s characters need one another in the way that every character in an ensemble needs one another. Imagine Friends without Ross. Or How I Met Your Mother without Robin. Or The Big Bang Theory without Raj.

Ensembles thrive on the group – when one piece is missing, the puzzle is incomplete. And, since the piece is unique and designed specifically to fit with the others, no matter how many different pieces you may try to replace the missing one with, it will never fit quite the same. Can Community function without Pierce Hawthorne? Yes. Do I think it should? Probably not. Was it what Dan Harmon intended? I believe not.

Now, I’m sure that Dan Harmon cannot predict the future anymore than I can, but I believe that he intended the study group to be together. Sure, he desired for them to thrive outside of Greendale Community College. That is only a natural progression of the show. But did he desire for the group to function without a member? Did he ever design the show or episodes that way? Let’s think about it for a moment, shall we?

What is the Jeff Winger-sized lesson we have learned throughout three years at Greendale? What is the inside joke that Vicki, Neil, and Starburns whispered amongst themselves in “Applied Anthropology and the Culinary Arts”? We have learned that ride or die, the Greendale Seven are in it together. They’ve let neither air conditioner repair school, nor insane Anthropology professors, nor pen-stealing monkeys tear them apart. They function, first and foremost, as a unit. (And I’ve hypothesized that this begins most notably after “Cooperative Calligraphy.")

Many an obstacle has been thrown at the group, and they’ve gotten through them – together. As long as the group is together, everything is okay. So what happens when a group member leaves? Can we expect the same or a better show because of it? Should the show continue?

I think the answer (for me) to those questions is “no.” I love Community, and I will love it for all the friends it has placed into my life and the opportunities I’ve been given as a writer, blogger, and tweeter because of it. But I desperately do not want to, two years from now, lament this moment. I do not want to have the feelings I do toward Scrubs – “That show was SO good. I wish it would have just ended after season eight.” And I know that a vast majority of you have shows you have similar feelings toward. The Office comes to mind, actually. I pretend that the show ended after Steve Carrell left. And it should have ended. It would have been a fitting departure.

But sometimes studio executives or writer or cast members or producers wish to prolong the life of something that just cannot perform at its best any further. It is then that not only a show suffers, but its audience suffers. If Community ended after this season (which, I presume it might), I believe I would be okay. I would love for Community, in a hyperbolic world, to exist forever and ever. But, before the show has potential to slide, I’d like to pull off an exit, careen into a rest stop, and buy myself a snack. I’d rather have the most beloved show on my watch-list to end with the entire study group together than risk see the puzzle demolished and crudely reconstructed.

Now, some of you are skeptical that the show would fall apart without Pierce. Some of you even believe that the show could be BETTER without the character. Most of you believe that the lack of the racist, crazy old man wouldn’t affect the show or the characters or the dynamic of the group enough to unsettle you.

And maybe you’re right. But I’ll point you, once more, to my aforementioned examples of ensemble comedies. And realize that Community’s characters are more tightly knit than most ensembles are today – these people, like I said earlier, function as a group. Robin and Ted have other friends apart from Lily, Marshall, and Barney. Even the Central Perk crew has people they are close to outside of the group. The Greendale Seven are seven tightly-knit and bonded individuals. If you separate one, you have fractured the group. If you remove one, you have still fractured the group.

So. Can Community survive without Pierce Hawthorne? Perhaps. Will it be the same show? Of course not. Do I want Community to survive without Pierce? Without Abed? Without Annie? Or Troy? Or Shirley? Or – God forbid – Jeff? Will the show be the same show that you fell in love with? Simple answer: no. It will be different. And something, however small, will always feel slightly off-kilter. No matter how many people you throw into the group, no matter how many guest stars or special episodes or replacements, one thing is certain – he or she will not be Pierce Hawthorne.

The Greendale Seven will be no more.

And I apologize for the slightly pessimistic-sounding approach. I don’t mean to provide doom-and-gloom to your Thanksgiving holiday. It is, however, my belief that Community should likely end after this season. There have been enough warning signs on the highway, diverting us to the nearest exit. No matter how hard we fight for the show (and we have fought valiantly), a LOT is out of our control.

So this is when we take J.D.’s advice to heart. This is when we realize that even though Greendale is and will always be our home, sometimes things must end in order to preserve them from being damaged. Sometimes you just have to take the next exit. Sometimes you need to see the puzzle for what it is – a beautiful tapestry of diversity and love – and then leave it alone, rather than trying to force a change that was never meant to be.

Sometimes, you have to have to reflect on what was, be thankful for what’s to come, and know when to start practicing your goodbyes.


  1. [SOBS]
    "I’d rather have the most beloved show on my watch-list to end with the entire study group together than risk see the puzzle demolished and crudely reconstructed."
    Well written. <3

  2. I will always see Season 9 of Scrubs as a spinoff, which is what it was supposed to be. But the executives meddled and decided to keep the name. I love Scrubs to much to consider "Season 9" the actual 9th season. Will the same thing happen to Community if gets a 5th season? Well, we haven't even seen Season 4 yet. All we can do is hope the show remains consistently good, if it keeps getting renewed, which probably won't happen. NBC would probably just cancel the show after a year-long hiatus.

    1. But I completely agree with you about the show being different without Pierce. Community is about the study group. Remove any one of them permanently, and the show will be different.