Netflix announced this week that it has renewed the controversial teen suicide drama 13 Reasons Why for a second season. Given that Netflix renews most of its shows, and this one is particularly popular on social media, the news should surprise exactly no one.
But that doesn’t mean it was earned. In fact, if you ask most critics, they’d tell you it wasn’t. Netflix’s renewal of 13 Reasons Why is part of a growing industry trend of fans clamoring for more episodes of their favorite shows, and networks more often than not indulging that impulse.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s counterparts at HBO have been doing gymnastics to prolong the cable network’s most popular franchises: The premium cable giant is reportedly brainstorming ways to bring back the hit crime series True Detective, while teasing a second season of Big Little Lies and developing not one, not two, not three, but four Game of Thrones spinoff ideas.
HBO does deserve a lot of credit for allowing Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to end the show on their terms, even though it remains a monstrous commercial and critical success. Benioff and Weiss have simply run out of story to use from George R.R. Martin’s source novels, and HBO is smart to put its crown jewel to rest while it’s still on top. There’s a famous quote from The Dark Knight (video) that applies to this very situation.
The network made a similar decision to let its creative forces dictate a show’s lifespan when it ended The Leftovers, its most critically beloved series. After completing the second season, showruner Damon Lindelof and his writing team knew they were closer to the end of the story than the beginning. They asked HBO for one more season, got the go-ahead, and the result has thus far been a beautifully audacious season of television.
Lindelof was outspoken to the press and his bosses at HBO about his desire to quit while he’s ahead, arguing that it’s better to end one season too early than a season too late. He’s right: In the long run, it’s always smarter to leave viewers wanting more than give them something they wish they could forget. That is how legacies are ruined.
There are countless examples of that indeed happening—shows overstaying their welcome either because fans overwhelmingly demanded it or network executives refused to let a good thing die. Perhaps the most egregious case was Showtime’s Dexter, an excellent show for four seasons that became something of a laughing stock in its later years. Instead of being remembered as an all-time great, Dexter will forever be associated with its hilariously contrived final season, in which the titular character, a vigilante serial killer, decided to live out his remaining days as a lumberjack.
There was also CBS’s Jericho, the 2006 show about a small Kansas town dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States. Its ratings trended downward throughout its riveting inaugural season, so CBS decided to cancel it. But that was not the end of Jericho.
Fans, including myself, threw a hissy fit. They complained on message boards, emailed CBS executives, and in the most ridiculous display of TV fandom of all time, they sent 50,000 pounds of nuts to the network’s New York headquarters (a reference to a line on the show). In awe of fans’ persistence, CBS renewed Jericho for another season.
It was bad, and even fewer people watched. CBS canned the show again after season two, this time for good.
What could have been a fantastic one-season TV series became a mediocre and ultimately disappointing two-season show. Now I can’t recommend Jericho to anyone without also cautioning them that the second season is not even worth watching.
Luckily I don’t have to make the same caveat with Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, and Terriers—all universally idolized shows that ended after a single season. Who knows if they’d be remembered the same way he’d they been given longer runs. (In Firefly’s case especially, fans have long demanded more episodes). I was probably the only person on the planet who wanted another season of NBC’s Kings, but I realize now that it was better off as a cult hit than as a show that viewers (me) came to resent.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Jericho should have never come back for its second season. With knowledge of a show’s full arc, it’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time it should have gone off the air (Homeland and Heroes should have ended after their first seasons, for instance).
If you’re a fan of a show, you resist the impulse to automatically want more of it each time another season ends. It has to make sense for it to continue. It needs to be able to justify its own existence. 13 Reasons Why hasn’t done that, and I don’t think Big Little Lies will either, if HBO decides to give it another go.
For networks, the impetus is a little different, as they have financial incentives to continue making certain series. But in this era of “peak TV,” when there is so much content living across so many platforms, I wish networks would approach new seasons of shows with more caution. If your show loses steam, which it often will, viewers will pick something else to watch. There’s no shortage of options.
Of course, this is not to say that networks should never renew shows. Many shows have earned the right to stay on the air for a long time, and at least some of them (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos) were as good after five or more years as they were at the start of their runs. As long as a series can maintain a certain level of quality, while clearly requiring more hours to tell a story (and advancing to an actual ending, instead of aimlessly wandering), then renew away.
The biggest risk in television isn’t greenlighting a risky show, it’s cancelling a show that people still like and watch. Networks are loath to take that gamble, but we’d all be better off if they did so more often. It’s totally normal to wish for more seasons of a show you love, but when that wish comes true, you may well come to regret it.