As you may or may not know, the season finale of Parks and Recreation was last night. I say ‘as you may or may not know’, because the only reason I’m aware is because I work on the internet. There was a time when I dutifully watched every episode, but that was a few seasons ago, and now I’m just waiting for it to play itself out.
But the more I thought about Parks and Rec losing my attention after I’d hung with it for multiple seasons, the more I realized it wasn’t the first TV comedy to do so. I started realizing there were tons of previously-excellent shows out there that just lost steam for me right around the fifth season marker. Why is that?
We think it might have something to do with the fact that comedic characters are the most successful when things aren’t going well for them. To use the example of The Office, the show was at its best when we were waiting and hoping for Jim and Pam to get together, and laughing at Michael Scott for his earnest lack of self-awareness. Both of those things give us a reason to tune in from week to week, but they also make it very difficult to keep forward momentum once Jim and Pam are married and Michael is finally headed toward his dream of having a family.
It’s proven nearly impossible for television to portray a happy relationship or a happy marriage in a compelling way, so the writers of shows that end up at that point resort to sprinkling in milestones indiscriminately to keep us watching. Like Jim and Pam having a baby, for example, or Leslie being pregnant with triplets in Parks and Rec, or Liz Lemon’s wedding and subsequent adoption of two kids in 30 Rock.
That’s because once things are going well for their characters, the only way to escalate that is to have them going really well! Like marriage well! Or a baby well! Or three babies well! Or a jump three years into the future well! You can dilly-dally as much as you want, but sooner or later you’re gonna get to that point, and it’s likely gonna be right around season five.
With a show like Community, the reason behind the fifth season curse is more obvious, because the whole concept of the show has gone stagnant. There’s no legitimate reason that the entire cast would stay on campus for more time than it took to complete school, so once it’s dragging on into five and potentially six seasons, it’s lost that original magic.
Part of what was wonderful about Community when it started was that it was an underrated, kind of cult-classic show that you had to be a real insider to understand. But as it gained popularity and the characters involved started to like each other more, it lost some of its biting wit and underground appeal, which will likely only decrease further if it does indeed get renewed for a sixth season like the rumors are saying it will.
It’s the same thing with How I Met Your Mother, a show that was so enchanted with its innovative new format that it drove it into the ground. They changed the face of television so effectively that they wanted to keep doing it for as long as possible, to a point where it actually damaged the quality of the show. They milked a will-they-won’t-they relationship for so long that they had to marry Barney and Robin off just to keep a forward trajectory. A show that started out with such strong, engaging characters and likable tag-lines was reduced to a sagging plot being dragged inexorably toward a finale that would seemingly never come.
At least that one’s over though, unlike Modern Family, which I can’t imagine ever being taken off the air. That’s another series that started out as a refreshing look at an unconventional family and, over time, developed into a game of ‘how much can we change one character’s personality during any given episode so that we can squeeze out one more interesting plot line?’ It’s the kind of thing that I feel like you have to do if you want to appeal to a mass audience with a common denominator sense of humor, but it’s also a sure way to lose that core viewership that you started out delighting.
I have no doubt that it’s an incredibly difficult decision to pull a show off the air when it’s in its prime, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure that comedies are meant to run for more than five seasons. I mean if Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can’t pull it off, what hope is there for the rest of us?