I have been trying to figure out what it means about this country that we hold onto our TV shows until they are rotting and dying and have to be ripped out of our hands to be buried. Our TV shows go on forever, long long past any natural ending they have.
It's money the foments these unnaturally long life spans, so the answer to why we do this is simple in some ways. But it feels a little weirder than that.
Those last, lingering years--the gangrenous, malingering, miserable, oxygen-deprived, dead-eyed, hollow, repetitive, sucked-dry, unstable, checked-out, nonsensical, grasping, bored, sometimes frantic years--are really bad. Way worse than you would think a country obsessed with product and appearance might allow.
Shark-jumpings don't date the phenomenon that well--I think they are just the moments when you declare the time of death, long after the actual expiry. ER died in about the third or fourth season, but limped on for the next 100 years, mooching heavily around Thursdays nights, working the same schtick in increasingly cheap ways until somebody finally shot it in the head. The last few seasons of the Gilmore Girls the actors looked visibly embarrassed to be there. The last long years of Roseanne were so embarrassing I couldn't watch them. The later years of the Mary Tyler Moore Show were excruciating: that show had the terrible habit, like many, of using as its later cheap plot points tension over whether a character was going to leave (NO!), but pulling him/her back (YES!), a process that always had unintentionally grim overtones. You actors, you viewers, can check out but you can never leave. Nobody's getting out here, not until our 100 episodes, and maybe not even then.
Part of the problem is something I call sitcom entropy. The phenom has a lot of tenets, but driving it is the fact that you can't create any fictional work for six, seven, ten, twelve years in a row without the premise slipping and the actors' personalities and real lives becoming ascendant--not with a product that requires 12-hour days and years out of people's lives. Maggie O'Connell starts Northern Exposure as a plucky Yankee pilot and ends the series years later with Janine Turner's southern accent and she's, well, Janine Turner, mugging her way through belabored, stretched-out, improbable plots, wearing less and less Alaskan outerwear, using up the various possible male love interests, while we all try to pretend its not happening. TV shows become less highly directed, less managed, actors use short-hand, and the day-to-day slog emerges, one major reason that a sitcom entropy tenet is that a show will always Go to California, if only for a visit. The Hollywood Hills--metaphorically too--always start to show up in the background.
These moldering TV shows suck but somebody must be watching them. Advertisers must know this. Or are they so sure of the power of brand that they'll never not buy time for The Hills starring the people who used to be on it originally, left, and were lured back, then left again, or whatever? That's the bit I can't figure out. I'm not so sure people really like the superannuated ruins of TV shows. Do we really not want to say goodbye? What are we holding on to? Are we really that scared of our shows leaving us, or is it mostly the media-makers? It almost has a feel of death-bed ghoulishness, the way we have to know the exact moment a TV show goes away, leaves our lives. Maybe these 10th season shows are like houses (ooh, House--put that one out of its misery) we buy for celebrities so they'll have somewhere to live until they "die," i.e, emerge in their next media incarnation for us.
All I know is we love the shiny new car in this country, but Saved by the Bell: The College Years would seem to contradict this. We keep these junkers running forever.
I think the malingering is getting a little better, by the way. Our short attention spans and habit of not actually watching television on TV itself are helping, not to mention things like (somewhat) pruned HBO series that sell nicely as boxed sets and look better when they're not too big. All in all, though, it feels like another reason to like the BBC, which seems to either do shows forever (Coronation Street) or a couple punchy seasons (the classic example of Fawlty Towers) and then--boom. Out. The U.K. Office was done and finished, a rounded piece of great shape, in basically two seasons. Ours is still going, on and on and on... It can't be just money that won't let us turn out the lights.