Less is more: TV shows should learn to quit while they’re ahead

If Michaela Coel says one season of 'I May Destroy You' is enough, then let's leave it at that

It’s human nature really – stupid, gluttonous human nature – if we like something, then we want more of it. For example, I had a lovely biscuit this morning (stem ginger – I’m still thinking about it now) but I knew that to overindulge myself with further biscuit-ness would be folly – not only would further intake of the sugary treat make my Fitbit shout at me, but I would feel stuffed, slightly guilty, and my appreciation of the snack would wane as I stared forlornly at the empty packet, questioning my life choices up to that point.

Now, you may think that I’m overanalysing a biscuit, placing more value in this choice than perhaps I should. To you I say: ‘If you don’t place value in biscuits, we can never be friends’, but also, ‘Yes – I am using this as a heavy-handed analogy for this week’s topic.’

David Brent
Did we really need that David Brent movie? Credit: Alamy

If we overindulge in something – even if we have just one too many – it instantly loses its value, and we start to regret, and even resent the thing that made us feel that way. This also applies to telly (See? We got there eventually). Too much of a good thing can ruin said good thing. The old showbiz adage ‘always leave ‘em wanting more’ still rings true. TV shows at the peak of their power need to know when to call it a day, and then resist the temptation of giving in to popular demand and coming back. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that popular demand is stupid. Ignore popular demand at all costs.

Let’s start with a classic, one that I’ve never quite been able to forgive. Only Fools and Horses had the perfect ending. Now, I would say ‘spoiler alert’, but if you haven’t had a chance to catch this since 1996, then you never will, will you? The Trotters become millionaires and literally walk off into the sunset, tying it all up with a neat, beautifully written bow. Twenty-five MILLION people watched this. Because of this, I would imagine, the BBC pestered writer John Sullivan for more, by waving ever-larger cheques in front of him, and five years later, he caved. The Trotters were back, and this time… it was a bit half arsed. They’d lost all their money. Uncle Albert was dead. The stories were convoluted, searching for another ‘tv gold’ moment that never quite came… a petit mort after 1996’s big satisfying orgasm. As much as we can try to pretend these episodes didn’t happen, the legacy is still somehow tainted.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in ‘Fleabag’, a series that knew to quit while it was ahead. Credit: BBC

There are many other offenders… should David Brent really have come back for Comic Relief sketches, let alone a movie (especially without Stephen Merchant on co-writing duties); would it have been best for Killing Eve to leave it on one single Phoebe Waller Bridge-produced perfect series; should the eagerness of fans to see Arrested Development get a second chance, really have led to it getting a second chance on Netflix? And The Simpsons. Oh, The Simpsons. Some things are just best left in nostalgia, for us to watch over and over again, drinking in the perfection of a finite job well done.

But here’s the thing about TV – it’s a hungry medium, forever demanding new things to fill schedules and bandwidth – a lot of the mantra in the industry, to quote Alan Partridge again, is: “People like them, let’s make some more of them.” But, with every new episode, the potency disappears, the excitement fades, and one of the cast probably says something troubling on Twitter.

killing eve season 3 episode 6
Jodie Comer as Villanelle in ‘Killing Eve’. Credit: Sid Gentle/BBC America

But this is not always the case… some people know when to leave well alone. The Prisoner (coming to BritBox on August 20. Watch it. It’s AMAZING) is one of the earliest examples of quitting while you’re ahead – one glorious, trailblazing, messed-up acid trip of a season leaving the audience screaming for answers and only being able to search for them in the deepest recesses of their own melting brains. And there are more – Fleabag, This Country and The End of the F***ing World. Yes – fans cried out when it was announced that was it, after however many seasons, but that’s the beauty of it. We need to miss them, we need to ask ourselves what they’re up to now in our own imaginations and not see the inevitably disappointing results on screen. And what happens when we do see the disappointing results on screen? This Life +10, that’s what.

And I’m as guilty as the rest of you idiots. I loved I May Destroy You – I am hungry for more, but simultaneously I really don’t want a second series. Is more really what we need? Why can’t it exist as it is? A game-changing, genre-bending, zeitgeist-capturing televisual nugget in one finely honed capsule… no follow up, no difficult second album, leaving Michaela Coel to go and create something new and brilliant. I get the impression that she, much like yer Waller-Bridge, is the kind of person with the integrity and artistic purity to pull the plug on her own terms.

And then there’s the type of person who just doesn’t know when to stop. On that note, see you next time.


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