Media Franchises: Why short and sweet is best

Or, why I still think The Good Place is one of the best TV series ever created.

Why am I writing this? Because I got a brain worm who needs to be sated before she can return to whatever hell she was birthed in. But for real, I think it’s very useful for creative people to examine what works and what doesn’t work in the media that they love. I am a fan of all of the shows and book series mentioned in this blog, though as a fan I will happily admit that in most cases the creators should have quit while they were ahead.

Back when The Good Place ended, there was some talk that it might have been cancelled – how else could you justify shutting down production on a popular show. It turned out that the showrunners had made the decision to end on their own terms well before the show ended.

Given the ideas we wanted to explore, and the pace at which we wanted to present those ideas, I began to feel like four seasons—just over 50 episodes—was the right lifespan. At times over the past few years we’ve been tempted to go beyond four seasons, but mostly because making the show is a rare, creatively fulfilling joy, and at the end of the day, we don’t want to tread water just because the water is so warm and pleasant.

Essentially, instead of doubling down on a money pit or artificially lengthening the narrative, the showrunners stuck to what they thought would make a good story. They took as much time as necessary and not a minute more.

I like that idea. Especially nowadays, when media franchises are beating dead horses beyond the point where they’re even recognisable as horses, The Good Place told the story it wanted to tell and then made a graceful exit. I think there’s something to be learned there.

I wanted to understand why a shorter lifespan might work for some media properties, and why longer lifespans might do more harm than good.

And to be clear: The Good Place wasn’t a mini-series. It was four seasons! But those four seasons were tightly written, had a clear goal, and they stuck the landing. A lot of long-form content often feels anti-climactic when it ends and many fans have expressed frustration over the last few years that the shows and series that were so promising in the beginning met with lacklustre endings (it’s passe to mention Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame at this point, but you were all thinking it)

Obviously, this is not the case for all long-form content. The Critical Role series (D&D actual-play streamed on Twitch), for example, runs their campaigns for a hundred-plus episodes. These stories are incredibly engaging from beginning to end and I love them to pieces. But even Critical Role has a problem when it comes to drawing in new audiences. Especially after a few episodes of a new season, I’ve heard many people express the fact that they simply don’t have the time to catch up on the show. Ditto if they miss a few eps and can’t watch the new ones until they’ve seen the old ones. Those episodes are four hours long! Just sitting down to watch one is an event. It’s the same thing that makes Marvel fans feel like they can’t watch new content because they fell behind or missed something (“I didn’t watch WandaVision, does that mean I can’t watch the new Dr Strange?” = legit question I’ve seen people ask).

Even when long-form storytelling is truly masterful, the sheer amount of time it takes to consume that content can turn some people off. When it’s not masterfully done and people do put in the hours, then it can feel like a waste.

In this blog post, I want to look at the structural problems that can arise when a narrative is stretched beyond its reasonable limits, and the effect that those problems have on me as a viewer. Maybe I’ll be able to take something away for my own creative practice.

Here, we’ll be looking at a few long-running series as comparisons to The Good Place: Supernatural (2005-2020), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014), Harry Potter (first book published in 1997. God willing, JK will stop adding to it some time this decade), and BBC Sherlock. People think of BBC Sherlock as a shortlived series because each season only had a handful of episodes, but those thirteen episodes took about seven years to put out – giving showrunners ample time to second-guess themselves and come up with more outlandish stakes for their heroes. The Good Place ran from September 19, 2016 – January 30, 2020. Less time than Trump was president.

Here’s three ways that I think long-form storytelling can miss the mark, and what The Good Place did differently.

  • The stakes should be organic to the premise so that the payoff is better

Supernatural began as a monster-of-the-week series where two brothers travel around America fighting monsters. It ended with season-long story arcs where the brothers and their menagerie of friends/lovers/former villains attempt to fight God.

I’m of the opinion – and maybe this is a cold take at this point – that Supernatural should have ended in season five. It had shown the characters grow and actually switch roles (Sam dying a hunter, sacrificing himself and taking a monster with him; Dean returning to the ‘real world’ and raising a family) in a very convincing way, the themes had been thoroughly explored, the narrative had completely changed from its original premise but the change was still new enough that it didn’t rub the wrong way, and – most importantly – apart from Castiel’s quest for God, there was little else that the story needed to explore. Sam’s ‘surprise, bitch’ scene at the end of Swan Song felt like a shoehorn added to introduce new stakes for another season, and everyone knows how season 6 was driven by Castiel’s character-assassination.

It felt like the showrunners had to look for reasons to keep the story going, and so every time the Winchesters got a win, they were immediately cut down again. There was little room for catharsis after the season five finale.

Sherlock went from ‘two bros (definitely not gay) solve crimes’ to ‘John’s wife is an assassin and Sherlock has an institutionalised sister that he blocked out of his memory’. The series got more unhinged the longer it went on – mostly because they had to keep raising the stakes in order to justify the new episodes, as though people wouldn’t like a regular series of Sherlock Holmes solving crimes with his best friend in London (she said, side-eying the original series of repetitive crime-solving that ACD couldn’t stop writing if he wanted to).

The Harry Potter series has likewise fallen into the trap of manufacturing stakes in order to extend the narrative beyond Harry’s time at Hogwarts. So, Voldemort has a daughter and she’s going to pseudo-seduce Harry’s fourteen year-old son to bring her father back from the dead…

HIMYM started as a conversation between a man and his children about how he met their mother; it ended as a chronological list of every woman their father had sex with and concluded with a finale that showed, on some level, that he’d never loved their mother as much as he’d loved their aunt.

And I get it. Growth is good. Stories need to develop, and developing and maturing characters is necessary to show that the story is having a real impact on them. But the narrative itself needs to maintain some sense of unity with its premise. If you keep raising stakes, not only will you eventually hit a ‘urgency ceiling’, but it will be very difficult for the characters or the audience to actually enjoy a win once in a while – because they know, even on an unconscious level, that some fresh hell is going to get thrown at the characters immediately following that win.

And what happens when the stakes get ridiculous? What happens when the brothers beat the devil, and Hell, and the angels who guard Heaven, and the concept of darkness? Well, then they have to beat God! And what then? Then, you start telling the prequel story. What happens when you beat the evilest wizard to ever live? Pull his offspring out of your backpocket and make them the bad guy**, and then you start telling the prequel story.

When I am watching shows or reading stories, the beginning and the conclusion need to be in harmony – otherwise, the narrative feels disconnected from what I was promised in the beginning. If the story moves too far away from where it started, then it’s not really the same story anymore.

Why the Good Place does it better: the stakes raised every season: 1) the good place is a trap! 2) we need to work together to avoid the bad place, 3) the very concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ has corrupted over the years, 4) let’s make a ‘good place’ trap that allows people to actually learn how to be good! When the stakes couldn’t get any higher the show ended. Not only did it end, but the narrative concluded with each of the characters achieving equilibrium in the context of the story’s initial premise – that is, they learned how to be good, which was what was promised in the first episode. No new premises were introduced, no artificially increased stakes corrupted the main arcs. Once the characters became ‘good’ people, there was nowhere to go but to a cathartic conclusion

  • If the characters don’t grow, then they just repeat the same patterns/storylines.

As I said above, narrative arcs should maintain consistency. But I do think characters ought to change.

In a lot of cases, the characters are what draw people into a story. If the characters’s growth doesn’t reflect the length and time of the narrative then I can get very frustrated when I watch them repeat the same mistakes over and over. It’s one thing to be afraid of too much change – thus losing the fans who’d originally loved those characters – but if the changes are earned and a response to what the character is seeing in the world around them, and acting accordingly, then the changes will be satisfying. Much more satisfying than watching them run at the same wall over and over and getting surprised when it doesn’t budge for them.

An example of two characters who were in the same narrative but had radically different responses to its length are Barney Stinson and Ted Mosby.

I don’t have the space to really get into it here, but Ted’s characterisation boils down to: ‘make a grand gesture and she’ll fall in love – if she doesn’t, then you just need to try again!’ Over the years, he seems to learn that this is not a good strategy (ie: it’s gross, leave her alone, she gave you her answer). But in the finale, you see that he hasn’t actually learned at all and in fact his final act in the narrative is a call back to the first grand gesture he made to the same woman he made it to. Barney, on the other hand, matures from a womaniser to a committed husband after engaging over and over again with those ideas and learning from his mistakes (finale notwithstanding).

That’s a satisfying change. That’s an earned change. That’s a change I would expect over NINE SEASONS of character development. His core personality traits (love of suits, love of women – just one, but still – love of fine alcohol, pranks, etc) remain the same, but he matured after exposure to nine years of events happening around him. Ted Mosby did not.

Lack of character growth can be a particular problem in long-form narratives if the creators rely on characters’ personality traits as a catalyst for conflict and raising stakes.

For example, Harry Potter regressed – he was a teenager who lashed out at his loved ones; he became an adult who lashed out at his loved ones. In the original series, the epilogue showed him thoughtfully engaging with the idea that his son might be a Slytherin. In the Cursed Child, Harry’s unwillingness to meet his son halfway – and eventually, his lashing out at his son and admitting that he wishes they weren’t related – is a key moment of conflict. In order to develop stakes in the father-son relationship, the creators of the play had to walk back the growth that Harry had apparently had at the conclusion of the original series. For me, the idea of Harry escaping an abusive situation with the Dursleys only to be dismissive, controlling, and cruel to his own son was a real kick in the teeth. It was a continuation of the cycle of abuse, and not at all what I’d hoped for after seeing how mature he was being in the epilogue.

And don’t even get me started on Supernatural! After a while, the brothers sacrificing themselves for each other every bloody season became so exhausting that even the characters themselves commented on how destructive it was. Yet. It continued. Season after season; no growth, no payoff for all of the reflection that the characters were doing in the off-time, just a knee-jerk ‘take me instead!’ to undercut every scrap of emotional and critical growth that they could have laid claim to. After a while, the fans could accurately predict the outcome of every ‘now you must choose’ moment that the villains would create; no matter the stakes, no matter the consequences, the brothers would always choose each other. After 15 seasons, that’s not as satisfying and sweet as it was in the beginning.

Why the Good Place does it better: the characters change, (they are, after all, explicitly learning how to be better people) but their progression is so carefully tracked that the audience can watch it happening. The characters’ core personality traits remain the same but their motivations change in response to the events of the series. Eleanor is selfish to the very end – so much so that she has to make sure all of her friends are happy before she can go to the next stage of the afterlife because if she can’t be sure then she can’t let go of herself. It may seem selfless, but it’s actually very selfish when you think about it. Jason is still dumb as hell despite the wisdom he’s gained from all the lives he lived (D&D nerds will tell you: intelligence and wisdom are different stats). Tahani is still an over-achiever but she has channelled it into genuinely helping people rather than just pretending to. Chidi is still an intellectual who loves philosophy and thoughtful engagement with ideas, which he now uses to make firm decisions rather than wallow in ‘what ifs’.

  • Shorter series allow the actors/creators to pursue other projects

Long-term projects keep creatives in one place for too long. In some cases, it can make it so that people begin to associate actors with the roles that they played to the point where it might affect what roles they are able to get afterwards, as well as what they can do concurrently. Jensen Ackles could have gone into movies if he weren’t on Supernatural. Martin Freeman needed to get special workarounds so that he could do The Hobbit while he was working on BBC Sherlock. Creators of these series – not just producers, but writers and editors – were also beholden to seeing the story to its end.

There’s a lot of money in franchises and long-form narratives. The longer you can keep your audience, the more money you can get out of them, or the more money you can get from advertisers who use your content as a platform. I have seen a number of contemporary authors adding extra bits on the fringes of their stories – introducing new characters from different places and settings, for example, trying to convince the audience that there’s so much more! – and it seems like they’re having a lot of fun, and the fans seem to like it, but there’s always this sense that they’re delaying the ending that they’d already earned. Or, worse, cheapening the ending that they already had by artificially extending the life of the story beyond its natural conclusion.

JK Rowling doesn’t seem able to let the Harry Potter franchise go. Maybe the other projects she’s pursued were not as creatively fulfilling, or maybe not as lucrative. Maybe they could be both of those things if she focused half as much attention on them as she does on developing meta narrative and campaigning against trans rights and Scottish independence*. The problem here is that JK being unable or unwilling to pursue other projects with the same vigour that she used to pursue her original has left a bad taste in her fans’ mouths, especially when everything new that is added to the franchise actively changes the relationship that fans had to the original. Many have expressed disappointment that they can’t look at the original series the same way because the author retconned or elaborated on ideas that were once left to the reader to decide. And because of JK’s explicit use of authorial authority over the course of Harry Potter‘s lifetime (sending cease and desists, developing her persona to sell alongside the series, etc), it is extremely difficult to separate the author from the text in this case – so much so, that I think no matter what JK does, for the rest of her life and probably long after, she’ll only be known as the woman who wrote Harry Potter.

As a ghostwriter, I often wrote in ‘universe’ – that is, there would be a set of characters and each book would follow one through their journey towards some kind of romantic relationship. When all of the characters had their story told, then that was it. You could add vestigial characters or ‘new perspectives’, but that would just re-tread the same ground. My clients never seemed to want to do that, though. They always had ideas for another new universe to explore once the old one was finished and all the core characters got their Happily Ever After.

If people stay in one place for too long, there’s very little opportunity for growth – especially in the narrowly-defined parameters of a made-for-consumption narrative. Creative people need change to grow.

Why the Good Place does it better: Again, they were in and out of there before Trump’s presidency was over. Hardly enough time to really impede the cast’s/creators’ careers. The actors and creators have all moved onto other projects – some are even exploring new styles like voice-over work – and seem to be doing really well for themselves.

As a writer of my own stories, I want to take what The Good Place taught me and keep it in mind if I’m ever tempted to tread water ‘just because the water is so warm and pleasant’.

For example, I’ve learned that it’s a lot of work to come up with ways to pad out a story! If you’re trying to continue to tell a good story, then it can’t be just a beat-for-beat rehash of whatever it was that made it popular in the first place. A lot of creative energy needs to go into developing new stakes, new approaches to established problems, etc, and it’s important that those stakes and problems make sense. All that, and the story might still be unsatisfying if it fails to stick the landing, or those who started with you don’t stick around to the end, or there’s just too many plot threads to keep track of now… and so on.

As I said above, there are long-form stories that get it right. But The Good Place really showed that a story doesn’t need to take years and years in order to be meaningful. Sometimes, a story ends when it’s supposed to. And that’s ok.

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  

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** Bellatrix supposedly gave birth a year before the Battle of Hogwarts – HOW DID NO ONE KNOW?? How did Draco not know? Bella lived in his house! How did NARCISSA not know? And if she did, why the hell would she let her niece be raised by strangers?? As the author’s last attempt to hammer home ‘a mother’s love’, Narcissa could never have sent her niece away, surely? How could she not even tell her son that his cousin was out there in the world – not even to ensure her protection??

*I was rooting for you, JK.


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