This is about stories and other creative works that would have been better shorter. Whether from bloat, poor editing, or not knowing when to quit, we’ve all known works like these. Sometimes a bad work is made worse by how long it seems to go on. Sometimes there’s enough for a good short work, but the need to make it full-length adds too much bad to be worth the time anymore.
And a few times, a work that has enough going for it to be very good or even great manages to be marred by not knowing when to quit.
The most obvious television example that comes to mind is The Office*. While I think most of the English-speaking world would agree there was no point in the show going on after Steve Carell left, I would pitch the show’s true endpoint even earlier. If The Office had ended after season 3, it would be remembered as one of the best sitcoms of all time.
(* – the American one, obviously; it’s almost impossible for any TV show to overstay its welcome at a length of twelve episodes and a Christmas special. Ricky Gervais, on the other hand… we’d probably all be better off if he had spontaneously combusted five minutes after Extras wrapped.)
Granted, that means we would miss the back-to-back of “The Deposition” and “Dinner Party,” the great Michael and Stanley moment in “Did I Stutter?”, and the Michael Scott Paper Company. But the show reached a natural conclusion and its peak moment of dramatic catharsis at the end of season three, when Jim finally asks Pam out. It’s also true for Michael’s story, as his total failure at interviewing for the corporate job leads him to realize, and on some level accept, that he will never advance further than his station as Scranton regional manager. The dramatic driving engines of the story have run their course.
And from a comedic perspective, we would have avoided the bloated “super-size” episodes, the increasingly contrived plotlines, and the gradual evolution of the show’s main characters away from a group of co-workers who tolerate each other to varying degrees and toward a work family. The highlight moments weren’t worth it amidst all the chaff. Instead of an all-time great sitcom, we got a sitcom with a couple of all-time great seasons, and some scattered moments among increasingly contrived and unfunny stories, that ran far too long even after the decline was well evident.
(That said, I think there’s a version of The Office that could have run an extremely long time, similar to my pitch for a long-running Party Down: It needs an element of realism, where people actually leave these jobs for better ones, or to retire, or wherever, and new people come in. Keeping the cast fresh could’ve kept the writing fresh. And much like I said that the only really necessary characters for this long-running version of Party Down were Ron and Roman, you could probably keep it feeling like the same show as long as you had Michael and Dwight– and I think there’s even more flexibility there to let them move on, as well. As long as they cast the boss as a good character in the role and not just the actor in the cast with the biggest box-office success at the time.)
A perhaps less obvious but even more extreme example is Homeland. Season 1 had a great premise: Claire Danes plays Carrie Matheson, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder, and Damian Lewis plays Nicholas Brody, a Marine POW held by Al-Qaeda, rescued at the start of the series and feted as a hero. Carrie becomes convinced Brody has been turned and is working as an Al-Qaeda sleeper agent. But between her condition and her theories relying on scant evidence (to the extent it can be called evidence), nobody believes her. It turns out she’s correct, and ultimately Brody’s mission is to detonate a suicide vest in a secure area with the vice president, the head of the CIA, and other high-ranking members of state. At the last second, though, a phone call from his daughter– who senses something is wrong and pleads with him to come home– changes Brody’s mind.
As I understand it, Showtime is partially responsible for this punt; Brody was originally supposed to go through with the suicide bombing at the end of season one. The network wanted to keep Damian Lewis and so mandated that Brody live. If the first season had gone with the original ending and called it quits after that, it would rightly be remembered as one of the best miniseries of the 21st century.
Instead, the show continued on, with increasingly outlandish plots for Carrie and company, while pivoting Brody into running for Congress in season two, which is probably the best that could be done once the original ending was scrapped. But then, in season three, Brody goes on the run, and this whole story seems to go nowhere, as he has no real safe harbor and ultimately ends up being hanged in Iran. The show sacrificed an all-time great TV story to drag out having a recognizable actor for as long as possible, then lost him two seasons later anyway.
And then the show ran for five more seasons after that.
When it comes to movies, I often think of Funny People in this regard. Admittedly, I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters at the time, but as I recall, it’s a great role for Adam Sandler as, essentially, himself. George Simmons, former standup turned successful franchise of shitty but profitable film comedies, is spurred by crisis to reconnect with his standup roots and start making work he’s proud of again, helped along by sparking a friendship with Seth Rogen’s Ira, whom George hires first as an assistant and then as a joke-writer. I recall thinking it was a really good three-act film about the creative process, the importance of connections and how our relationships help us grow, and that it’s never too late to choose a path where you do what you love.
And then there’s also a fourth act about George reconnecting with his now-married ex and trying to steadily, gradually win her back.
It’s not even like I thought the fourth act was bad in and of itself. (Although the cynical side of me wonders if Judd Apatow just wanted to give his wife and daughters significant roles.) It just feels like it’s 40 minutes of another film grafted onto this one. Funny People could’ve been a really good tight 90 (or more likely almost-tight 105, but close enough) about friendship, the importance of doing work you’re passionate about and believe in, and how the process of growth and change never ends. But the added romantic act doesn’t really feel necessary to George’s character or his journey, and it goes on too long, pushing the film to nearly two and a half hours. Between those two factors, it drags down the story as a whole.
What are some works you think of on this topic? Ideally, not just “pretty good” buried in the whole, but works that would have been great if they knew the right time to end their story.