“Benzing Dorm; tonight. You’ll love it.”
As a freshman college student, being invited anywhere was exciting. But invited by upper classmen? To watch something JT called a “scifi-western-space opera”? I was excited. This was my introduction into the subcult of Browncoats who watch Joss Whedon shows. Over two weeks we worked through Firefly; suddenly, Serenity made sense. I wanted more: Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Shepherd Book, Simon, River—I couldn’t get enough. Over the next four years, I devoured as much of the Whedonverse as I could—Dollhouse struck me as a philosophically complex exploration of the mind/body problem; I thought Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a fun show. On the other side of college, I discovered the work of Michael Schur; for about four years, The Office was my go-to for washing dishes. Jim, Pam, Michael, Dwight, Stanley, Angela—I still feel like these people are friends I’ve known for years. The super-sappy conclusion makes me want to tear up; somehow that episode sums every season of friends parting I’ve lived through. Fortunately, Michael Schur has made more shows—I worked through Parks and Rec, and eventually stumbled onto The Good Place. Wonderful shows all.
What do Joss Whedon and Michael Schur have in common? Admittedly, not much, except that they work to illustrate a thesis. TV shows, like all things, have a life cycle. They have this life cycle because they exist “under the sun” like all things we subcreators make from the primary substance of reality (as Tolkien explains in “On Fairy Stories”). Like all parts of God’s creation, stories and the way we tell them have been corrupted by sin. It is possible to cut the life cycle of a story short, leaving the audience with an unsatisfiable sense of longing for “the rest of the story.” It is also possible to carry a story on for too long, stringing a show on for one more season, one more franchise contract, one more merch expansion. In this case, the story should have died long ago, but the profit motivation causes the creators to artificially extend the life of the story. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…” Qoholeth tells us. The seasons follow this law; our lives follow this law. Pop culture is also bound by this law.
The easiest way for a show to go wrong is for it to live too long. Such shows begin with a solid core identity, but something changes in that identity. Instead of dying a natural death, the narrative limps along, sometimes with more effectiveness than others, but clearly different from the earlier life of the story. Such is where I would classify The Office after Steve Carrell’s departure. Carrell’s Michael Scott was the beating heart of The Office; without his wonderfully off-putting jokes, impossible gags, and continual insistence that officemates were family, the show did not carry on in the same vein. The succeeding story lines are weak: Will Farrell comes in for a time as D’Angelo Vickers, who lacked the charisma to carry the show. James Spader came the closest to filling Carrell’s role, but even his sexual-allure-as-power gimmick failed to hold the show together. Eventually, The Office descended to repeating Jim and Pam’s storyline as a love triangle between Erin, Andy, and Gabe. The Office would have been a stronger show if it had died when its soul departed.For creators and the participants both, there lies a danger in loving a story to its own detriment. A perverse love fails to love a story for the good within it, but rather desires it to go on and on, never ending.
In the Whedonverse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the story that will not die. The show was famously conceived as a metaphor for high school: Sunnydale High was a prison constantly assaulted by monsters; we the viewers are supposed to sympathize and remember high school as hell. Basing the show on such a concept gave Buffy plenty of initial conflict and cast the show in the tradition of the bildungsroman, the coming-of-age story. We watch Buffy develop a core of friends, mature as she battles external demons and inner self-confidence, and go through several early romances. The conceit lent itself to epic battles in the school, but eventually even Buffy must graduate. How does the show go on? By shifting its center. Now Buffy must be about something more—the explorations of the core cast’s sexual relationships as they enter adulthood. There are still monsters, but the heart of the show changes. No longer is Buffy really facing the ardors of high school, but now she has to deal with the heartbreak of breaking up with Riley and later toying with Spike. Xander needs a girl—he gets an ex-demon. Willow is first with Oz the werewolf, and later with Tara (letting Whedon claim one of the first lesbian kisses on mainstream TV). The battles increase, and so too does the relational/sexual component of the show. What began as an interesting concept (monster slaying as a metaphor for making it through the teenage years) took on a life of its own. Even when the show finally ended, the story continued in seasons released through comic books. From a storytelling point of view, Buffy would have been a much more cohesive narrative if it had ended with Buffy’s graduation from high school. Instead, the franchise lives on.
Other shows have the opposite problem; instead of living a full narrative life cycle, they are cut short. Such stories leave their viewers with a loss—just as viewers enter the narrative universe, they are booted out again. Firefly and Dollhouse both suffered this fate in the Whedonverse. Firefly has a relatively nuanced backstory with nicely complex characters; over thirteen episodes, the viewer grows to love the vagabond smugglers on Serenity. But Whedon’s funding was cut due to lack of success in ratings. The show gathered a cult following via DVD sales and has, at various times over the years, been on Netflix and Amazon Prime for streaming. Fan support was strong enough to make a movie adaptation possible (Serenity), but every so often internet rumors circulate about the original cast getting back together to revive Firefly. The discontent with Firefly’s short life lies in the lack of closure: there is no ending to the story. Whedon was unable to close off the narrative, leaving nothing but a series of promising ideas that could have been developed in later seasons.
Whedon’s next show, an early 2000’s body swapping scifi thriller called Dollhouse, lasted slightly longer. The two thirteen-episode seasons contain a two-part conclusion (Epitaph I and II), but the internal show conclusion (2×12) was clearly written so quickly that plot holes were not resolved. Wheedon had enough warning that his show would not be renewed for a third season, and was able to provide some closure, but at the cost of narrative integrity. The character who best exemplifies this process is Boyd Langton, played by Harry Lennix. Within a single episode, the viewer learns (and is expected to believe) that Boyd has been undercover for five years and has betrayed every part of his character displayed in the previous 23 episodes. There is no buildup, no foreshadowing to soften the turn. Whedon is a better storyteller than that, given the time. Unfortunately for Dollhouse, the show was killed too soon. One more season would have let the potential within this show fully develop.
Some shows live too long, while others are cut short; what does a show with the proper life span look like? I propose Parks and Rec as a show that demonstrates the ideal mean. At seven seasons, Parks and Rec shows Schur’s (and Greg Daniels’s) careful attention to building characters; seasons one to three establish the main characters (Leslie, Ron, Tom, Donna, Ben, Chris, Jerry, Andy, April) within a particular place (Pawnee, Indiana) and time. Seasons four to six track a series of plots that all develop the characters in particular ways: Leslie becomes a councilwoman, Ben becomes city manager, Chris and Ann move away, Ron gets married, Tom becomes a responsible businessman, Donna begins a real estate business. Season seven opens three years later and wraps all the storylines up in a satisfying way. We learn what happened over those three years in necessary flashbacks and conversation. Parks and Rec could have profitably continued for several more seasons; the kind of stories it told could be relatively infinite (surely the hijinks in a small town could last as long as the seemingly immortal Blue Bloods). Instead, the Parks and Rec team exercised narrative discipline and killed the show. Rather than having Ben invent Cones of Dunshire: 2040 Edition, they ended the show with a “happily ever after” vibe. This choice called for discipline and respecting the ability of a pop culture show to remain both interesting and relevant; just because a show has a consistent viewership does not mean it should go on forever.
If this approach to stories has any truth to it, then at least two principles follow. First, storytellers must heed that dreaded Faulkner advice to “kill your darlings.” Do not wait to let your story over-ripen into rot; rather, close off the narrative in the fullness of time. Second, fans must resist the temptation to love a story universe too much. For creators and the participants both, there lies a danger in loving a story to its own detriment. A perverse love fails to love a story for the good within it, but rather desires it to go on and on, never ending. Perhaps the wisest thing C. S. Lewis did was to stop writing The Chronicles of Narnia after closing the series.
For every story, there is a time to begin the story, and a time to end the story. Such a law is not there because people created it; in as much as this theory is true, it is true because this is the way the Great Storyteller is writing the story that is reality. There is a beginning; there is an end. Events happen, plots rise and fall, and primary characters recede so that tertiary characters are foregrounded for a time. Recognizing this truth reminds us of our own limitations as humans; we neither write our own stories nor do we determine the narrative arcs or lengths. Instead, we are both protagonists of our own stories and figures in the Great Story God is writing. His narrative of redemption is the story that truly matters. Our own dramas within that grand story are significant, but they pale in comparison to the beautiful story of God’s redemption of fallen creation. As John Calvin famously said, “The heart is an idol factory.” When we over emphasize our stories to the point of replacing the story God is telling, we assert ourselves as the authors. In doing so, we miss the good of contentment in our place. Our stories too have a natural life cycle; as much as we might wish to avoid death (both for ourselves and for others), the sovereignty and goodness of God demands that we accept His authorial choices, and look for the resolution of a life cut short in the consummation of all things. We are not the authors of the Great Story, but instead characters for the Author to bring forward or recess at His pleasure.
Eventually the story will end. Christ will return, and we will see that everything we have been, everything we have made, every story we have told is but the preface. As C. S. Lewis put it, “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”