The Beauty of a Limited Run

Just over two short weeks in to the new year, Casey Liss, former Build & Analyze host Marco Arment, and former Hypercritical host John Siracusa released a casual car podcast aptly dubbed Neutral. The show went on to received critical acclaim not only for its fantastic roster, but for its role pioneering a new show format in the podcasting space as well. Finishing in just twelve short episodes, Neutral and its hosts proved not only the the viability of a limited run in podcasting, but its worth as well.

To a lesser degree, John Siracusa had already realized the idea’s value in ending his own show after one hundred episodes, a move he made in an attempt at staying the slip into mediocrity Marco reportedly experienced with his own podcast; however, the limited run did not gain widespread traction, neither after Hypercritical nor Neutral's premature demise. Instead, a mantra carried over from the broadcast television industry persevered, teaching producers to extract the most value possible by continuing production long after a show had reached the ignominious point of mediocrity John avoided when he ended Hypercritical.

Curiously, that notion neither permeates the entire television industry, nor even the entirety of each genre. The vast majority of anime programs, for example, run for only twenty-four episodes. Forsaking that, some consist of fifty episodes, beyond which the One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto franchises reside in another category all to themselves. A category not dissimilar from that of most American television series, in fact, which often number in the hundreds of episodes.

Take USA Network’s Burn Notice, for example: currently in its seventh season, the show will grow to encompass more than one hundred episodes and a movie before ending. One hundred episodes roughly forty-five minutes long that should have ended quite some time ago. That’s not to characterize the current season as disappointing, merely to say that the show could have aired in fewer, more concise, gripping, action-packed episodes without weakening the franchise in the least. In fact, such a move would have bolstered the series, making the show much more enjoyable in the aggregate. Free of the need to prolong the relatively basic storyline, a much more limited run would have done to Burn Notice what it did to Neutral: keep the show focused and on-topic, giving its creators no room to deviate in to the uninteresting avenues so deplorably present throughout USA’s hit show.

Unfortunately, milking any series with even the slightest hint of success in an attempt at extracting every last cent is an all too common occurrence in the television industry in those unwilling to not even take a leap of faith but simply approach show production with an open mind. Fortunately for us though, although not as much for its fans, we can find one example of a limited run in a mainstream broadcast, from which we can derive some interesting conclusions: Fox’s Firefly.

Firefly ran for eleven episodes before Fox canceled it short of the scheduled fourteen likely comprising the first of many seasons, and people still talk about it in a mixture of awe and reverence as if it were God’s gift to mankind. Although I do not hold it on such a high pedestal as others I can, however, appreciate the reasons many people do. But how many of those reasons are the result of the show itself — excellent writing, strong acting, and solid directing, for example — rather than the by-product of a rarely-seen occurrence in the mainstream television industry, even if a forced one? Plot lines left untouched, adventures unexplored, mysterious characters, unexplained back stories — these all result from a show that ended before every possible avenue was not only explored but done so exhaustively and in excruciating detail. In other words, a show that was either canceled, or underwent production for a limited run.

Someday I look forward to seeing the Apple of television studios appear on the scene. If not this year or next, maybe in five or ten; hopefully not too much longer though. I want to see this studio make the choices consumers don’t yet know they want to see enacted, the tough choices that seem counterintuitive at first glance, but implement to fantastic results even if they go unnoticed at first. Then I want that studio to stick with those decisions until the rest of the industry catches up, not unlike Apple has done in many ways throughout its history. Hopefully, one of those decisions will mandate an end to the established model and usher in a new era; an era of quality shows not beholden to the existing mantra. And maybe, just maybe, one of those tough decisions, the one that neither consumers nor productions houses have come to terms with yet, will be to create a show designed to run for a limited time from the start.