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24 February 2023

As Succession ends – how long should a great TV show run?

The question of when to end a series is a perfect example of the tension between art and commerce.

By Eddie Robson

The question of when to end a TV series is a perfect example of the tension between art and commerce. Many series are cancelled earlier than we’d like, provoking an outcry. Many are kept going past their prime, provoking disdain. But sometimes a writer gets the luxury of choosing the moment, and that’s what Jesse Armstrong, the creator of Succession, has decided: the much-anticipated fourth season of his HBO comedy drama will be its last.

Of course, there’s no one ideal duration for a TV show. In the UK “Fawlty Towers only did 12 episodes” is often cited as proof that all great sitcoms should be as short – at least it was, until John Cleese announced his plan to produce new episodes, 40 years after the original run. But this argument is a nonsense in any case. Some premises are exhausted faster than others – and “farce in a hotel” has its limits. You can even see this in some episodes of the second series – “Basil the Rat” feels like a reworking of “The Kipper and the Corpse”, for instance.

Armstrong is one of the most notable British sitcom writers to ignore the 12-episode “rule” in the 21st century. Channel 4’s longest-running sitcom by some distance is Peep Show, which ran for nine series and was co-created by Armstrong with Sam Bain. But it was central to the humour of Peep Show that its characters would always revert to type and sabotage themselves, meaning they never had to change much. The simplicity of this set-up meant the show could support a wide range of stories and keep going for a long time. A similarly open format produced Seinfeld, whose 180 high-quality episodes still loop endlessly in syndication.

[See also: BBC One’s The Gold review: outstandingly enjoyable TV]

For the “story of the week” structure of TV comedy and drama, the right time to end is generally when a show becomes too repetitive or, in search of novelty, twists the format into something less appealing. But over the decades, that model of self-contained episodes has become less prevalent, and in the streaming era a TV series is more likely to be regarded as a single ongoing story. This raises the stakes around the decision of when to bring it to an end. The ending of a story is what gives it meaning, and choosing when to end a story that’s been told over multiple seasons of TV becomes a far more creatively significant act.

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This artistic challenge, and the strength of feeling around beloved TV series, means it’s difficult to identify great shows that have, by common consensus, stopped at the right time. Happy Valley is an obvious recent one: the very personal nature of the enmity between Catherine and Tommy meant there was a need for that satisfying final chapter. The Wire and Breaking Bad both checked out after five seasons with their reputations intact. But most other acclaimed multi-season shows have sparked debates over weaker later seasons and disappointing endings: The Sopranos, Lost, Game of Thrones.

As Armstrong points out, “there’s a promise in the title of Succession”. He’s decided to deliver on that promise – to “do something a bit more muscular and complete” and go out “strong”. Given the complexity of feeling the audience has for these characters – they’re all awful, but fascinating – the ending of Succession is likely to be divisive. But few would argue he’s deferred it too long. It does feel like the time is right.

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