Many of us have commitment issues with television, because we've been burned so many times by weak or overblown endings. (And no doubt, a lot of us are anxiously praying that Fringe gets the powerful conclusion it deserves tonight.) But there's no reason to give up on long-form series television because of some past bumps in the road — after all, TV has also given us some powerful endings. Instead, the next time you launch a long-term relationship with a TV show, best to go into it with your eyes open.
With that in mind, here are 15 signs to watch out for, that a show you're falling in love with may leave you disappointed in the end. None of these are definite signs that a show is absolutely going to stumble in its final hours — but they're omens we've noticed over the years.
Top image: Star Trek: Enterprise, "These Are The Voyages," probably the worst finale of all time.
We all know it's hard to end a long-running TV show — most shows either get cancelled too early or drag on way too long, eventually running out of steam well before they reach their final curtain. TV writers are at the mercy of network interference, bossy actors, real-life contingencies like strikes and cast departures, and random quirks of fate... all things that a novelist never has to worry about. And yet, some shows have cracks that are apparent long before the end.
The show tries to sweep the most interesting questions under the rug in its very first episodes.
Like if you have a show about people time-traveling to the past, and the show inserts some technobabble to try and explain away why they're not changing the future they came from. Or if you have a show about people who travel from 1963 to the present, and there's some handwaving to explain why they're not confused by cellphones and the internet. When a TV show tries to sweep the most interesting implications of its premise under the rug, that's a clear sign it's never going to be able to follow through on the ideas it raises.
There are kids, and you can tell they're not going to age well
This is another one that you might be able to tell from just the first few episodes of a show. If there's a little kid, or a teenager, and the show is building a lot of mysteries and suspense around him or her — WAAAAAALT! — and making him or her seem really important, that might be a red flag. Because A) kids are really hard to do right, and it's a rare child actor who can carry a major storyline on his or her shoulders, and B) this kid may not age well, and may not stick around long enough to pay off all the stuff that's being set up. Especially if there are teenagers who just whine all the time, that's a honking big red flag right there.
It's only the first season, and already the show is contradicting itself
If the show makes a big deal out of a plot in a few episodes, and then tries to pretend a month later that the plot point was actually something totally different, that's a bad sign. Also, if the show builds up a huge mystery or a major subplot, only to have it fizzle mostly offscreen, that could be a sign of a minor course correction (all shows do them) or an indication that the creators are not as adroit as they would like to be at juggling storylines. Generally, if a show spends a long time telling you that something is important, and then it seems to change its mind without any explanation, that's probably a bad sign.
Someone totally annoying becomes a "fan favorite" character
You know who I'm talking about — the character who was sort of cute when they stood in the back and had the occasional funny line. Or someone who was a mysterious, shadowy figure, until we learned all about him or her. Or someone who was always sort of obnoxious and jerky, but less goody-two-shoes than the rest of the cast. In any case, sometimes a vocal group of fans will latch on to a particular character as a "fan favorite," and start clamoring for him/her to get more screen time. And the producers oblige, until suddenly the whole show is about this character, instead of the people you thought it was about all this time. And that usually means the resolution is going to be really, really weird.
The show's mission statement has changed to something you don't recognize
Instead of being a show about the days leading up to the founding of the Federation, it keeps lurching from metaphor to metaphor, about terrorism or Nazis or whatever. There's no clear point to any of it. And then the original creators decide they're going to make the finale actually an episode of a completely different show, where the cast are play-acting on the Holodeck. Sigh. Sorry, just had to vent.
It's a few years in, and the producers keep saying, "we're going back to our first season this year."
Translation: "The show has lost some of the original spark it had back when it started, and we're going to try and get it back, by copying the format we had when we first launched." Sometimes this even extends to doing cover versions, or direct sequels, to stories from the first season. Even aside from what this says about the show, it usually means a slew of less-than-interesting storytelling, as the show tries to repeat the gimmicks it once did, back when it was scrambling to attract the biggest mainstream audience possible.
It's the final season, and instead of explaining, a show keeps adding more mysteries
"Oh, we don't have time to explain what was in that humidor that everybody was trying to get three years ago — because we're too busy introducing a brand new mystery, about a structure out in the desert that wasn't there yesterday but appears to be thousands of years old. Also, we're going to introduce a whole new secret society that has a mysterious agenda that will make all the stuff that confused you in previous seasons three times more confusing. No, we're not trying to use sleight of hand to distract you from the lack of resolution, why would you think that?"
The romance is over
And I mean that literally. A lot of TV shows will focus on one romance or love triangle, and eventually that romantic storyline runs out of steam. Either the characters have decided once and for all that they're never going to be together, or they just stopped having chemistry with each other at some point — hey, six or seven years is a long time to pretend to be in love with someone, even for a great actor. Or the will-they-won't-they couple finally got together, and ran into the famed Moonlighting problem where suddenly the romantic tension leaked out of the show. (And on a somewhat unrelated note: if the third attempt at a Midnight, Mass show does take off, please have the Kadmons already married in the pilot. They work great as an already-married couple. Thanks!)
The show's in the homestretch, and suddenly everybody is acting out of character
Because the writers realize they're running out of time, and they need certain people to do certain things to set up the resolution — and those aren't things that those characters would ever do, normally. So the plot hammers get engaged, and all of a sudden everybody is betraying their oldest friends. Or forgetting everything they've learned in the past several years. Or just generally acting like a weird caricature of their normal selves.
The show has a cancellation scare and prematurely wraps up a bunch of stuff... then gets renewed
This is sort of an obvious one. And it happens a fair bit — a show looks like it's definitely for the chop, so the creators rush to resolve all the plotlines they had been carefully stringing along. And then the network comes back and says, "Hey, on second thought..." And suddenly you have a season where you get to find out what happens after all the major issues have already been sorted out. Which, you know, could be interesting. Or just sort of lifeless.
The one character who made everything work is unceremoniously killed off
Nothing wrong with shaking things up. And nothing wrong with being willing to kill off any character at any time. Except. Sometimes, there's one character who's the glue keeping the whole show together. The one person who makes the whole cast function as a collection of characters, or who brought a really necessary perspective to the whole thing. And when you lose that one character, everyone who's left just seems to be walking into walls all the time. Sad but true.
Punches are telegraphed — and then pulled.
You can see something terrible is going to happen from a long way off, and it's built up to with a bit of fanfare... and then things turn out just fine after all, in a way that strains credulity. The result is a terrible anticlimax. Not that there's anything wrong with a show being tricky or keeping the audience on its toes. Not at all. But when a show seems like it's trying to foreshadow that awful things are coming, but then the writers just can't quite bear to pull the trigger on those awful things, it often means the main characters are getting too easy a ride and the show has settled into being too cozy.
The network keeps reducing the final season order.
Ostensibly so that the show's few remaining episodes can have an adequate budget — but actually just so they can pull it off the air faster. This can be a problem if the show's creators planned on having 13 episodes to tell their final story, and now suddenly they have ten. Or eight. How about seven?
All of the former bad guys turn into somewhat boring good guys
This is somewhat related to the thing of obnoxious characters getting recognized as the "fan favorite" and foregrounded — because often, it's a former bad guy who gets anointed as the fan's most beloved character and pushed to the fore. But even if the former baddies aren't annoying or ostensibly beloved of all fans, it can still be a problem if the ranks of the heroes are swelled by everybody they used to fight against, leaving them to fight one last, often underwhelming, villain. And finally...
The character you thought was the hero all this time just seems, frankly, tapped out
Maybe the actor just isn't willing to put in the long hours on set any more, and thus the hero just has less to do in each episode. Maybe the writers just lost interest in this character around season five. Whatever the reason, the person who you always thought was the show's protagonist, or the most prominent character in an ensemble cast, is kind of marginalized in the home stretch. And you can't give a decent resolution to a character you stopped caring about months ago.