Quit while you're ahead

Glenn Reuben on milking a comedy idea too much

Ruth Jones has expressed her worry at doing a third series of Gavin and Stacey. She should be worried – time and again, history has shown that an idea only has a limited lifetime, the only exceptions being Peep Show and any number of Jimmy Perry and David Croft shows, who wrote out of sheer fondness for their creations.

Not only that, but pervading every corner of the web lately is the desire for the comeback. A survey last year suggested that the top show most people wanted to see return to our television screens was Only Fools and Horses. Did they not remember that there was already an attempt to revive it back in 2001? Met with near-universal (in some cases, vicious) dislike by fans, it continued for a further two Christmas specials and the viewing figures subsequently dwindled. I suspect the only reason they won the ratings those years was simply the thought of Del Boy and Rodney returning, regardless of the plot. People just want to see how they’re getting on, and what they’re falling off of. So when should you pull back from these comic monsters and move on?

History proves that a fourth series of most sitcoms and sketch shows is a mistake, and even a third is stretching it at times. Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, The Office, Extras and Spaced all finished on two, with The Vicar of Dibley, The Fast Show, Goodness Gracious Me, Porridge and The League of Gentlemen all on three.

The only prominent British exceptions I can think of to last longer are Open All Hours, Blackadder (though it’s doubtful whether the first series had much similarity with the other three) and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (and then John Cleese admitted the team were repeating themselves by the third series).

Here’s how I see it: A first series has to introduce characters and situations and make them work. A second series expands on that, and helps an audience familiarise with these people by upping the ante. A third series goes even deeper and often into darker, unexplored territory. A fourth series leaves you with nowhere left to go creatively and bores the audience with the same characters doing the same things over and over again.

The other route is the Christmas special. There’s a problem with that as well, because that makes it more of a comeback, or a one-off reunion. A way for the BBC to secure Christmas ratings, but artistically, where do you start?

The original shows were made in a different time, so most of the humour is past it,and new jokes will be pale attempts to re-capture that ‘magic’. The actors are older (or sometimes dead) and are doing it for the money, as is the writer usually (John Sullivan is the culprit here for flogging a dead horse); the shows ended on such a high that a further ending would ruin it; there is no real plot, merely a series of loose set-pieces that only just make a proper episode; the catchphrases are mentioned frequently just to get a laugh. Audiences may well turn on in their millions, but it doesn’t mean they’ll like it - they just do it because ‘Oh look, dear, it’s Del Boy! I wonder what he’s up to now!’ or ‘not much else on is there, why not?’. Examples of all of these include To The Manor Born, Only Fools and Horses and The Vicar of Dibley. But what next? Victor Meldrew returning from the grave? Heaven forbid.

Such is the curse of the Christmas special that it now extends to regular series. If history has shown us anything, it is that you can definitely have too much of a good thing. The obvious example is, as mentioned earlier, John Cleese. Not only did he and Connie Booth bow out of Fawlty Towers after two series, but he also left the Monty Python team after their third series, barring the odd cameo. The result was a fourth series that was shorter (six episodes instead of 13), more uneven and probably the least remembered 40 years on.

But whatever seems to happen, as a writer, you lose. Either

(A) End the series on a high and not do any more specials or episodes, leaving the fans constantly bugging you about another series, making Facebook groups and encouraging Justin Lee Collins to try to reunite the team.

(B) Go for the Christmas special/fourth series. Inevitably, fans will say ‘Ooh, it’s not as good as the first series’ or ‘something was missing’ or ‘it should’ve been left well alone’, damaging the writer’s reputation and the fans’ loyalty. If, for some bizarre reason, it IS successful, then a further special/fifth series will be produced, and those same reactions will occur. Nobody is satisfied.

Of course America works by different rules, and it is often not until a third season that a show starts to hit its stride. Again, exceptions are evident, and they are largely the showswhich don’t have that mass appeal. Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development all had very strong first and second seasons and built up a devoted fanbase in the process.

Ultimately, it’s down to the writers, and we fans should respect that decision rather than clamouring endlessly for ‘just one more episode’. But I for one hope that they give it plenty of thought and do it for themselves, not for the money...

Published: 20 Jan 2009

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