In defense of the limited series

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The ending of a series is devastating enough already, but there is something uniquely painful about a story you’re invested in being cut short unexpectedly, with no closure. Especially during this time, in which art and entertainment provide a sense of escapism, these feelings of anger and loss are valid. 

COVID-19 has affected nearly all industries, especially film and entertainment. The pandemic has been a universal setback, bringing about premature goodbyes. Due to the uncertain circumstances caused by COVID-19, streaming sites Netflix and Hulu, as well as channels such as Comedy Central, have been canceling shows — even some that had been previously renewed.

Fans have already voiced their ire at these cancellations, and petitions calling for Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay With This” and Hulu’s “High Fidelity” to be revived are gaining thousands of signatures. Both shows have been canceled after favorably received first seasons.

In a perfect world, writers and creative teams would have the freedom to finish the arc of a story as they see fit, in a manner that honors characters and fans alike. Although the rise of streaming has increased creative freedom and allowed for more diversity of content, financial constraints and audience reception still unfortunately serve as a limiting factor. That being said, there are positives about shows with limited seasons, and many would have benefitted from not having its narrative dragged out. 

The infamous example of an untimely conclusion is the beloved “Freaks and Geeks.” Many fans, as well as actors on the show, still complain that the show never got a concluding season, ending on the cliffhanger of Lindsay Weir ditching her University of Michigan summit program to follow the Grateful Dead. The story, or at least what we expect from the story, is unfinished, but that’s what ultimately makes it so special. 

With its sharp writing and nuanced characters, “Freaks and Geeks” was bound to resonate, but the abrupt cliffhanger’s notoriety is what makes it different, tragic and realistic. We are allowed a glimpse into the characters’ lives to witness their transformation for 18 episodes — no one overstays their welcome — and we are then forced to say goodbye. It’s an inconclusive yet unconventionally perfect ending.

Some series, usually those with traditional intentions to stay around on cable for a long dynasty of viewers, really find their stride in middle and later seasons, having worked out the early kinks and found a niche — think “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation.” There’s an argument to be made that many, maybe even most shows are at their best in earlier seasons, when the magic is still new to viewers. 

Despite the commercial success of latest installments, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the “Stranger Things” franchise really would have been stronger as a single season show. That first season was an enchanting experience; it brought something new and exciting to television. 

Unfortunately, recent seasons have brought little more than unnuanced nostalgia, nonsensical character arcs and essentially the exact same premise with higher budget graphics. Making “Stranger Things” into a limited, single series would not have made financial sense, but it would have made much more narrative sense than the escapades Hawkins, Indiana has since been forced to endure.

In addition to exhausting a premise, reaching the end of a project’s source material can be a good reason to discontinue. Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay With This” is based on a graphic novel of the same name by artist Charles Forsman. Another of Forsman’s books, “The End of the F***ing World,” was distributed as an eight-episode series on Netflix in early 2018. A second season of “The End of the F***ing World” that extended its source material was released in late 2019. This continuation of the story, however, did not live up to the original iteration.

Watching the second season of “The End of the F***ing World,” the tone and characters of the first season are delightfully preserved, but the entire watching experience is dominated by one unfortunate thought: It is an unnecessary addition to the story. Netflix’s adaptation of “I Am Not Okay With This” veers away from its source material at key points, but ultimately ends in a similar place, although it is an enormous cliffhanger. It has the ambiguous, powerful ending that “The End of the F***ing World” was robbed of. 

Some critiques of these cancellations come from valid places. Many fans are upset to see that shows with protagonists who represent people who have never seen themselves on screen before, LGTBQ+ characters and women of color, are being cut short. Zoë Kravitz, who stars in “High Fidelity,” called out Hulu for its lack of programming featuring women of color, and she is absolutely right. So, it is crucial that shows with more representation on camera as well as behind the scenes are written. It is imperative that more marginalized communities are rightfully represented in television, so that in the future, a show reaching an earlier, yet natural conclusion will no longer mean complete erasure.

Showing a character respect means assessing their realistic motivations and needs, letting them go when it is time to. A single season show might allow for the most wonderful complexity and justice their story could possibly receive. Sometimes the most impactful stories are the ones viewers spend the least time with.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].