It’s nearly impossible to scan the Internet these days without reading about another promising new show that’s been dropped from a network’s lineup. From Alcatraz to Harry’s Law, these heavily-hyped “can’t-miss” programs are being cancelled at record rates. And while it may seem inevitable that every show eventually gets cancelled, that’s not necessarily the case. Some shows actually manage to go out on their own terms long before they can be axed by a cold-hearted network exec.
John Cleese has never believed in overstaying his welcome. He was the first one to leave Monty Python, he exited his first marriage after 10 years and he made the decision to halt production on Fawlty Towers after 12 episodes despite the program’s enormous popularity. “It was a totally joint decision with me and Connie [Booth],” he told Digital Spy years later. “We both felt we’d done our best. We both knew that if we did any more it would not be as good. I made that mistake with the film Fierce Creatures. There’s actually some really funny stuff in that film, but there’s some bad scenes at the start and it was up against the reputation of A Fish Called Wanda. It couldn’t possibly reach it and you always have that problem if you achieve those levels of success.” Still, given the high quality of his other projects, we’re certain Cleese could have produced another six episodes with ease.
Many shows talk about wanting to go out on top, but Seinfeld actually did it. The NBC sitcom was the highest-rated show in America in 1997 when Jerry Seinfeld made the decision to move on. “For me, this is all about timing,” he told The New York Times. “My life is all about timing. As a comedian, my sense of timing is everything. I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we’ve been doing it on for years. I wanted the end to be from a point of strength. I wanted the end to be graceful.” Whether the final episode achieved all of those things is a matter of debate, but there’s no questioning the fact that Seinfeld was still at the top of its game in its ninth and final season.
It’s difficult keeping a talented cast together. That was just one of the problems with Friends, as Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry had all begun launching their own big-screen careers mid-way through the show’s run. By 2003 their availability – and motivation – had become an issue and producers made the unpopular decision of stopping the series the following year rather than having to recast key roles. News of Friends’ impending demise kept viewers glued to the tube and the NBC series attracted 20.4 million viewers per episode in its final season and 52.5 million for its heavily-hyped finale.
Family Ties’ ratings were still soaring during the show’s seventh season when series creator Gary David Goldberg made the decision to pull the plug. “We don’t want to abuse our moment in the sun,” he told People magazine at the time. The show’s breakout star, Michael J. Fox, was quick to agree. “It’s certainly better to choose to leave the game than to be benched,” Fox added. The show’s final episode drew in tens of millions of viewers and has since landed on TV Guide’s list of TV’s Most Unforgettable Finales.
Most actors dream of having a hit show, but for Dave Chapelle it was a living nightmare. The Washington, D.C. native considered himself to be a stand-up comedian first and foremost and complained bitterly about how the show’s long hours were preventing him from pursuing his craft. Perhaps Comedy Central should have been a little more sympathetic, because Chapelle later turned down a $50 million deal to continue the hit show and briefly went to South Africa to distance himself from the drama. His self-exile brought production to an end and left us with 32 brilliant episodes that continue to stand the test of time.
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Flight of the Conchords
Flight of the Conchords gained a dedicated cult following after its two seasons on HBO, but co-stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement knew they’d be pushing their luck if they tried to create any additional episodes. “We had a lot of half-songs,” Clement told Q magazine. “We had an album’s worth of beginnings of songs.” Unfortunately that’s not enough for a show built around quirky musical interludes, so the Kiwi troubadours decided to quit while they were still ahead. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a series about New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk-parody duo would have a limited run, but it’s still a bit disappointing that it ended when it did.
The Office (UK)
It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: The fact that the U.S. version of The Office is now in its ninth season, or the fact that its originator managed to lay such a strong and enduring groundwork in just 14 episodes. Created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, this outrageous workplace comedy was a critical sensation that was nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards and became the first British comedy series ever to win a Golden Globe.
Another gem from Gervais and Merchant, Extras teased us with its brilliance before bowing out after 13 episodes. That may not seem like much, but according to Gervais, it was all he could muster as the show’s co-creator, producer, director, writer and star. “You don’t want to hang around too long on a project,” he told IGN. “I think you start repeating yourself or putting pressure on yourself when you do it all yourself – when you write, and direct, and you’re in it and you do your own press and all that sort of stuff. I don’t want to bring in outside help. I don’t want to farm it out. I don’t want it to be collaborative. So you put everything you’ve got into it, and I like to get in and out.”
ER was the longest-running primetime medical drama in U.S. TV history, but it feels like it could have gone on so much longer than it did. A winner of 23 Emmy Awards and four Screen Actors Guild Awards, this riveting drama continued to attract strong numbers in its 15th and final season in 2008, routinely pulling in 10 million viewers per episode. Granted, it was no longer a ratings leader, but the show’s built-in audience gladly would have supported another season, as evidenced by its performance in syndication and the healthy sales of the show’s DVD sets.
Cheers had no problem overcoming the sudden death of Nicholas Colasanto in 1985 and the surprising departure of Shelley Long in 1987. However, the imminent loss of Ted Danson at the end of the 1992-1993 season was another matter altogether. Producers decided the Emmy Award-winning series simply wouldn’t be the same without Sam “Mayday” Malone and they made the difficult decision to permanently close the bar at the end of the show’s 11th season. At the time, Cheers was a respectable eighth in the Nielsen ratings and its 98-minute finale drew in a staggering 93 million viewers.