I recently purchased and started watching the DVD set of "Undeclared," Judd Apatow's series about freshman dorm-life. It's really a wonderful set, with lots of clever (if not periodically inane) commentary, and a few very nice extras. It's a four disc set, but the whole series would have fit on three, since it's only seventeen episodes. It's pretty much exactly how I felt about the "Freaks and Geeks" set that I got last summer - at eighteen one-hour episodes ("Undeclared" is only a half-hour show), it's quite the bargain on the dollars per laugh scale.
Bargains notwithstanding, it set me to thinking about what amounts to quality television. I am finding that now after a few years of viewing "Seinfeld" in syndication, the things that made the show work are the known, stable elements. Most situation comedies survive on their predictability and the delivery of expectations. If we suddenly became ambivalent in our feelings in our feelings for Raymond, we might stop watching. Remaining likeable from season to season is, for some, an epic challenge.
Sometimes longevity gets confused with quality. "MASH" was on the air for eleven years, or approximately four times longer than the actual conflict. During it's run, Hawkeye and his fellow cut-ups (get it?) gave us a lot of memorable moments, but all two hundred and fifty-one episodes - including a three-hour marathon finale?
Fans of TV Land might think to point to "The Andy Griffith Show" as a show that exited on top of the heap (it was number one when it left the air), and ran for a healthy eight years. Ratings aside, can the antics of Goober and Howard Sprague really compare to the slow burn of Deputy Barney Fife? Then there was another three lackluster seasons of "Mayberry R.F.D." to live down. The black and white stuff? It's all good, after they went to color? Not so much.
How about Mary Tyler Moore? She had the amazing good fortune to be part of two TV institutions. As Mary Richards she made it on her own - with a little help from her friends. The newsroom at WJM was one of the most fertile breeding grounds for television and film comedy in the past thirty years, and it's hard to find a clunker in the seven years that they stayed together. If only Ted Knight could have been spun off into a Ted Baxter Show instead of "Too Close For Comfort." But even before that success, Mary was everybody's favorite wife in Capri pants on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, Mel and everybody's favorite toupee wearer Alan Brady signed off after only five years, helping to distill the classic nature of their comedy into a finite space.
Eventually, it comes down to finances. These days, in order to be sold into syndication, a show needs to have at least fifty episodes to make any money. Sometimes a show just gets pushed past its natural life-span to make that pay day possible. By stark contrast, the show that is most often linked to classic TV comedy, "The Honeymooners," was only on the small screen for just one year - thirty-nine episodes. The waves of this comic tsunami are still being felt in 2005, with the release of the film version starring Cedric the Entertainer.
What does it all mean? Savor the shows that only appear for a moment in time. My personal belief is that all TV shows should be limited to just three seasons - one to introduce us, one to get settled, and one more to say your goodbyes. Remember, in season three of "Happy Days" it never would have occurred to Fonzie to wear shorts, let alone strap on water skis and jump a shark.