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Crushes, Breakups And Natural Lives: How The Critical Romantic Watches Television

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in <em>Homeland</em>.
Kent Smith
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland.

[This piece contains a little information about Lost. Take it under advisement.]

I vanished into an introspective fog on the train this morning, as I sometimes do, and for whatever reason, I found myself thinking about Lost, and about Charlie, and about his hand flattened against the glass: "NOT PENNY'S BOAT." And suddenly, I realized that my fingers had straightened and spread; without thinking, I was making a Charlie hand.

The scene I was thinking about, I consider essentially perfect. It is as moving, beautifully shot and scored, heartbreaking and correct for the story as anything I've ever seen on film or on television. I would say just about the same thing about the phone call in the episode "The Constant."

But of course, the story of Lost is a bitter one for a lot of the people who once praised it: they hated the pool of light, the battle between good and evil, and the resolution to the overarching meta-story that was the basket that held all the little stories. They were heard to say, many of them, that they'd wasted all those years of viewership, that the creators were hacks, that they wanted their time back — they wanted to un-watch Charlie, un-watch Desmond and Penny, un-watch Ben Linus and John Locke and Jack's eye opening and closing. It was all pointless now, and they wanted a brain-wipe, like in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. It ended badly, so why do it at all?

Eternal Sunshine is about love of people, of course, not love of art. But I think it contains a lesson for people who swoon in the arms of other people's creativity as well: If you stay, you'll be disappointed sometimes. If you stay long enough, you'll probably want to leave, and most of the time, you will leave or be left before you're ready. Anything with a cycle or a circle in it is a more useful metaphor than anything with a straight line that ascends forever.

Other people's art is a confounding thing to love, and now that more of television has artistic aspirations — or at least significant creative ones — it's a particularly vexing example. At least with movies, it's always a temporary arrangement. You sit down, the credits come up, and you are guaranteed an experience of limited duration that you can process once it's over. Even with music or books, an individual piece has a known finish; nobody is expected to read a book that might turn out to be four chapters long or 40 or 400, with the answer up to neither the reader nor the writer. You have a deal. You know what you're in for.

To use a currently simmering example of scattered discontent, Homeland is a marvelous show — a well-made show with stunning performances. But based on precisely what made it great in the first place, its natural lifespan was one season, and its natural ending was when Brody either did or didn't do that terrible thing that he either did or didn't do in the first-season finale. That doesn't mean the second season hasn't had its moments, or couldn't have been good, or couldn't have worked, any more than The Office couldn't have worked after Steve Carell left. Could have, sure. But both shows would have been defying their natural life cycles if they hadn't gone into decline no later than those points. Souring on The Office has been going on for a few years; souring on Homeland -- which is still done reluctantly, partially, reservedly, as it always is at first — has been going on for a few weeks.

It's not the noting of decline that seems strange; it's perfectly logical to point out what is working and what is not. It's the feeling of personal resentment, the burn-it-all-down, hell-with-those-guys mentality that seems more sensible in the case of a broken romance than an abandoned Season Pass on your DVR. (The DVR has, of course, made breaking up with a show much more of a statement. To extend the romantic metaphor, you used to be able to just stop calling. Now you have to affirmatively break a standing date.)

Business considerations, of course, know nothing of natural creative cycles. Neither does the experience of loving what you're doing, though, which is easily forgivable, isn't it? Shows go on because there's more story in some cases, but they also go on because they make money (obviously). And they go on because given how hard it is to make something good and get paid for it and actually get it in front of people's faces, who wants to walk away and start again? If you'd made the first season of Homeland, wouldn't you want to make another one? Just ... as a person, as a human who was once a 10-year-old and once a 20-year-old with the different excitements and ambitions of those ages, wouldn't you? And wouldn't you probably do it anyway, even if you suspected it might be past its natural end? And would that make you a hack?

It's remarkable how much anger and disappointment and ill feeling is still displayed about shows not being what they once were — about their not being as thrilling or as original as they once were, or about their having "jumped the shark," one of the most nuance-destroying catch phrases to be introduced into the serious critical consideration of anything in the last 30 years — given how consistently it eventually happens.

Cheers, MASH, Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother. Lost, Buffy, House, Glee, ER. Leave it on long enough, particularly but not exclusively when it's running 22 episodes a year, and people will eventually tell you it doesn't feel as special. It's part of the cycle, as surely as every breakup has a moment when you realize you're not feeling it the way you once were. The little things you overlooked begin to grate; unlike the things you loved, they grow in importance rather than wearing off. Even shows without long declines sometimes have controversial codas — ask David Chase about the last episode of The Sopranos.

That's not to say the disappointment isn't real or the change isn't real — to take two recent examples, Glee certainly fell off in quality; so did 30 Rock. And you never feel it as acutely as when they roar back and remind you why you fell for them in the first place, as 30 Rock has in the last few episodes and as Glee did in its lovely rumination on breakups earlier this fall.

But it seems unduly dark-hearted not to acknowledge that if it happens to most shows eventually if they stay on long enough, it's part of what it means to do something outlandish and ambitious and interesting more than it's a failing about which it's fair to be embittered. It's not necessarily poor stewardship or betrayal or craven money-grabbing. Maybe it's just the fact that anything that is significantly creative — which probably includes anything about which you care very much — is a distillation of people's humanity (really!), and is a sort of living thing.

After all, you and your sweetie can't have another first kiss. I would love Glee more if I could have the experience again of hearing Chris Colfer sing "A House Is Not A Home," given how brave and pretty and oh my God different it was, for the very first time. But I can't, because I already had that. And I had the "Slap Bet" episode of How I Met Your Mother, and by the time I was in the position of deciding whether I did or didn't like the meta-story ending on Lost, I'd already had NOT PENNY'S BOAT, and I'd cried about it, just like I do now and did this morning.

I'm always sad, I guess, when people feel jilted by creative works that show age or have flaws. Good things burn through their periods of greatest creativity and go down blind alleys now and then, while less complex things often don't, for the same reason real plants die and plastic ones don't. You know what never lets me down? Judge Judy, because it's a plastic plant. It doesn't change, and it's nobody's baby. It's there to decorate and specifically to require no upkeep and no attention.

Anything with the slightest breath of life — including Survivor, for crying out loud, anything that has ever had an idea to begin with — is statistically very likely to exhaust its best ideas, and even if it doesn't, those ideas will never be as interesting to you as old ideas as they were as new ideas. Even the second person who walked on the moon is not as famous as the first. Excitement over something genuinely new has a naturally short half-life.

It's not entirely them, in other words. It's also us.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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