Earlier this week, the season finale of The Walking Dead aired in the UK and in the US. I personally stopped watching the show years ago. I lost interest, had little time, and there were other shows that interested me more. However, my other half stayed with it so I’ve dipped in and out. Even if I hadn’t, I would’ve found it difficult to miss the public response to this season’s parting shot. It wasn’t positive. I read lots of comments about the finale being disappointing, I read complaints about two-dimensional characters, I read discursive about dull and unrealistic plots. This was subsequently echoed by my husband. It seems that The Walking Dead is a member of the fraternity of TV franchises that failed to stop when they should have.
As a writer, that set me thinking about knowing when and how to end a project.
My Dad is an artist. When I was a teenager he told me something that has always stayed with me. He said that one of the most difficult aspects of being an artist was knowing when to stop. It’s so tempting to keep painting but it can lead to disaster. Too much paint, too many colours, too much fiddling, and you can damage the paper, lose the composition, muddy the colour. Often you don’t know you’ve reached that point until you’ve already gone sailing past it.
In the early days The Walking Dead was about a single small group that was thrown together . They had to learn how to trust each other, they had to figure out how to survive. It was about humanity not giving in to baser instincts and in some cases about people overcoming their flaws to become better versions of themselves. The characters were complex and the stories often daring. It dealt with difficult topics. It was art and it was entertaining. At what point did that change?
The Walking Dead isn’t the only show to outlast it’s expiry date. Remember Lost? As the series continued, more and more viewers disengaged. The characters and plot remained consistent and complex and yet viewers gave up. One of the most common criticisms was that it was too complicated. Every week birthed a new mystery and rarely were those mysteries resolved. It was too esoteric and the audience was driven away when it became apparent that the convoluted plot was the result of a lack of direction rather than deliberate misdirection.
The X-Files suffered a similar fate. Every week, a new case. Every week, a new mystery. Repeated hints at a conspiracy that never seemed any closer to being revealed left viewers frustrated. The audience grew tired of waiting for the payoff for the investment of their time.
Authors, too, can be guilty of out-staying their welcome. My husband has been a fan of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels for years. He has them all (and boy, they take up a lot of room on the shelf!) but Clancy has been dead since 2013 and hasn’t written without a co-author since 2003. To my knowledge, the cause of Clancy’s death hasn’t been disclosed, but my guess is that it was a degenerative or terminal illness that was diagnosed some years before he actually passed away because he was able to pass the torch to Grant Blackwood and Mark Greaney, who have continued to write in his name. But it isn’t Tom Clancy. Blackwood and Greaney may have spent ten years as apprentices, but they can’t replicate Clancy himself.
It must be very difficult to let go of a franchise that is both successful and financially rewarding but there is an artistic skill to knowing when enough is enough. Lost and The X-Files teaches us that audiences deserve answers, they deserve a climax to your story, and they won’t hang on indefinitely for satisfaction. The Walking Dead teaches us that it’s vital to avoid becoming stale. If I ever find myself reaching for charicatures or re-hashing the same plot from a previous story, I hope I will be wise enough to recognise it. Tom Clancy probably teaches us to stop writing when we’re dead!
I suppose that every franchise has an expiry date, some more obvious than others, the skill is recognising it before it’s too late.
And may we all be fortunate enough to face that particular dilemma.