Which Classic TV Shows Could Have Benefitted From the Freedom of the Modern Era?
When Season 2 of Rick & Morty ended on a cliffhanger, as we wondered how Rick would be freed from intergalactic prison, we were given some dark news from our old friend Mr. Poopybutthole: it might take a year and a half before we see the show again! Granted, in the time since, it’s been hinted at that it might not actually take that long for us to see new episodes, but still, it’s quite clear that Rick & Morty is the type of show where the creators are allowed to work at their own pace, and if that means the fans have to wait a little longer to see their favorite characters, then so be it. The thing, as frustrating as this may be, most fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sure, waiting long periods of time for new episodes of your favorite show is annoying, but let’s face it, if Rick & Morty was given the constraints of the 22-episodes-a-year network format, the show would suffer severely. Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon wouldn’t have the time to flesh out their characters and storylines, and some of the show’s most ambitious episodes might have never been made. The show might have still been funny, but it likely would have been more a typical animated sitcom rather than the revolutionary show that it has become. More and more, the television world has begun to understand that mass-producing TV for the highest possible rate of consumption isn’t always the best idea, and that the best shows tend to thrive when their creators are given time to, well… create. This begs a question: which classic shows might have been even better if they had been allowed to operate at their own pace, rather than bashing out 22 episodes a year?
The show that immediately comes to mind here is The Simpsons. For its first decade on television, The Simpsons was as brilliant as any show on TV, giving us classic after classic, re-inventing what a cartoon could be, and adroitly exploring the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. Unfortunately, around Season 10, the show ran out of steam. It had lost touch with its original characterization, as we began to see the rise of Jerkass Homer, along with his unfortunate companions, Whiny Liberal Lisa, and Surprisingly Wimpy Bart. Perhaps this kind of rot was inevitable, but if The Simpsons hadn’t been asked to create an endless run of 22-episode seasons, perhaps the writers wouldn’t have lost their fastball so quickly.
The obvious comparison here is South Park, which is entering its 20th season this fall, and has stayed as relevant as ever. That show has remained strong after two decades, while The Simpsons was already well past its prime at that point. The obvious distinction here is that South Park has made much fewer episodes. For awhile, they made 14 episodes a season, and recently that’s been downsized to 10. Matt & Trey and their writing staff aren’t as burned out as the writers of The Simpsons, and they’ve been able to keep their show fresher longer. that certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
So, The Simpsons perhaps could have been stretched out longer if it weren’t given the rigorous 22-episode format, but where does it go from there? It seems weird to say this about one of the greatest shows of all time, but if The Simpsons were allowed to produce 10-13 episodes at a time instead of 22, and if it were allowed to produce them at their own pace, it might have been even better than it was. Consider that as the great asThe Simpsons was at its peak, we still got the occasional filler episode like “Another Simpsons Clipshow,” as well as episodes that were funny, but didn’t necessarily explore the depth of the characters. With a less tight schedule, the writers could have taken the show to places beyond what we can imagine. Perhaps they would have experimented with a serial storyline well before South Park did. Or perhaps they might have gone even deeper into exploring certain relationship dynamics. Everyone recognizes “Lisa’s Substitute” as one of the strongest episodes of the series; what might have happened if a multiple-episode arc, or even an entire season had been dedicated to looking at Homer and Lisa’s relationship? Another beloved classic is “Mother Simpson,” which introduced us to Homer’s mother and gave us an all-time tearjerker ending. While later episodes re-explored that dynamic, none of them were as interesting as the original. Imagine how interesting and complex a lengthy dive into Homer’s relationship with his mother might have been if the writers had the opportunity to dive into it while the show was in its prime. Of course, we can make examples like this all day; the point is, no one knows what The Simpsons might have done at its peak if it wasn’t part of the old-school TV construct of “make as many episodes as possible.” Had the show been around today, it might have had the chance to become even greater than it was.
And hey, it’s not like The Simpsons is the only classic show we could apply this principle to. Let’s consider Frasier, one of the most character-driven sitcoms of the 90s. That showed had so many fascinating character dynamics; Frasier’s fraught-but-loving relationship with his father, his a-little-too-close friendship with Niles, his friend-employer relationship with Roz, and of course, Niles pursuit of Daphne. All of those dynamics were explored with brilliant detail on the show, but of course, there were times when the show made episodes just to fill out a network requirement. This was especially true in the show’s eighth season. Niles and Daphne were finally together, but the show was affected by the real-life issue of Jane Leeves’ pregnancy. It was too early in the Niles-Daphne relationship for her to be pregnant (that would be saved for the final season), so they had to think of some other way to explain her weight gain. The result: she just got fat! Daphne gets sent a way to a spa for two months while the show soldiered on despite the fact that its most interesting development could no longer be explored. The writers came up with the patchwork explanation that Daphne gained weight because Niles saw her as perfect, and couldn’t notice any problems she might have. This might have been a bit cathartic, but we all knew the reason why the show kept going was because it was bound by the constraints of a network sitcom. If the show existed now as, perhaps a Netflix series, they could have just taken a break during Leeves’ pregnancy, and one of the show’s most dubious storylines never gets created.
Over the last 15 years, we’re slowly beginning to realize that the most TV doesn’t always mean the best TV, and showrunners are given more leeway to craft their shows more meticulously. The result has been some of the best television of the modern era, as the format entered what is commonly known as its prestige age. This is certainly a welcome development, but before we embraced the idea that TV could be an elevated art form and not just “the idiot box,” there had to be the shows that proved that point in the first place; shows like The Simpsons, Frasier, Seinfeld and a handful of others that taught the world that television need not be mindless entertainment. The problem was, those shows were forced to work under the same time constraints as dreck like Full House despite having far more to say. We know better than that now, and as great as these shows were in their prime, if they were given the time and freedom that today’s top showrunners are given, they could have been even better.