The Take: Why can’t we let good TV die?
A third series of Doctor Foster, a second of The Handmaid’s Tale and more Big Little Lies with added Meryl. Louis Wise wishes they would quit while they’re ahead
TOP UP YOUR chardonnay and de-friend your exes – Gemma Foster will be back. That much became clear after Suranne Jones scooped two National Television awards for her sizzling adultery drama Doctor Foster – prompting reports that the BBC has green-lit a third series, and this is great news. Right?
People loved the first Doctor Foster; they loved and/or hated the second; lord knows what they’ll think of a third. The show veers constantly between chic drama and mad melodrama, and many have lost their patience with it for that reason. So every time it announces its comeback, it touches a nerve: when do you let a successful series go? When does an acclaimed, standalone drama become an unending, iffy, jumped- the-shark saga? It’s something we’re having to ask more frequently.
Take two of the other biggest hits of last year – Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale. Both were based on hit novels and both used up pretty much all their original material in their first series to make heart-stopping, high-quality drama. Yet both, it seems, will be back. Now, admittedly, one of these was based on a classic literary masterpiece, a feminist dystopian nightmare imagining life under a patriarchal regime (the other was The Handmaid’s Tale). There should be plenty left to say. And yet, you worry. The Handmaid’s Tale was magnificently, horrifically taut throughout 10 episodes – can it really repeat the same tension
yet again? You wonder where else can Offred and her fellow handmaids go. Won’t it just sag, and droop, and make us roll our eyes? There have been instances of great shows not overstaying their welcome ( The Office, Fawlty Towers, This Life) but they seem to be getting rarer. It’s as though TV has forgotten the art of a classy goodbye.
For me, as a general rule, most series should bow out a good two seasons before they actually do. Homeland? They should have left it at one. Stranger Things? Very sweet of them to repeat it on a bigger budget, but I got it the first time around. Mad Men? Yes, I know the ‘vision’ was always seven series but, frankly, I was all smoked and whiskeyed out by round four. And let’s not even get started on the late, mad iterations of Lost. Although long telly epics apparently offer us ‘great characterisation’, ‘vivid worlds’ and ‘the passing of time’, we should also be a little bit real: there are only so many hours in a weekend, and there’s only so much acting January Jones can do.
On the other hand, nothing has quite the same emotional impact as your favourite telly, and nothing offers quite the same comfort as the company of your favourite characters (why else do people love soaps?). When the second series of Happy Valley aired, I cheered, despite all the horror that was on show: something in Sarah Lancashire was so heartening. Likewise, The Fall: there was no decent reason to prolong all that misogynist murder, but then there was the sheer bliss of zoning out over Gillian Anderson’s blue-steel and blouses. And then there’s the show that isn’t technically even a drama but, of course, it really is: Great British Bake-off. I tutted when Channel 4 said they’d plug away at it, even without Mel and Sue and Mary, but then I watched it all the same. So did you.
It’s true that when you smell a cash-in, you get suspicious. To be frank, the fact that Meryl Streep has been cast to star in the next instalment of Big Little Lies made me groan. I’m not sure I can quite explain it, but I think it has something to do with over-egging the dramatic pudding. Well, of course Meryl was going to be in it! Heaven forbid she pass up the chance to do a bit of Iconic Actingtm. It sounds both amazing and a little lazy.
And yet, here we come to the nub of it. These shows will always return, for two solid reasons. First: money. Television is, first and foremost, a business – in the business of entertaining you, sure, but still a business. Most execs won’t care whether you loved or hated Doctor Foster, as long as you watched it. That’s what makes it a hit.
Second: the roles. Television offers the prospect of deep and rewarding parts, particularly for women. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of the shows I’ve mentioned are headed by female stars. Telly is where most of the good stuff is for them these days, as opposed to Hollywood, where clearly most women had to fend off some kind of massage in order to get a bit-part as the hero’s wife. So who could begrudge them a second or third bite of the cherry? That’s probably why TV’S heroines struggle to say goodbye. It’s hard enough to get to say hello.
TV HAS FORGOTTEN THE ART OF A CLASSY GOODYBYE
Clockwise from main picture: Doctor Foster, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale and Stranger Things – all outstaying their welcome?
Mad Men (top left), The Fall (top right) and Lost (left) were good shows that went bad. The Office (above) and This Life (right) finished on a high