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Spartacus ending: Why setting an end date now is the right thing

Why Starz and the people involved with 'Spartacus' have made the right decision to end the show after three-ish seasons, and why other show runners and networks should consider doing the same thing.

Spartacus  is going to end after its next season, called “War of the Damned” — this is the news that startled fans of the bloody Starz drama yesterday. Speaking as one of those fans, who found, to my very great surprise, that I enjoyed the show after a very rocky start, I am disappointed … but also relieved. And wishing this would happen to more shows I love.

As I wrote about Lost Girl, I think sometimes a show can have too long a season. The corollary to this is that a show can also have too many seasons by outliving its premise. The best current example of this I can think of is Dexter, a show I had to give up on a season ago because I became increasingly unconvinced that he wouldn’t be caught, and because nothing really changed. The riveting performance of Michael C. Hall and guest stars like John Lithgow were simply not enough to keep me interested after a while.

Similarly to Dexter, Spartacus‘ premise has a built-in shelf life. If the point of the show is to see Spartacus and the other slaves seek vengeance for their wrongs and gain freedom, eventually that has to start happening or the show will be mostly filler. The show has showed a commitment to being all killer, no filler — quite literally. The first season, Blood and  Sand, ended with an episode actually titled “Kill Them All,” which depicted the slaves’ escape from the House of Batiatus in the most violent way possible. The second season (not counting the prequel series Gods of the Arena), ended with a startling, ambitious episode in which the former slaves’ enemies were definitely taken out. The show had the guts to give no reprieves, even to fan favorites like Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia. Few TV shows would dare to do the same.

This commitment to killing characters means that the third season will have to introduce new enemies, including Julius Caesar, according creator Steven DeKnight. A show willing to wipe the slate clean at the end of the season can only manage that so many times before we stop caring about the new characters. Also, soon the willingness to kill anyone would also become predictable in its own way. Given that the show runners are to some degree bound by the history of the Third Servile War and the real-life Spartacus, it makes sense to accept the built-in end date and allow the show to go all out in its last season. In fact, it’s amazing and admirable that the show went on a all after the tragic illness and subsequent demise of star Andy Whitfield. We are lucky to have more show at all, especially at a high quality level.

This trend of setting an end date began when it was announced that Lost would end after six seasons. The show immediately tightened its focus on its endgame and stopped having pointless episodes with Jack hanging out on the beach with Bai Ling. Now, it’s common for shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men to have end dates set a season or two in advance, and I think more shows should follow suit. After a while, creative juices run dry out, and keeping a show on the air serves no one except the networks and studios who hope to get syndication deals or keep cash cows around. However, in this particular battle between art and commerce, some networks at least seem to be allowing art to win out. I wish more networks had the stones to do the same thing for shows with ambitious premises.

I know man fans will be angry over this, but I for one will be tuning in eagerly for the denouement of this saga. I am glad Spartacus can go  out on its own terms rather than showing Sparty and the gang playing cat-and-mouse with Caesar for five more seasons, hiding in the hill country around Rome. Fans, whether they realize that or not, would hate that after two and a half seasons of a show whose mantra really has been “Kill Them All.” Ending sooner than later is the only way for the show to truly realize the uncompromising creative vision that has made it popular in the first place.

What do you all think about this trend of planning end dates for shows a year or more in advance? And are there any other shows that you want to see have the same treatment?

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Photo Credit: Starz

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8 Responses to “Spartacus ending: Why setting an end date now is the right thing”

June 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM

I agree completely, Christina. I like knowing in advance when a show will end because that give the writers more time to come up with a satisfying conclusion (in theory). I’m expecting Fringe, for example, to have a mind-blowing final season. I think Merlin also has one more season to go, and that’s another show I hope will benefit from the writers knowing they have a finite amount of time to complete the characters’ story arcs. Perhaps the only thing worse than filler episodes at the end of a great series would be a ton of loose ends left dangling forever, thanks to an unexpected cancellation.

Re Spartacus, I for one haven’t had the heart to watch season 2 after Andy Whitfield died – he was so lovely and so perfect in this role, truly a star in the making. Now that the shock of losing our young warrior has subsided, I’ve decided to watch season 2 so I’ll be ready for the next/final one. From your comments, I assume that the new actor has done a decent job of filling Spartacus’ sandals.

June 6, 2012 at 12:15 AM

Merlin has an end date too? That’s a good thing-tha show will definitely get too old if Arthur keeps not knowing the truth about Merlin.

I would say Lim McIntyre has done a good job. It took him a while to find the role, but it took a while for Whitfield, too. I didn’t want to get into it in the post much, but I think he’s done a good job but not quite as good. He doesn’t detract from anything, though, and I mostly try not to compare the two because McIntyre and the Spartacus team have made the most of a crappy situation.

June 11, 2012 at 10:29 AM

You’re right, it was a terrible situation, and I hope when I watch season 2 that I won’t be comparing them the whole time.

BTW, there is a documentary on Andy Whitfield’s fight with cancer that hasn’t been released yet, but the trailer is on YouTube. It’s called Be Here Now and just the footage in the trailer is heart-wrenching and inspiring. Definitely worth watching.

June 11, 2012 at 11:50 AM

I heard about the documentary, and may watch it someday. But I lost someone to cancer a few years ago, and the wound is still a bit raw.

June 22, 2012 at 11:14 AM

Update… I finished season 2, and you’re right. Liam did a good job, and I didn’t find myself comparing him with Andy at all. In fact, Naevia was the one who threw me, as I had not realized that they recast the part.

June 22, 2012 at 11:20 AM

Yes, the actress couldn’t come back because of the scheduling issues due to Andy Whitfield’s health. It was no fault of the actress, but I had trouble getting into her.

June 6, 2012 at 12:04 AM

We all hate for our favorite shows to ends, but I think most fans know its better for the show to end of the showrunners’ terms rather than being milked for all it’s worth by the network and then left to die an overdue death.

June 6, 2012 at 12:19 AM

I have seen some anger on the Internets, but also a lot of support for the decision. I can understand the disappointment–honestly, they could have probably gotten a fourth season out of it. But I admire their courage in being honest that it’s only three seasons’ worth of story in their eyes. I am hoping this means that the Lost decision has brought about a change in the way American networks think of ending shows.