What’s wrong with a third series?

20 03 2007

…or a fourth or fifth for that matter. I’m referring of course, to Ricky Gervais’ decision to finish Extras with a “One-off special” as opposed to writing what the London Metro newspaper described as “a disappointing third series” of the awkward comedy. Why would it have to be disappointing? What is this rule in British comedy that you can only have 2 x 6 episodes, and any more than that would be overkill or cashing in/selling out? Somebody please tell me, I’m dying to know???

People are always saying Fawlty Towers only had 12 episodes, and that’s the standard. Well I’m pretty sure if Connie Booth and John Cleese hadn’t divorced, they would haver written many more years of that particular comedy (that I love, in case you are wondering).

Look at the US version of The Office. They must be almost 50 episodes in, and although not at it’s best so far this season, episodes in Season 2 were showing what could be done with these characters both in and out of the office. Incidentally the episode written by Gervais and Merchant this season turned out to be one of the weaker ones.

Conversely, I remember the outrage on forums in the days after Mtchell Hurwitz’s announcement that he would not be continuing Arrested Development on Showtime. Commentators anger stemmed from their belief (which I don’t share) that if Mitchell only had 58 episodes worth of material in him, he never should have started Arrested Development. Imagine how these people would react to another UK sitcom creator calling it a day after 2 lots of 6…

I think UK comedy writers need to buck up their ideas if they want to be taken seriously. The bottom line is if you have created a set of characters, and you can only do one intro episode and put them in 11 different situations, then your characters must be one-dimensional, or you aren’t much of a writer, or both, and you should stick to sketch comedies with repetitive catchphrases. Because sadly in the UK, thats where the real comedy money is.

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11 responses

20 03 2007
Juiceterry

Always leave people wanting more is the old saying. In the case of Extras I think Gervais and Merchant just get bored really easily and want to move on to other projects.

Little Britain had a great first series but the following two were average at best, do those guys have anything else up their sleeves?

Phoenix Nights will hopefully be returning for another series, Father Ted was cruelly cut short, Porridge only had a dozen episodes (and a film).

I think perhaps American comedies just seem to have a massive team of writers who can consistently come up with funny story lines that can run season after season eg Friends, Mash, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rosanne, Cheers and of course Fraiser. British comedies tend to be written by one or two people working together so maybe they just run out of ideas.

20 03 2007
ebarnieh

I hear what you’re saying about the team of writers. I don’t particularly like that system at all.

But Larry David has been able to turn out 50 episodes of Curb pretty much on his own. Is it too much too ask Gervais to come up with 6 or 7 more situations for Andy Millman? getting bored is one thing, but I’m pretty sure another 6 would still leave people wanting more. Fear of a disappointing third series shouldn’t hold anyone back… or we wouldn’t have the fantastico third series of League of Gentlemen!! (But then there is the craptastic third series of Game On)… hmmmm.

20 03 2007
Ian

I think with the Office Gervais was very mindful not to give the people too much and make them sick of the show. But I think he all but ruined a lot of good work with the Christmas special.

Now he’s not doing a 3rd series of Extra’s even though he has far more exposure than he did with the Office makes me think he is a little cowardly and not confident that he can pull off another one.

Either that or just wants to do something….

20 03 2007
Juiceterry

Larry David is a complete genius true, LoG third series I pretty much hated every second, I just couldn’t get into it at all.

Can anyone explain how Two Pints of Lager gets a new series every year? I’d love to know!

21 03 2007
Corrupted Mind

Isn’t it more of a scheduling problem than purely a writing problem? In the UK maybe where not ready for a 24 week season (or even a 12 episode season – a la Showtime and HBO). I mean the viewers are just about used to 24 hours of Jack Bauer, even Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty doesn’t demand that kind of commitment. CSI is (in effect) 24 little self-contained shows as is the Law and Order franchise. So maybe its not purely a UK problem. I know people will cite the Wire, Lost and Deadwood as other shows that require total commitment, but the UK equivalent is a 2 or 3 parter (“ITV drama sponsored by HSBC” et al) – with the noticeable dip in interest after the first episode!

Then there is the ca$h issue… (anyone unfamiliar should simply go to youtube, type Charlie Booker’s Screenwipe and watch his episode about how much TV actually costs). How do you go about pitching for say, conservatively £50,000 x12 (£600,000 to me or you) or if you want to go for something with higher production values £100,000 an episode or £1.2M (and trust me a budget like that gets you a single fixed set with no-name actors!) Can the BBC justify blowing £1.2M on one show? will its charter allow it? Can the independent TV afford it?

I just watched Andy Barker PI s1e1 and witnessed 5 locations and a car chase scene in a 22 minute comedy – which I learnt today – is cancelled after 6 episodes. Meaning one production company just spunked away a whole season of Casualty (probably twice the cost) on a flop!

21 03 2007
ebarnieh

No, it’s not a scheduling problem. Average comedies can have 12, 14 eps such as My Family or My Hero. You don’t think the BBC asked for more than 6 episodes of Extras?

And as for UK people not being able to handle a 10 episode commitment to a comedy, have you looked at my ratings thread? Every week the top 3 shows in the UK are the ones that have at least a 200 episode a year commitment. Holby and Casualty are 48-50 a year, the bill I think is 100. Hollyoaks is at 250. People don’t dip in and out either, they are there for the duration.

You don’t think people can commit to a third series (another 6 eps) of a comedy? Based on the stats, they will if they are given the chance. As for money, With Extras funded mostly by HBO, cashflow is not a problem, the imagination of the creator most definitely is.

22 03 2007
Corrupted Mind

The comedy’s you list true enough have more than 6 episodes, but one reason is the lack of different locations and the other is alluded to in your designation as them being average. (You pay peanuts and get monkeys…). More important than anything else is the writers creative choice on how long to make a story arc. Some like Ricky Gervais likes the punchy 180 pages story, whereas others like 360 with the usual 90-odd pages of filler. The real truth is that after The Office I’m sure he could have pitched for 24 episodes off the bat but he chose a 6 episode format to tell that particular story within those constraints.

Your next point is both devilish, but within it is the answer to my question. If we say Holby and Casualty has a 1 year run at primetime over the weekend. Hollyoaks gets the teen primetime slot for the year. The Bill gets the highly valued “adult slot” (i.e. post Enders and Corrie) twice a week for the year. Followed by the behemoths which are Enders, Corrie, Emerdale for all the other prime slots throughout the year. Where the hell are you going to put you family comedy capable of 12M viewers? Or perhaps you fancy going head to head with all the other adult comedy’s? (Catherine Tate, Little Brittain – amongst many many others). Ricky made the point earlier this year by posing where the UK’s 24, Sopranos or Lost. Well even if some crazy philanthropist was prepared to spot me £8M to make this killer 24 week drama where would I put it? More importantly, how would it compete against our UK shows on the one hand? Five and C4’s US hits on the other?

23 03 2007
ebarnieh

I think you are straying too far from the point, or not reading the original article properly. I am not talking about 24 week big budget anything, I’m talking about creators of successful UK sitcoms deciding to wrap it up after two series on the basis that a third series would be worse.

My answers to your original response were to disprove your claims that a) A UK audience doesn’t have the attention span for a 24 week drama, which again I’m *not* talking about in the original post and b) In the case of Extras money is not an issue when it comes to deciding the fate of the program.

To cover some points from your post above, I can think of Jam and Jerusalem and The Vicar of Dibley on BBC1, and Benidorm and the show about the recovery clinic on ITV1 as examples of primetime sitcoms that commanded good audiences, and that is just in 2007 so far.
As for Ricky Gervais asking where our Lost, 24 or Sopranos is, it’s trapped in the mind of a writer somewhere who will do 6 episodes and chicken out while the going is good! Your points about dramas are valid, but *not related to this post or the question posed*. If this was an exam you would have failed!

Back to my original point, which has nothing to do with scheduling or budgets, why creators of UK sitcoms feel a third series would be a disappointment, and instead choose to go out with a Christmas special. It is because, as the writer of the metro article wrote unwittingly, it is almost built-in to UK audiences now that a third series will be worse, Fawlty Towers syndrome is rife and the cycle needs breaking. I thought Ricky Gervais would be the person to do it, but putting Andy Millman in 6 more situations is beyond him, and he wants to “go out on a high” (which means, not challenge yourself, avoid any more criticism and allegations on this blog of Seinfeld/Curb rip-off and start work on another 12 episode sitcom). You blew it Ricky.

23 03 2007
Corrupted Mind

I don’t see how you’ve disproved my first point, I accept that the problem was probably in the way I phrased it which led inevitably to the way you answered it. So I will re-phrase “where is the evidence to support that the UK has the appetite/commitment for 12 (or more) episodes of comedy?” (The examples you cited in your original response were all dramas.) Your point on ca$h is taken – but I think also there is much merit in the creativity argument I posed above.

I don’t take your point on chickening out, I don’t believe in Fawlty Towers syndrome either, bearing in mind that Blackadder and New Statesman came after and had mammoth runs! Ultimately, it comes down to creative choice… and when you look at how blackadder and the new statesman reinvented itself over the years you can truly see how difficult the creative challenge is.

One last point on xmas specials… At heart I think Ricky Gervais likes to wrap stories up. It takes a brave writer to leave their audience with questions unanswered… and it must also be borne in mind that some that do are usually forced to do so once the people who pay the bills cut them off.

23 03 2007
ebarnieh

“where is the evidence to support that the UK has the appetite/commitment for 12 (or more) episodes of comedy?”

“…bearing in mind that Blackadder and New Statesman came after and had mammoth runs!”

There is some evidence right there.
I don’t know if you mean a UK audience doesn’t have the appetite/commitment to watch 12 episodes of UK comedy or any comedy, so I will deal with both. A quick look at Amazon’s DVD chart to see that every season of Curb is wanted in the UK. Amazon.co.uk has Friends 1-10 for £120 at number 22 in their charts. I would say that is appetite and commitment for more than 12 episodes right there. As for UK comedies, Play’s chart has Steptoe and Son at number 22, People willing to pay for it again demonstrating appetite, commitment, or both. The Peep Show boxset, including the series three that you claim people aren’t interested in, is at number 11. Someone has the appetite for it.

There is evidence of comedies longer than 12 episodes being well received in the UK both critically and ratings-wise, be they British or US based. Sky One’s largest ever audience is an episode of Friends from Season 6, and that show currently keeps E4 glued together. Ratings for The Simpsons just about keeps Sky one afloat, again running a lot longer than 12 episodes. (Can you imagine if James L. Brooks had asked Matt Groening to stop at 12, to leave the audience wanting more)?

Again, the post isn’t dealing with failing comedies that nobody wants to see return. It’s for successful comedies that have the funds, have the audience and their creator chooses not to push themselves, say silly things like “I’ve taken these characters as far as they can go”. I get in more than 11 sitcom-like situations a month. If a writer can’t think of another 6, 12, 18 and get 22-26 mins of writing out of them, they just aren’t very good. What I wanted people to draw from this is, as Juiceterry mentioned above, was the writing by committee aspect of the US sitcom, and whether too much power is placed in the hands of the creator in the UK. The money is there, the appetite is there, the commitment from the audience is there, the sense of adventure in certain sitcom writers is not.

23 03 2007
Corrupted Mind

Its not worth splitting hairs on this – I see your points and they are all well made. I take the view that it is harsh to say its all down to fear (or lack of imagination). But then that’s me. On the audience appetite/commitment point – there is no compelling “knockout” argument either way.

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