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When Should a Prestige TV Show End?

The fourth season of ‘Transparent’ is a lovely and moving, if somewhat flawed, continuation of the beloved series. Does it—and do many of its critically acclaimed peers—need to keep going?

Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Amy Landecker, and Jeffrey Tambor in ‘Transparent’ Amazon/Ringer illustration

Transparent will always be fun to watch. The award-winning Amazon dramedy’s fourth season is filled with the kind of pleasurable moments that have always counteracted its ambition: Youngest child Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), forever freshly woke to some new cause, has a vision of God in the form of her white-coated dentist. Amid a cacophonous family reunion, matriarch Shelly (Judith Light) offhandedly argues the real problem with a two-state solution is that “it sounds too much like the Final Solution.” Throughout the season, “Mapa” Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) awkwardly dictates all her text messages via voice command in a delightful running gag. Whatever larger themes they’re in service of, the Pfeffermans’ manifold neuroses make the characters as endearing as they are aggravating, and it could run for seasons upon seasons as a handsomely filmed sitcom about mindlessly privileged Los Angeles Jews.

But—you could feel the “but” coming—this season falls a bit short as a drama, vacillating between spinning its wheels and manufacturing drama when no natural conflict arises. Transparent has a long way to go before it grows outright tiresome, and it’s doubtful it ever will. But a scattered and tangibly flawed season raises the question of how much it is worth to find out. Even if Transparent can dependably provide entertaining television for the foreseeable future—which includes, at minimum, a fifth season that Jill Soloway won’t be showrunning for the first time in series history—its fourth volume inadvertently makes the case that it doesn’t need to. In the process, it brings up a larger question about how, or when, to end a successful television show in the prestige era.

Historically, television has operated under its own version of the Peter principle, with successful (read: popular) shows getting renewed until they’d exhausted their supply of audience goodwill, then extending for an additional season or three beyond that. There’s a reason most 20th-century, pre-cable-age series considered classics, from All in the Family to Friends, ran for nigh on a decade, if not longer. But just as this new era of TV has redefined success with subscriptions, awards, buzz, and other non-Nielsen metrics of cultural saturation, it’s upended other tenets of conventional wisdom—like the idea that the goal of any series is to continue in perpetuity. That’s still true for network television, as broadcasters’ business models dictate it must, but not necessarily for the streaming- and cable-based prestige series that dominate the critical conversation. On those platforms, for every Enlightened, a classic canceled-before-its-time cult hit, there’s a Girls, which reached its natural climax in Season 3 and then proceeded to double in length. Individually, those diminishing returns still feel inevitable; collectively, though, they prompt us to ask whether it still has to be this way, especially when held up against series like The Leftovers and Louie that indicate there’s power in brevity, or even nonconclusion.

An undersung virtue of Peak TV is how it’s made space for as many different lengths of stories as kinds; a show now has more options than to become a seven-season blockbuster or wither and die in the attempt. Most obviously, the past few years have seen anthology series and limited series come back into vogue as a means of attracting top-tier talent with a lower time commitment. But TV’s growing formal diversity includes even more potential outcomes, including indefinite breaks and closed-yet-multiyear arcs. While Transparent doesn’t seem to be taking one of those options, while watching Season 4, I found myself occasionally wondering why it doesn’t.

When Transparent began, it was a show about Maura’s late-in-life transition and the chain reaction her coming out triggered in her myopic, narcissistic children. Her oldest daughter, Sarah (Amy Landecker), began to question whether her attraction to women was just a collegiate phase after all. Lone Pfefferman boy Josh (Jay Duplass) started to look critically at the seeming teen fantasy of his adolescent, and still ongoing, affair with his babysitter. Ali tinkered, recklessly but earnestly, with her gender expression, sexuality, and general outlook on the world.

Seasons 2 and 3, while not serving each Pfefferman equally well, extended their journey in necessary ways. The second season followed the family tradition of dysfunction and denial all the way back to the Holocaust, which claimed Maura’s trans aunt, Gittel, before her mother escaped to postwar Los Angeles. The third highlighted Maura’s relative advantages as a white, wealthy trans woman while establishing Shelly beyond her previous caricature of an overbearing Jewish mother. Both installments continued the show’s central exploration of identity through the unleashing of its long-repressed secrets. By the end of Season 3, Maura had found a place in the trans community and made her peace with being unable to medically transition; along the way, her children have gone through engagements, divorces, miscarriages, S&M relationships, grad school, and feminist music festivals. When the family convened an improvised Passover seder on a cruise ship before Shelly began to publicly work through her pain with the help of Alanis Morissette, it was a lovely note to go out on. To use the show’s own language, if Transparent had ended then and there, dayenu—it would have been enough.

Instead, that potential perfect ending segues directly into Season 4, which indicates that the Pfeffermans don’t have much further to travel. Instead of witnessing their progress, we simply watch them tread water. Though Sarah’s involvement with her latest female love interest goes in a slightly different direction, her story line this season shares an almost identical premise with her first. Maura, who’d previously expressed a preference for women, is now dating a man, but we don’t see her work through this change; the shift is a promising development for Maura as a person that makes for disappointingly flat television. Of the five Pfeffermans, only Josh appears to be fully invested in some much-needed self-improvement and the dynamic momentum that comes with it, identifying as a victim and attending sex and love addicts’ meetings. By the time the clan packs up and goes to Israel, the trip gives the distinct impression that Transparent is substituting geographic change for any new thematic insight. The revelations that take place there either come off as awkwardly retconned or are already known to the audience. And where Transparent has historically and miraculously avoided preachiness, Ali taking on Palestinian rights as her cause du jour felt outright didactic. Back in Los Angeles, flashbacks to the origin story of Maura’s friend Davina (Alexandra Billings) are affecting yet isolated from the main plot. The season offers moments of transcendence, like an almost sacramental swim in the Dead Sea that brought me to tears, but never cohesion.

In retrospect, Transparent feels like the story of a specific and irreplicable moment in the Pfefferman saga, a flux point that brought together gender, queerness, Judaism, filial bonds, and contemporary Los Angeles in one glorious confluence. Once that moment passed—as it inevitably would; how often do those subjects naturally converge?—the confluence splintered into half a dozen independently interesting, but not inherently connected, strands. And yet the show keeps going, trying its best to weave them back together.

To be fair: “Just keep going” is still the modus operandi for the ever-rarer flagship megahit. The Walking Dead and Homeland have each earned criticism in their late periods, but will likely continue as long as their creators and stars want them to (especially since the TV spending boom is still going strong). The pressure is even more intense for the broadcast networks still operating on an advertiser-supported model in a TV landscape where live viewing’s downward trend shows no signs of stopping. This Is Us could take a creative nosedive in its second season, but it’s already guaranteed to get a third on the strength of its freshman ratings. It is too valuable to NBC, just as CBS treasures The Big Bang Theory and ABC Grey’s Anatomy.

But Transparent is not The Big Bang Theory or Game of Thrones. The show is a critical hit, not a commercial one (or so we can safely assume in the absence of viewership data from Amazon). And with that designation comes the freedom to follow creative prerogatives, not commercial ones—up to and including the duration of the series. Amazon recently announced a shift in strategy that read less like a full 180 (who doesn’t want to make the next Game of Thrones?) than a tacit admission that its existing M.O. had failed to yield any major breakthroughs besides Transparent—implying that, in its own way, Transparent is also too valuable to let go, the same logic that underwrote other low-rated yet still overlong series like Girls.

It’s often remarked upon how the current TV bubble allows for the existence of so many varied and niche series. Less discussed, though still noteworthy, is how it accommodates those series’ conclusions. The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire, two of the year’s best dramas, are examples of shows with final seasons as noteworthy as their runs. That a metaphorical show about the apocalypse and a history of the early tech industry exist at all is incredible enough. That they would do so for three and four seasons, respectively, and get the chance to end on their own terms adds an entirely separate layer of exceptionalism. Both series, having suffered admittedly marginal ratings for their entire runs, became examples of a phenomenon I’ve come to think of as the “renewalation”: rather than straightforwardly canceling the shows, HBO and AMC simultaneously announced that each series would get an additional season and that said season would be the show’s last. Neither Leftovers nor Halt’s ending was entirely by choice, but they still offer an instructive middle path between abrupt cutoff and constant extension. There’s tremendous opportunity in having advance knowledge that the end is in sight: The Leftovers’ final season was transcendent, and while Halt’s is still in progress, all signs point to going out on a high note.

In lieu of a hard cutoff, Peak TV also allows for the possibility of trailing off with a “to be continued”—an open maybe-ending, though a different kind than television usually dictates. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm is about to return to HBO after a six-year hiatus, and, even before that, the latter seasons of the show were released on a de facto biennial schedule. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang clearly have an open invitation from Netflix to make a third season of Master of None, but they’ve yet to take the streaming service up on its offer (and before that, took a full 18 months between Seasons 1 and 2). Louis C.K. has no current plans to make a sixth season of Louie, instead busying himself with other projects, both for FX and for himself. Like Transparent, all three of these series are prestige markers essential to the “reputation for excellence” side of their distributors’ bottom line. (For every Fuller House, Netflix needs a Master of None to burnish its brand.) And rather than use that leverage to stay on the air, all three are counterintuitively spending their capital on the chance to stay off it. There’s no longer even a binary between forging ahead and wrapping up; instead, shows can hit pause and leave that critical decision to a later date, providing they’ve built up the goodwill to do so.

Then there are series whose entire structure highlights how television is no longer a binary between miniseries and maxi-series. HBO’s Vice Principals, which creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride expanded from a feature script into a two-volume series, is deliberately finite, shooting its 18 chapters all at once despite releasing the seasons months apart. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna have long alluded to a four-season plan with a beginning, middle, and end, and considering the CW Golden Globe winner is already on its third chapter, it seems poised to reach that milestone. An 18-hour epic like Twin Peaks: The Return defies easy categorization, hovering somewhere in length between a traditional limited series and an abbreviated regular one. (The Return has exactly as many episodes as Freaks and Geeks and more than half as many as the 1990 show it’s a sequel to.) More and more series decide on their endings not when they have to or even when they want to, but when the show is conceived.

The medium that was once synonymous with open-ended storytelling now allows for narratives extended enough that they’re possible only on television, but conceived with a destination already in mind. Slowly and in starts, television is offering a solution to one of its built-in and seemingly intractable drawbacks as a form. For all its exploding cachet, TV has yet to conquer its self-defeating and market-incentivized habit of wearing out its welcome. The ability to opt out of that habit still isn’t available to everyone, and likely never will be. But it is there, and that’s a start.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.