In the industry today, it’s never been more common to extend a show past its due. Once something reaches hit status, it becomes easy to hold onto that something good: the network has a solid, consistent hit – and even if it declines in ratings in its later years, it still offers enough reliability to maintain support. While fans and creators in turn hold onto a premise for years and years out of love for that beloved little show – even if not for what it currently is, at the very least for what it once was. In recent years, everything from the likes of Gray’s Anatomy and Smallville to Supernatural, Bones, and X-Files have gone on to survive eight, nine, even ten season for these very reasons, even in spite of most seeing a substantial decline in quality during their waning years.
But the smart shows pick their own end. They plan it out in advance, see the limitations of the premise, recognize that for the myriad of contributing factors, the overall show will be better served by a limited run. Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and Breaking Bad are just some of the series that benefited from setting their own end date in advance; and not only would all such shows have gone to considerably lower quality in later seasons had they continued, but none would be as well thought of in retrospect as they are.
Arrow is in a unique kind of position on the CW. For one thing, it’s based on a comic book – and given the longevity and rebooting that comes from this kind of source material, it’s easy to imagine these kinds of shows going on and on as more characters and plotlines from the comics are introduced into the series. Adding onto that, it’s a bona fide hit for the network – especially in the growing DC universe alongside The Flash and the upcoming spinoff featuring characters like the ATOM – and so things become even more complicated.
As fans, we love this show. In its three years, it’s not only built a solid and loyal base, but it’s demonstrated a remarkable level of quality that elevates it above the rest of the genre – even ranking amidst the best of conceptually- and serialized-driven fare on television. So it’s easy for us as the audience, more than anyone, to say in a sense that we want to see this show continue forever. Even the thought that it might end in a couple of years can be a disheartening one, as that means the story is already halfway through.
But at the same time, more than any other show – particularly in this genre – that’s exactly what the show needs. Arrow established itself with a finite premise; and it will be considerably better for the series overall if it sticks to that original plan.
The set-up going in is that we would be given, in flashback format, the five years that Oliver Queen was stranded on the island that precedes the opening of the pilot episode. Those five years collectively serving as the first phase of Oliver’s origin story – the events which will eventually transform him into the Green Arrow. And in tandem with those flashbacks, we get the five years of post-island events; serving essentially as the other half of the crucible that shapes our hero into a superhero.
It’s an excellent premise, and by and large, it’s worked remarkably well. The flashbacks offer us that solid basis that continually let us see the varying states of Oliver’s character at different points of his life. And the timeline between both has been consistent; 2 and a half years into the present, we’re also 2 and a half years into the flashbacks.
Doubtless the question of what to do at the end of five years is something that has been considered by the showrunners – though no plans have been indicated, as they likely have not yet determined that themselves (and have a long while yet to think about it).
But there would be a number of problems if the show did continue past its five year plan. Foremost among them being that if it did, it might very well have to transition out of its very fundamental premise to do so. Once the flashback story reaches its end, the notion demands that Oliver Queen actually become the Green Arrow – and any continuation beyond would rob us of the origin story aspects. Those which allow for character examination of a man in progress, who still makes mistakes while still finding his way to that end goal. The kinds of mistakes that Oliver Queen the Green Arrow can’t make.
The show would also lose momentum if the flashbacks were extended in any form – for example, take a year off from Oliver’s “5 Years in Hell” to flashback to something else; or even to do away with them altogether. At which point, the show would lose its very narrative cohesion. The flashbacks and present working in sync is a large part of what makes the series – and its particular presentation of the origin story – so evocative. Any deviation away from that could seriously damage the entire product. And would additionally read as a decision made for the financially-driven continuation of the series, rather than a creative choice seeking out to accomplish what’s best for the show and its characters.
What’s more, the sixth season of a series is often the point at which many begin to lose steam. The same stories and ideas are rehashed as the writers reach the limits of the premise and status quo, and if continuing on with the expectation of further seasons beyond six and seven, then many a storyline and character will run in place, rinse and repeat, while trying to wrest something new from the tired series.
And at the same time, as Parks and Recreation recently just demonstrated, a show can benefit enormously from knowing that a given season is going to be its last. Arrow‘s fifth season could be fantastic if it was the final one for this very reason. Going in, the writers could have plotted out the endgame, the maneuvering of all final plotlines to be climaxed and resolved. Characters could be better navigated into place for their final exit. The entire five years could climax around those moments when flashback Oliver becomes the killer, and present Oliver becomes the superhero.
In other words, if this show limits itself to five years, it could be something truly extraordinary.
On top of that, it would mean that the show is less likely to reach a place where fans become tired of it. We may be sad at what is a comparatively shorter run – but in retrospect we could also remember it for all of its greatness; for a shortened span that resulted in much less filler, and fewer downturns in quality. The bulk of the material could be aimed toward the show’s fundamental premise, rather than introducing side elements as an excuse to keep the series going past its due.
While this does mean that were Marc Guggenheim and the CW to actually stick to this plan, Arrow is already past the halfway mark of its run, but that’s still largely for the best. The series has already pioneered comic book television to a more substantial degree than any other in the entire history of the genre. And if it goes out well, then we’ll remember it as that one near-perfect series that helped set the standard in television. And not only for the genre.