10 TV Shows That Quit While They Were Ahead

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It’s been a rough few weeks for fans of quality TV. When AMC and Matthew Weiner finally worked out a deal to keep Mad Men going, we learned that Weiner is planning to end the show after only three more seasons. And now, because of Alec Baldwin’s big mouth (which, lest we forget, has gotten him in trouble before), we’re not sure whether or not 30 Rock will stop production next year. Instead of going into premature mourning, we’ve decided that this may well be for the best. Although many great TV series keep going for years after they’ve lost their magic, some wise showrunners make the noble decision to forsake a reliable paycheck and quit while they’re ahead. We look at ten shows that did just that after the jump.

Seinfeld

Although Seinfeld‘s quality suffered after Larry David left the show for its final two seasons, it remained one of America’s most popular TV shows. If the cast and NBC had their way, we assume it would still be on the air even now. That’s why it was front-page news when Jerry Seinfeld announced, on December 25, 1997, that the show would wrap the next year, after nine seasons. (Some Christmas present, Jerry!) ”I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we’ve been doing it on for years,” Seinfeld told the New York Times. ”I wanted the end to be from a point of strength. I wanted the end to be graceful.” Whatever your feelings on the show’s controversial finale, it certainly went out with a bang: over half of that evening’s TV viewers tuned in, for a total of roughly 76 million.

The Office (UK)

The British TV production world is vastly different from the American one, largely because it centers around the BBC and not a handful of major networks owned by ginormous conglomerates. That is why, for instance, we got two seasons of John Cleese’s immortal Fawlty Towers three years apart, and Jennifer Saunders made three series of her cult classic Absolutely Fabulous between 1992 and 1995, then revisited the show again in 2001. But our pick here is Ricky Gervais’s The Office, a wickedly funny workplace sitcom that spawned its own (albeit sweeter) hit American show. And while NBC just won’t let its popular comedy die, despite having run out of plot years ago and the impending departure of its star actor, Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant wisely decided to cut off the original after a pair of six-episode series and two Christmas specials.

Six Feet Under

HBO’s beloved Six Feet Under made the Fisher family everyone’s weird, funeral-home-operating neighbors. Over the years, Claire became our awesome, artsily messed up sister, David grew into our sweet brother struggling to accept his sexuality, and we even developed a sort of tough-love affection for resident narcissist Nate. So it was faintly devastating when Alan Ball announced that the show’s fifth season would be its last. “Working on Six Feet Under has been enormously fulfilling creatively, but if the show is about anything, it’s about the fact that everything comes to an end,” he said at the time — and he was entirely correct. Although Six Feet Under dragged a bit, and even flirted with shark-jumping, in the middle few seasons, its last leg was strong, and the show finished up with one of the best, most fulfilling finales in TV history.

Lost

Fans of Lost had a few years to prepare for the show’s demise: ABC announced it three years in advance. “Among fans there was an unease that they were making an investment in a show that’s complicated without any sense of where that’s going to lead them,” Damon Lindelof explained at the time. He and fellow co-creator Carlton Cuse revealed that they had already plotted out the show’s final few seasons and insisted that the show was indeed going somewhere and that major questions would be answered. Whether or not this occurred to your satisfaction (we certainly weren’t thrilled with the final few episodes), you have to admit that it was nice to see the showrunners and network willingly relinquish a popular series they could have stretched out even longer, had they wanted to add even more inane twists and turns.

This American Life

NPR addicts and those who simply harbored a giant crush on This American Life host Ira Glass rejoiced when the word spread that the long-running radio program was getting its own Showtime series. The show perfectly translated Glass and his (often big-name) contributors’ fascinating, real-life narratives to the small screen, resulting in one of the few recent nonfiction shows better classified as documentary than reality TV. This American Life ran for two seasons, in 2007 and 2008, before Glass and his co-creators decided to call it quits. “I don’t know if I can say this yet, but we’ve asked to be taken off of television,” Glass told an audience at 92Y in September 2009. We miss getting to see TAL in two different formats, but thankfully the radio show lives on.

Skins (UK)

While Skins is still airing across the pond (and no one seems to know what the chances are that the MTV version will be renewed), no other series has been as faithfully brutal in its casting changes. Every two years, creators Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain replace their entire cast of high schoolers and start over again with a brand-new group. No matter how popular a character is, she’s sure to fall off the face of Skins‘s Earth, never to be seen again (even as a guest star) — and she may even drop dead an episode or two before the finale. Now on its third cast, Skins regularly re-emerges as a completely new show and always leaves us wanting more.

Chappelle’s Show

For two brilliant seasons, Chappelle’s Show was TV’s only sketch series worth talking about. (Sorry, SNL.) The skits were everything great comedy should be: socially relevant, politically incorrect, and uproariously funny. Remember the racial draft? The black white supremacist? Rick James, bitch? But then the third season got pushed back, and then we learned that production was suspended indefinitely, and eventually it came out that Dave Chappelle had abandoned the show and retreated to South Africa. The comedian later revealed that he had left because he felt burned out and pressured. Meanwhile, Comedy Central tied up the third season without Chappelle and aired the resulting material as “The Lost Episodes.” On the bright side, we never had to watch those great characters get old. But aside from 2006’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the Michel Gondry-helmed documentary about a free concert Chappelle held in Bed-Stuy during the summer of 2004, he’s pretty much stayed out of the national spotlight since leaving the show. As one of the most consistently smart and daring voices in comedy, he’s certainly been missed.

Flight of the Conchords

It should never have worked: an HBO show helmed by and about a fiction version of a Kiwi comedy-folk duo living in New York. Who was the audience for that, exactly? But Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie won viewers’ hearts with their zany humor, hilarious, genre-hopping songs, self-deprecating New Zealand jokes. It didn’t hurt that the supporting cast included Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, Arj Barker, Rhys Darby, and Rachel Blanchard. Flight of the Conchords became an unexpected hit. So it was a surprise when the stars pulled the plug on the show after only two seasons, with Clement explaining, “We’ve got to write the series, but we’ve also got to write the songs, and just dividing your time into those two writing tasks is really tricky.”

Clarissa Explains It All

Few TV series have succeeded at following their high school-age characters to college. Beverly Hills, 90210 exhausted every reasonable plot line but still kept chugging for years, and Gossip Girl is on the road to the same tarnished fate. As for Saved by the Bell: The College Years, that show didn’t even make it to Season 2. So thank heavens SNICK’s proudest creation, Clarissa Explains It All, called it quits after five seasons, when its title character graduated from high school and started looking like an adult. Sure, Nickelodeon tried to farm a spin-off to CBS, but we’ll always be grateful the network didn’t pick up the pilot.

I Love Lucy

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s I Love Lucy will go down in history as one of TV’s finest creations, and the episodes are still as laugh-out-loud funny as any new series. Immensely popular during its original run, I Love Lucy was the #1 show when it went off the air in 1957. It was Ball and Arnaz’s decision to end the sitcom, switching over to a less grueling production schedule and creating 13 episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (which borrowed I Love Lucy‘s principal cast) over the next three years. That show, meanwhile, ended when Ball filed for divorce from Arnaz in 1960 — on his birthday. Insert “I Hate Lucy” joke here.