We should have known that Without a Trace wasn't long for this world. After seven seasons, the plots were turning in on themselves. The FBI agents were taking over the stories, shoving aside the missing persons they were supposed to be saving. Even the criminals were turning into afterthoughts, filler placed between vivid events in the lives of the agents.
In one recent episode, an agent of excellent reputation fell for a woman who happened to be a vicious habitual criminal. Two agents fell in love and married. The chief of the bureau lost his great love (another agent, of course) to a younger man.
Perhaps CBS made the right decision last week when it chose to cancel Without a Trace, even though the audience remained sizeable. Perhaps it was a question of the decadence and strain that often precede the imminent death of a long-running series.
Most episodic shows tell two stories simultaneously. One deals with fictional characters. The other is the narrative's slow evolution under the pressure of desperate producers and harried writers.
The second story demonstrates that the history of a TV series, like the history of a nation or an art movement, falls into four periods -- primitive, classic, baroque and decadent.
In the primitive stage the audience is unconvinced that the show will matter and the people producing it aren't so sure, either. When Flashpoint went on the air last summer, it spent far too much time explaining itself.
Its subject is the fictional Strategic Response Unit in the Toronto police force, dealing with everything from hostage-taking to bomb threats. The first show gave us the impression that this was to be a program about cops loading up their guns, strapping on their Kevlar vests and checking their smoke bombs before going into action. The obsession with mechanical detail seemed likely to limit genuine storytelling. But since then, Flashpoint has turned into a convincing, fast-moving series. It's now well into the classic period, confident about what it's doing and how to do it.
To see the baroque sensibility on TV, consider the extensive ornamentation built into House, the most popular U. S. scripted series last season. The parallels with Sherlock Holmes are a clear example. Holmes and Dr. Gregory House deploy similar logic (eliminate everything false and you reveal the truth), both use drugs (Holmes's cocaine, House's Vicodin), both relax by making music (Holmes's violin, House's guitar and piano). House has only one friend, Dr. James Wilson, an oncologist whose name resembles Dr. John Watson's. House's address is 221B, the Holmes address on Baker Street. References to Holmes's books and his enemy Moriarty crop up. That's pure literary ornament.
The decadent era begins when writers lose interest in their themes and try to maintain audiences by concocting steadily more outlandish storylines. One of the attorneys in the law firm of McKenzie, Brackman on the program L.A. Law (1986-1994) was a divorce specialist famous for seducing his clients and all other available females. A scriptwriter had him fall through a ceiling in the office while shagging his secretary. Amusing, but it turned comedy into farce and drained reality from the character -- as Happy Days did in 1977 when Fonzie rode water skis over a Seaworld shark, making "jump the shark" a term for a program reduced to terminal silliness. (In 1997, a website, jumptheshark.com, began chronicling self-destructive TV shows.) In another L.A. Law episode a man was accused of using toad venom as a narcotic, but claimed he kept toads merely as pets; he destroyed his defense when he licked one while testifying. An annoying executive partner in McKenzie, Brackman solved everyone's problems by falling down an elevator shaft. That became a famous event in TV history but the arbitrary plotting suggested decadence and foretold early cancellation. Soon L.A. Law was no more.
Da Vinci's Inquest, the most convincing Canadian show in at least a generation, ran from 1998 to 2005 and created Dominic da Vinci, a Vancouver coroner, as a credible civil servant with a strong sense of justice. Its decadent period arrived in the form of a follow-up show, Da Vinci's City Hall, with the same character promoted to mayor. Everything that seemed natural in the original now seemed false.
Chris Haddock, the producer, tried in vain to surround the central figure with political conspiracies that would bring the show to life, but it's hard to make the routine of an honest mayor interesting. Apparently, there was no way to keep him from spending most of his time going to meetings or planning to go to meetings. The audience departed, then the show. Haddock's next series, Intelligence, about a B. C. marijuana magnate and his Byzantine connections with the forces of law, didn't go the distance from primitive to decadent. While at times it seemed the most convincing drama ever produced in Canada, it died quickly when viewers realized they needed almost scholarly concentration to follow the plot.
As a program's fourth or fifth season ends, alert viewers often notice that a frantic quality invades the scripts. Writers are running short on ideas just when they're trying to squeeze another season out of a somewhat worn concept. They reach for increasingly dubious themes and put the main characters in deeper and deeper jeopardy.
That happened during the recently concluded fifth season of Numb3rs, an amiable show about a mathematical genius, Charlie Eppes, who helps his brother Don solve crimes for the FBI in Los Angeles.
The stories became painfully marginal, the sign of writing that's lost its way ("When a pair of valuable sneakers is stolen from the vault of a foreign ambassador, the team delves into the world of sneaker collecting"). The star characters began turning into victims. The FBI harshly investigated both Charlie and Don for leaking classified information, but let them off with a warning. Don was stabbed while pursuing a murderer, Charlie blaming himself. Next, Charlie was knocked unconscious and his mathematician fiancee (another consultant for the FBI) was kidnapped for her computer skills by a Charles Manson-like figure leading a gang of crazed females.
Numb3rs has been renewed for 2009-2010, but recent programs brought with them that sense of decaying inspiration that appears not long before a series heads for the great rerun in the sky.