It's called the "beautiful corpse" theory of television – the idea that the best thing a show can do for its legacy is to burn bright and die young, never facing the fading glory of old age.
It's not a bullshit theory, either. I can tell you right now that I will never as long as I live utter the words "You need to watch the U.S. version of The Office from beginning to end," because absolutely no one needs Nellie Bertram or Robert California in their lives. And this is coming from someone who, as recently as 2007, considered that show to be among the five best on television.
The Office may be the most recent and harrowing example, but the list of shows that could have stamped a stronger mark into history by bowing out a bit sooner is one that goes on and on, from The Simpsons to 24 to Gilmore Girls. Dexter, House, Supernatural, Scrubs, lots of sitcoms. I'm not saying these shows all went full-on necrotic before the end as The Office has, but greatness eventually slipped beyond all their reaches, some of them very, very far beyond.
On the flip side, it's the easiest thing in the world to recommend Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks or Firefly or Sports Night or Party Down or Terriers to someone looking for good TV to watch, partially because all those series can be blown through in under twenty hours, but more importantly because they all maintained unbroken runs of very high quality from beginning to end.
I of course wailed and gnashed my teeth when Arrested Development was cut down in early 2006, but at the same time, here's a worthwhile thought experiment: If that show had continued on through, say, season eight, to declining comedic results each year, eventually becoming the equivalent of Mitch Hurwitz's 2010 followup series Running Wilde, would its legacy loom quite so deified over the sitcom medium?
Maybe, but, looking at how little I see people talk about The Simpsons these days, maybe not. (And here's where we cross our fingers and pray that Arrested Development's ludicrously-hyped ten-episode fourth season coming to Netflix in a couple years doesn't break our hearts.)
Now mind you, that The Simpsons eventually faded does not undo its peak years being among the very best television ever created, but it does mean that, as with The Office and all those other shows, a recommendation of the show to some bizarre person who's never seen it does need to come with a giant verbal asterisk attached.
I'm not advocating that shows with stuff left in the tank be snatched from showrunners and killed just to make sure that corpse looks as sexy as possible, but I am absolutely saying that sometimes fat-free is the way to go, which brings us to Steven S. DeKnight's Spartacus franchise, recently and rather suddenly announced to be going into its final season, ominously subtitled War of the Damned.
I'll be first to admit that I was 100% taken aback by this news – my best prediction had been that the show was going to go two or even three more years before the final clash between Spartacus and Crassus, but the show's architect not only felt that one season was best, but having that one season be just ten episodes instead of thirteen was the artistic ideal.
My first instincts at having TV's sweatiest, pulpiest, bloodiest pleasure snatched from us so soon of course ran through a slightly bastardized version of the five stages – a flash of anger, a touch of grief – and some of that still lingers. But the more I think on it, the more ballsy and badass it is, and the bigger kudos I give to Starz for letting go their one ratings success exactly when the author deems it right for the story.
The list of things that make Spartacus a magnificent entertainment goes on and on and deserves its own post, which I will indeed be providing before its return, but near the pinnacle of that list, in bright neon letters, is pacing. If you've ever in your life complained while watching a serialized drama that it's moving too slowly or, worse, the dreaded "nothing happens," and you're not watching Spartacus, you're a hypocrite. This sucker moves, forcefully and aggressively. Arcs climax quickly and satisfyingly, heroes and villains clash, characters die, battles are fought, new settings and status quos are established and then torn down in the blink of an eye. The historical event I figured might cap off season four turned out to cap off season two, and it was deliriously fucking awesome.
So it seems fitting that such a breathlessly-paced work should have but three "official" seasons – Blood and Sand, Vengeance, and War of the Damned – and the six-episode prequel season Gods of the Arena constituting the entirety of its bloody, satisfying whole. They have a shitload of history left to get through, and I imagine that the idea for War of the Damned is to one-up Vengeance's having every two or three episodes be a massive, climactic game-changer to having every episode be a massive, climactic game-changer. If I'm even close to right, the collective whole of Spartacus is going to be something I'll be recommending to pretty much everyone with a tolerance for gore who likes awesome and entertaining things, forever.
AMC claims that "Story Matters Here," but we've all seen the way they scrape what should be three-episode arcs on The Walking Dead across entire glacially-paced seasons. Hey, AMC? Starz just fucking schooled you.