A short argument for the limited run TV series

The Twitters and the internets were all abuzz yesterday with shock and horror that Fox was going to again cut short the run of a brilliant Joss Whedon series and would be slicing away a bit of the souls of Joss’s fans. Fortunately, that’s not quite the case. Unlike with Firefly, Fox aired all of Dollhouse in the correct order. Unfortunately, part of the reason that the situations are different is that Dollhouse is not as fun or enjoyable of a series as the space-western hybrid. Dollhouse did become compelling with the recent episodes “Man on the Street” and “Needs,” but without the same immediacy and fun that kicked off Firefly.
So, what’s happening? Fox interprets the terms of the contract as their 13 episode order including the unaired pilot, while the production company made 13 episodes (exclusive of the original pilot) for the DVD distribution. See Sepinwall’s summary to understand where everything stands.
This sounds like it comes down to a contractual and bargaining issue between the network and the studio, more than a premature cancellation (ala Firefly, Pushing Daisies, etc.) If Fox does renew Dollhouse, I’m sure that “Epitaph One” will air at some point before the start of season 2. Or perhaps the brisk DVD sales of the show (for fans to watch the epitaph) will encourage the network to pick up the show for a second season.
Given that episode 12 is titled “Omega” and episode 13 “Epitaph One,” it seems that there won’t be many plot threads left dangling after episode 12, or cliffhangers that will be resolved in episode 13. The characters may be able to react to the events in the last act of episode 12.
Even if Dollhouse ends with this one 13 part story, does that make it a failure?
I think that single season 13-episode series (longer than a miniseries, shorter than a multi-season 22 episode series) can be great artistically. Lots of room for character building, but not too much time to get sidetracked and diverted from telling a single story. What if Whedon had the opportunity to tell a story every year for a few years in 13-episode chunks, with each year being a completely different story/series? I’d very excited to see what Whedon or one of the HBO Davids (Simon, Chase, Milch) could do with that type of creative concept.
To a large degree, David Simon’s HBO projects have all been in this style. The Corner and Generation Kill were mini-series. Season One of The Wire was essentially one story told from beginning to end (but did create a world that was opened up and explored in depth in the following four seasons, which were slightly less self-contained.)
Kings, which has been interesting, if not compelling viewing, will likely end up as a single 13 episode series (as NBC burns off the remaining episodes to lower ratings on Saturday night). How it stands on its own as a story remains to be seen, but this could be a model worth pursuing, at least from the creative perspective.

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