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It's not me, it's you

You and your favorite show have spent years together, through good seasons and bad. How do you know when it's time to break up?

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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When I first met you last year, I was captivated. I’d never seen anything quite like you. It was a Wednesday night, and I hung on your every word. We laughed and sang old songs together, just like giddy high schoolers. But when you returned from vacation early this year, you weren’t the same. I begged you, “Don’t stop believin’,’’ but it was too late. You’d changed, gotten superficial and inconsistent, lost your soul.

Oh, “Glee,’’ I wish I knew how to quit you.

Breaking up with a TV show can be hard to do, whether you’re the type who’s inclined to hang on until the bitter end of a relationship, eternally hoping that someday William Petersen will come home again to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,’’ or whether you’re a commitment-phobe who ran from “House’’ at the first signs of Huddy. How do you know when to cut bait on a series once and for all, to discard your commitment and say “kiss off’’ to longtime favorites such as Bree and Gaby, or Larry David, or Jack Bauer?

When, my friends, do you cancel your Season Pass to “Grey’s Anatomy’’?

Shows, like love affairs, have their ups and downs, after all. Series TV is built on story lines and characters that stretch across years, and periods of greatness are inevitably punctuated by periods of dissatisfaction and mediocrity. Just when you think a show is irredeemable — sitcom couple gets married, has a baby, jokes about losing sleep — it can indeed be reborn. To wit, “The West Wing,’’ which had a bumpy ride midway through its seven-season run — remember First Daughter Zoey’s abduction? — only to return to relevance after Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits joined the cast.

Many of us are accustomed to overusing the phrase “jump the shark,’’ meaning the moment a show is so bad it’s beyond rescue. And, as every single episode of a series undergoes obsessive next-day scrutiny online, we have become a bit too eager to pronounce a show’s time of creative death. We’ve become intolerant of natural quality fluctuations. But if I had leaped to early conclusions about “Lost,’’ which got lost during season three, or “Six Feet Under,’’ which meandered in the middle with Keith’s anger issues and Lisa’s disappearance, I would have missed some of the best that TV has to offer. Both shows proceeded out of their slumps to new heights of excellence.

Then again, I stuck with “ER’’ for 15 seasons out of laziness. I was tired after 10 seasons — bored with the bombings and shootings and plagues and uninspired by many of the new characters, such as Neela, Luka, and Sam. The series had gotten to be too much of a sweeps-month drama queen for me. But still I watched, on automatic pilot, dully waiting for a miracle. Finally, I severed ties in a pent-up fit of rejection and never looked back. Frankly, I didn’t even want to stay friends with “ER’’ — you know, an occasional check-in to see what’s doing. I was done.

So you don’t want to rush into divorce, but you don’t want to hang on merely out of habit, either. With a series like “Glee,’’ it’s tricky. Just when it seems completely unbearable — a Fox-y jumble of music videos promoting the soundtrack album, stuffed with characters whose contradictory behavior makes no sense from week to week — then the writers pull out a sweet Gwyneth Paltrow episode that leaves me wanting more. Suddenly I’m no longer dodging the water cooler; I’m back in the “Glee’’ fold.

But then, two weeks ago, the writers go and fumble the great villain Sue Sylvester, twisting her into being the psychologically abused daughter of Carol Burnett and a supporter of gay-bashed student Kurt, and I’m frustrated all over again. Sue, now principal, is marrying herself? Really? The show also is ruining its most refreshing character by making Kurt into such a saint I’m wanting to hate him. Still, “Glee’’ continues to have the power to irk me — always a sign of engagement. It’s relatively new, it’s got potential and ambition. I’ll stay for now.

OK, I know. It’s absurd to compare attachment to a TV show to a bond with a lover — a flesh-and-blood human being. It’s also absurdly fun. People do form potent connections with their stories. These TV characters appear in our living rooms and sometimes in our bedrooms. We spend a lot of time with them, which can be rewarding, but also cumbersome after a while.

Remember: Your boots are made for walking, but only when the time is right.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.