What Is the Magic Number?

by Julie, enjoying the waning days of summer

I have been rewatching Bones this past week. I’ve been under the weather, and not up to much else, so I’ve watched a lot of episodes. There is something about rewatching a show from the beginning that lets you enjoy it again as a fan, and dissect it as a writer. Did the character arcs ring true till the end? Are the story lines satisfying? Did the series sag in the middle? Was it satisfying all the way through?

I could write a blog post about Bones over twelve seasons. But instead the question I’ve been asking myself is what’s the magic number? Robert Wagner always thought that five seasons was the magic number for television shows, so he ended Hart to Hart after five seasons. Carl Reiner wanted to go out on top, so he ended The Dick Van Dyke Show after five seasons. Now, there are lots of examples of shows that remain great after five years, but there also examples of shows that would have been well served to call it at five.

Last week I thought about the John Ceepak series by Chris Grabenstein. I love that series, which went to eight books. I recently reread them and would have happily kept reading more. The characters kept growing, but the core of the series remained the same. Grabenstein kept it fresh. Alas, I believe it’s done at eight.

Elizabeth Peters wrote twenty plus Amelia Peabody books, and kept the quality up throughout. There are other long running series that have held up for me . But I have found, as a reader, I sometimes lose steam with a series between books 6-10 if the characters feel static.

So, I’ve been wondering about that magic number. You know the one. The number of books in a series that completely satisfies the reader, but leaves them a little sad it’s over. The number of seasons of a TV series where the characters feel true, and the stories still feel fresh? The number where commerce has not run over creativity, and the art isn’t being forced to meet a bottom line. Not that I don’t get the lure of the offer of more money. I hope to have that creative dilemma some day. But I digress.

There is, of course, no right number. And there are so many factors out of a creator’s control. Series get canceled before they’re done. That’s a fact of life. But as a creator, I can’t help but think that thinking about my number as I plan a series would serve me well. Early on in my career, I wouldn’t have thought about that as much. But now, how many books are the number I need to tell the characters’ stories? I will say that of my three series to date, none of them hit the magic number. Which is frustrating, but that’s also the business.

This blog post isn’t an opportunity to trash series (TV or books) that went past their number. Instead, it’s an opportunity for us all to celebrate the long running series that worked till the end, and to sing the praises of the series that called it while they were still at the top of their game.

Let the celebrations begin!

40 Thoughts

  1. What an interesting topic, Julie. First let me say I hope you feel better very soon.

    Call the Midwife will air season 13 next year and there will be two more after that. I think it’s been strong throughout, and it gives me so much joy to look forward to. I don’t know how many seasons Downton Abbey ran, but I missed it when it ended. Somebody Somewhere is a quirky sweet funny series that we love, and it’s been renewed for season three. I hope it goes for a long time.

    I think about the question for my own books. The Country Store series has one more in the contract – #13 is due next year. Will the publisher renew the contract for more books? Do I want to keep writing those books? Has the series run its course? Things to ponder.

    1. Edith, the Country Store mysteries have NOT run their course. It is still as vibrant and interesting now as it was in Book 1. And if the publisher doesn’t renew the series, I’m leading the revolt! And I certainly do hope that you want to keep writing the series.

      1. I agree with Jay. Kensington, keep renewing Edith’s contract to write the Country Store mysteries!

  2. I am a loyal reader of long-running series but to keep reading, the series needs to stay fresh & the characters need to change/grow. One of the longest series I enjoy reading is the Meg Langslow books by Donna Andrews. Her 34th book, Let It Crow! Let It Crow! Let It Crow! (yes that’s the correct Christmas-themed title) comes out later this year. Meg’s twin sons are tweens now & her eccentric extended family provide an entertaining community.

  3. As long as a TV series or book series is working for me, it can run for as long as they want. But what I’ve noticed is the shows I love end before I want them to. And the shows I grow bored with just keep going and going and going.

    There is one long-running book series that I read seemingly forever but then I read the newest (at the time) book and it was shall we say awful and it made me drop the series as a whole and I’ve never gone back. But on the other hand there was a cozy series I loved that ended well before I thought it should have. It had a decent run (7 or 8 books I think) but I just wanted mor

    NYPD Blue ran for 12 seasons and I still wasn’t ready for it to end.

    1. Same with me, Jay. I dropped reading some long-running mystery series when the most recent book(s) were disappointing. So much other books are calling to me, so little time!

      I never watched NYPD Blue, but I enjoyed the entire run of Hill Street Blues.

      1. I hope people remember the series. All 12 seasons are available on DVD and currently Amazon Prime is streaming the series.

  4. In all honesty, I think both books and TV series have run their course when the writers are doing it purely for the financial gain. If they don’t have their heart in their writing, it comes across in the end result. When there’s heart and the writer keeps it original, even if part of a series, and keeps it connected, in order to be a series, then us, the reader or audience, keep wanting more.

    Pray you get to feeling better soon. Feeling puny for any reason, isn’t any fun at all.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  5. I have only read one series the past few years that I grew bored with. I think it was because the character(s) felt stagnant and weren’t really growing or changing.
    As for TV, I think the Sopranos ended when it should even though I loved the series. I also think Sons of Anarchy ended when it should.

  6. I pray that you will recover quickly and completely, Julie! I am with you all…there are series that you don’t ever want to end, and others that have “run out of steam”. I have made the mistake of buying all the books in a series because I was enchanted by the first or second book…and then decided I just wasn’t into them any longer, and though I commit to finishing every book I have, life is too short, and there are so many cozies waiting to lure me into wonderful worlds, so now they are either sitting in my library ready to be donated to my local friends of the library, or they have already been donated. If any of you Wickeds are stopped from writing any of your series by a publisher, count me in to help lead the revolt! Luis at ole dot travel

  7. As far as TV goes, I have noticed season six can be a tipping point. Either the magic continues or it’s right around that time where the writing gets tired and I lose interest. Interesting.

    I don’t know if the same applies to books or not. The sixth in The Laurel Highlands Mysteries, THICKER THAN WATER, comes out on 9/19 and I’m working on book 7 now. Now I’ll be doubly alert to make sure I don’t jump the shark with it! LOL

  8. This is so interesting, Julie! I still watch NCIS which has had 20 seasons so far. There have been a lot of character changes some good, some not so much. I still miss Ziva. I never liked Eleanor and hoped she’d die every week. I loved Ingrid Thoft’s books and that series ended way to soon!

    1. NCIS, I watched for a LONG time but finally stopped when Gibbs and Abby left the show. I also missed Ziva!

      1. I love NCIS and continue to watch. I miss Ziva as well but I loved Eleanor as well.

        Also, count me in on Ingrid Thoft’s Fina Ludlow series ending way too soon. That final book was a masterpiece in my opinion.

  9. A series of anything will run its course and we follow or don’t. Some things we revisit even after it has run its course. There is enjoyment in familiarity. As long as there is an audience, I imagine there is some longevity although I have heard of authors and actors who get really tired of playing out the same character. As a reader, I know I finally got tired of a character or two over time when there was no growth. Nostalgia vs popularity? Gee, we even stopped using rotary and wired phones!

  10. It can sometimes take a show a little while to truly find itself, too. For me, the sweet spot of Newhart (Bob Newhart’s 80’s sitcom in Vermont) was seasons 3-6. He even admits that the show took a while to find itself, so I feel like I’m in good company. I’m rewatching Full House right now thanks to a rewatch podcast, and we are in season 1. It’s good and enjoyable, but I’m waiting for Becky to get introduced (season 2) and Kimmie to show up on a more regular basis. This just feels like prologue.

    Other shows can find a resurgence. I believe that Monk sagged in season 7, but it revived for season 8 because they knew it was going to be the end of the series, and they went out on top.

    As to a show that never lagged, The Mary Tyler Moore Show springs to mind. When I rewatched it a couple of years ago, I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed the later seasons. I always think the show lost something when Rhoda and Phyllis left for their spin offs (and it did lose something), but some of my favorite episodes take place in those final two seasons.

    Ultimately, I do agree that there is no magic number for a TV show or book series. It requires the writer(s) to keep finding new and creative ways to advance the story and characters.

    1. These are all such great examples. I just watched a documentary on MTM, and how she wanted to go out on top. I agree, that series stands up. Bob Newhart is a great example of finding its legs. These days they wouldn’t have given the show the time, and that’s a shame because it was truly, truly funny.

  11. There are some television series that seem too good to end. I am thinking about Law and Order, which began somewhere around 1994. When one of the actors left, someone else replaced him or her on the police force or in the team at the Prosecutor’s office. I am totally okay with a good series going on forever! Of course, it has to be very good in order to do that.

  12. I loved the John Ceepak series and wish there were more. There have been a few long-running book series that I have stopped reading for various reasons. One of my favorite long-running book series is the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews. She keeps the series fun and fresh. There are several more series that I love that have more than 10 books in the series, and I will keep reading until the series stops. Another favorite is the Bibliophile series by Kate Carlisle — number 17 will be released in October.

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