In this season's opening episodes of "Gossip Girl" the gang was once again on the trail of a missing Serena. (She's disappeared before.) She was keeping secret the fact that she had slept with a boyfriend of Blair's (not the first time); the two women weren't on speaking terms (as usual). Dan was writing a tell-all (again). And Rufus was making waffles. (It's what he does.) If it seems as if the show had visited this territory before, it had.
But the "Gossip Girl" writers had not run out of ideas. No, they were creating mirror-image bookends to the show's first seasons, demonstrating how the characters had come full circle. They were doing the part-triumphant, part-sad job of wrapping up "Gossip Girl."
Shows go off the air for a variety of reasons: tanking ratings, tanking ratings and, of course, tanking ratings. But sometimes, rarely even, shows go off the air not because of advertising concerns or profitability but because the people who write and produce them decide that it's time.
That's not to say that these shows are leaving as the critical and ratings darlings that they once were; critics have faulted all these shows as being stale and past their expiration date. Renegotiating with actors, writers and producers often creates too big a dent in profitability, and
Whatever the factors, the producers must face a big question: When do you call it quits?
For "Gossip Girl," the answer was easy. "Shows like these aren't designed to run forever," said Josh Schwartz, the series co-creator. "It was a combination of having a great long run, watching these characters grow and mature, and" -- maybe most aptly -- "being at the end of a six-year contract that everyone had been under when it started."
In addition, he said, "there comes a point creatively where it feels like having an endgame is a terrific way to energize a show late in its run."
"Gossip Girl" could have continued for years, in the tradition of "Beverly Hills 90210" and "One Tree Hill." Teenagers, after all, do grow up: Let actors and characters come and go, and keep the spirit of the show alive. Instead "Gossip Girl" rolled its eyes at the thought, introducing Sage, only to have her trumpet the end: "No one reads Gossip Girl anymore," she told Serena.
Likewise, when "The Office" began its ninth season, it seemed like a show that could go on forever -- which was, in fact, a possibility.
"We could keep the show going for many years and keep refreshing it with new cast members," said Greg Daniels, one of the show's creators and executive producers. "We hit a fork in the road this season, trying to decide if we'd go that way, or if we'd end it now with as many of the original cast members as we could." It came down to whether "The Office" was about a paper company and the people who worked there, or about this particular set of people who worked at a paper company.
"You just can't expect people to play the same characters for 25 years," Daniels said. It's a rigorous job, all the more so on "The Office," where so many of the actors are also writers and producers.
Exhaustion was also partly to blame for the curtain on "30 Rock," which is ending Jan. 31. But a bigger reason was the eagerness of the staff to pursue other projects, especially the in-demand creator, Tina Fey, who stars as Liz Lemon.
"People want to move on and have to move on," said Robert Carlock, an executive producer of "30 Rock." "A show has a half-life, an isotopic decay, and you have to be sensitive to that. The thing that kept us on the air was that we tried to make it very good. The last thing that Tina and I wanted to have happen was it to stop being good." Referring to David Mamet, he added: "I think Mamet said, when he was doing 'The Unit,' that doing a movie is like running a marathon. TV is like running until you die."
No, Carlock corrected himself. It's worse than that. Writing and producing a TV show is like being chased by something that's faster than you: "You want to catch it before it catches you," he said. "You never run out of ideas. We still have ideas, especially because it's a show that deals with topical events. But the monster that's chasing you will inevitably get you."
So, beginning last season, the writers kept the end in sight. Since the show is centered on Liz's desire to find happiness, it was time to find her someone appropriate. "We had to stop with the guys who have hooks for hands and who pull guns on her on airplanes," Carlock said. They introduced Criss (James Marsden), a guy who wanted to settle down with her and wasn't too crazy. And there were larger stories to tell too -- about Tracy, Kenneth, Jenna, and, of course, Jack.
"We needed endings for nine or 10 different people," Carlock said with exasperation. "How do you do that for everyone?"
Perhaps understandably, the show runners interviewed weren't willing to share specifics on their endings, except to say that the clues could be found in the shows' beginnings. "The arrows that point you toward your series finale are usually seeded in your pilot," Schwartz said.