The now-imminent end of CBS's critically adored and modestly rated The Good Wife raises again one of TV's most awkward questions: Can a good series run too long?
The answer is yes.
The Good Wife, it was announced on Super Bowl Sunday, will wrap up its seven-season run this spring with nine final episodes. That will bring its total to 157, which co-creator Robert King half-jokingly called "an insane number" in a conference call with TV writers earlier this week.
He later added, "We've had some seasons everybody has pointed out as not being as good as others."
He's right, and that doesn't disparage him or his co-creator wife Michelle. No show has ever had seven perfect seasons, or 157 perfect episodes. From M*A*S*H to The Sopranos, every long-running show has had stretches when it was marking time while it figured out where to go next.
While The Good Wife has used a large cast well, it has always revolved around Julianna Margulies's Alicia Florrick - and over 157 episodes, both her professional and personal trials have at times had a Perils of Pauline feel.
Other characters, from her husband Peter (Chris Noth) to the slippery campaign operative Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) (above) and Alicia's fellow lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), have also covered some of the same turf more than once.
Are they good, are they bad, whose team are they on, what's their real agenda. It's a battery of crises common to all series that have soap opera in their DNA.
Viewers can legitimately wonder if the prolonged whipsaw of "will they/won't they" was part of the reason Josh Charles, who played Alicia's on-and-off paramour Will Gardner, left after season five.
Will's death, like that of any major character, upset some fans while freeing up the Kings to create fresh storylines. The real loss for many Good Wife fans, though, was Archie Panjabi's Kalinda (above with Charles), who during the first couple of seasons was one of the best characters anywhere on television.
The show went on, but she was one of those endlessly fascinating characters you wanted to be there 'til the end.
As for what that end will entail, the Kings understandably aren't saying.
"Some of the best endings of series television were Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under. . . happy and sad at the same time," said Robert King. "The mixture. But that doesn't necessarily have any impact on what we're doing."
"What I admire," said Michelle King, "is when an ending feels both inevitable and surprising."
That leaves a lot of available turf, and the Kings opened the field even further by saying they'd be amenable to a spinoff series.
"There's all these fun characters that you maybe didn't see as much as you wanted," said Robert King. "Not only Elsbeth Tascioni, the Carrie Preston character, but Patti Nyholm, the Martha Plimpton character. What would be fun is if you could find a way to spin off kind of an ensemble."
For The Good Wife itself, however, he said, seven seasons will do it. After the Kings got their first renewal from CBS, he said, they decided that "the story of Alicia Florrick could only support seven seasons. So we built toward that."
That's still a lot of real estate. Compare The Good Wife's 157 episodes to 92 for Mad Men, 62 for Breaking Bad, 60 for The Wire, 60 so far for Homeland.
King also noted that The Good Wife was never one of CBS's highest-rated shows. But the network kept renewing it, and Robert King said the level of support sometimes surprised him.
It shouldn't have.
From the beginning, The Good Wife had something that broadcast TV starting losing a few years ago: prestige. It was a certified "quality show." It won awards, for itself and for Margulies. It was a card CBS could play in any game where quality golden-age contemporary TV drama was being discussed.
Ironically, said Robert King, that intangible value made it a little tricky to follow the seven-year plan.
The Kings were "trying to find completion in a form that tends to rebel against completion," he said. "Which is broadcast network TV, which really does want to be an ongoing structure."
So CBS had reasons for keeping it all these years, and its millions of loyal fans presumably would have watched indefinitely.
But purely as a drama taking Alicia Florrick and her crew from one point to another -- laying aside extended tangential soapy fun like Matt Czuchry's Cary Agos almost getting sent up the river -- it didn't need seven years.
That doesn't mean those extra episodes ruined the show. The reputation of The Sopranos survived a fistful of mediocre episodes the last couple of years.
It just reminds us that in TV as in triple chocolate mousse cheesecake, less can be more.