Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Rule of Diminishing Returns

In economics, diminishing returns (also called diminishing marginal returns) refers to how the marginal production of a factor of production starts to progressively decrease as the factor is increased.

In World of Warcraft, diminishing returns means that certain spells and abilities are less effective against player characters if they are used frequently within a short period of time.

The tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved.

While at the SFX Weekender, I sat in on a Q&A session with China Miéville. He was asked whether he would ever return to the Bas-Lag universe in future novels. The gist of his answer (I wish I'd written it down, because, as always, Mr Miéville was beyond eloquent) was that there is a fear of returning to a previous creation and doing it to death, producing endless copies which gradually become more and more pointless.

On the Monday evening after the SFX Weekender, I was looking for some no-brainer entertainment and chose to do a Pirates of the Caribbean back-to-back marathon.

These two factors combined caused me to think about the rule of diminishing returns within our beloved genre.

SFF is not alone in the tendency to milk a cash cow past its sell-by date - we've had the same occur in sitcoms, such as Scrubs, arguably Friends (although there were still humorous moments right to the end, it lost much of the sharp comedy from the first few seasons) and Seinfeld.

However, there are numerous examples of diminishing returns within the world of SFF, and I plan to pick out a few.


Okay, I already hit on this particular trilogy:

Watching them back to back really highlighted the bloated deficiencies of the second and third film in comparison to the first. The original movie - although probably over-long - was swashbuckling fun, with an actual linear plotline, and some great characters.

The second film concentrated on set pieces as the expense of plot, but still provided some entertainment, especially regarding the introduction of Davy Jones.

The third film was an utter mess - people double-crossing, triple-crossing, quadruple-crossing each other; a weird section with multiple Jack Sparrows; and a careering "plot" that didn't actually seem to go anywhere.

I almost shudder at the idea of the future films which are currently being worked on...

Here is another trilogy that really should have stuck at just one film:

The original Matrix film was a marvel of gripping storyline, pounding soundtrack and some ground-breaking new techniques. Remember when bullet-time was not ubiquitous to all science fiction films? I recall watching with my mouth open in wonder at a lot of the scenes in this first film.

And then came the second and third films... Why? They descended the trilogy into nonsense philosophy and random set pieces. If the Matrix had remained just one film, it would stand right up there as a part of SFF film canon. Messing with the original concept and producing more films only meant that any affection for the first film was diminished thoroughly.


The fact that there is a phrase 'jumping the shark' demonstrates ably that people believe a lot of TV series go further than they really should have.

For this I am merely going to produce a series of stills from the TV shows I believe jumped - do you agree or disagree?

Those were just off the top of my head - I'm sure if pushed I could come up with a number of others.


Even book series are not immune from travelling WAAAY beyond what most fans deem appropriate. A lot of urban fantasy series seem to suffer from dragging out what was a slight story in the first place.

I have two examples. The first is this:

Even Laurell K Hamilton's first few books weren't exactly brilliant - although she did a nice line in tense horror, there was far too much discussing relationships and monster politics. When LKH stuck to police investigations and the raising of the dead, the Anita Blake series was pretty damn entertaining though. Around book ten of the series something changed. Anita developed the ardeur and suddenly needed to have sex with pretty much everything walking - we've had furry sex, threesomes, foursomes, hell probably up to sixsomes, deep-throating, rain-making (which is both ick and eeew!) At this point the series became redundant as an urban fantasy creation and became fairly hardcore S&M eroticism. I don't mind erotic writing at all - but overuse of the word 'spill' during sex scenes caused me to put this series down. Spill sounds so accidental, don't you think?

The other series that has outstayed its welcome in a grand way is this one:

The first few books were... alright, I guess. Derivative and far too much S&M-themed fantasy (I'm sensing a theme here...) but just about readable - can you tell I said that really begrudgingly?

After a little while, though, Mr Goodkind decided to inflict upon his readers his views on politics. The message was barely couched in the form of fantasy - rather, we were bludgeoned over the head by what the author thought on various matters. Dire and tiresome, all at the same time.

What kills me is that after a brief and deeply unsuccessful foray into other genres, Terry Goodkind is back to inflict further fantasy horrors on us from this series.

Doing It Well

There are some book series that have extended to double-digits but still retain fantastic quality - one of these is the Jim Butcher series about Harry Dresden.

Leaving the Party Early - and Gracefully

Some TV series have managed to step off the ride while still welcome to return. Here are a few examples:



And the non-genre brilliance of Fawlty Towers!

Okay, dear readers, over to you - which TV series, books, movies have overstayed their welcome in your opinion? Do you agree or disagree vehemently with any of the choices I've made above?


  1. Oh, god - Charmed.

    It certainly went on longer than it should have. It should never have been allowed to go past an unaired pilot (and I say this as a *fan* of Alyssa Milano in her PJs - 179 episodes? Really?)

    And Smallville... well, this is my guilty pleasure (although "pleasure" is probably the wrong word). I think this show is badly written, badly performed (except Erica Durance, who is the best screen Lois Lane we have seen) and badly edited. Yet I can't stop watching it - it's the televisual equivalent of poking your tongue around a painful cavity.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you say in this post but I reckon Smallville has upped their game the last couple of seasons. Admittedly there was about four seasons of crap beforehand but I think it will end on a high.

    As far as book go. Laurell K Hamilton really lost me after about four or five. I just felt like I was reading the same thing over and over again.

  3. Totally agree. Well-structured, well-paced blog. Swapped to the photo discussion to break up the flow nicely.

    My contender for TV show that bowed out on top: BLACKADDER.

    Great work, Amanda.

  4. Completely agree with you on all points. I really wish I was at the SFX Weekender, I've heard nothing but awesome things about the China Miéville Q&A *shakes fist with jealousy*. SPACED and Fawlty Towers knew to end it at the second season, lest they become the victim of the dreaded “UK Season 3 sitcom curse” that ultimately gives it a dip in popularity and quality if they do more than 2 seasons e.g. League of Gentlemen, 'Allo 'Allo, Bo selecta, Little Britain . I really enjoyed the initial Goodkind books (despite the gratuitous fetishist stuff) since it was the first real fantasy series I'd read. I quickly got fed up with the preachyness of it all, though. What annoys me most (besides the blatant tie in of Law of Nines) is that I'm 99% certain to read The Omen Machine despite all of its inevitable flaws.

    With regards to movies, one I really wish they had made a sequel to was Empire Records. Such an awesome movie had great potential, but if Clerks II has shown us anything, potential doesn't always mean guaranteed success.

  5. Totally agree with this. I'd also like to nominate Anne Rice's vampire chronicles - the first few books were sassy and enjoyable, but then all the vampires seemed to become emos and it descended into absurdity.

  6. Red Dwarf is the series I find most distressing in terms of Shark Jumpage... Not only has it not been funny since the end of series 6 (which would have been the perfect place to bow out gracefully) they're still bloody making it, even though I suspect most of the people involved actually know better!

    *sigh* I love Red Dwarf, which is why it pains me so.

    (Couldn't agree more with Lee about Smallville's Lois Lane- she's the best thing in it, could watch her all day!)

  7. and then there is Firefly which I still cannot believe did not keep going when I look at the tripe now on.

  8. You seem to think that Terry Goodkind actually left the Sword of Truth series... "The Law of Nines" was *still* Sword of Truth, honestly. HE. NEVER. LEFT. AHHH.

  9. I agree with anonymous above. Firefly never got a real chance. What they did film was awesome, and left you wanting far more. But that all has to do with producers wanting quick returns on non-risk products rather than wanting to invest in something that will last. Another arguement entirely I think...

  10. Heroes. Loved the first season, liked the second season. Erm... struggled through the third season. I still kind of intend to buy the box set of the fourth season - which I haven't watched and feel I ought to try - at some point, but the fact that I haven't bothered to yet may be taken as indicative.

  11. I'm still reading the Anita Blake books, but honestly, I'm so over the sex stuff. Don't get me wrong, well written sex is GREAT, but I don't think LKH is that good a writer. I'm sort of hooked on the books, but I'd like her to get back to non-sex-obsessed writing. Bullet was the worst book. Barely a page went by without some sex-related stuff.

    (Also, it bugs me that she NEVER seems to see even a mildly unattractive person. ever. seriously.)

  12. To add a wrinkle to this debate, I think some series inflict themselves with issues by simply not sticking to the core plot. I believe this is especially prevalent in television.

    What I mean by this is that the first season of a lot of shows seem great. Once the show hits that unexpected success, there is a sudden need to stretch the show out. So suddenly you have a lot of filler. Episodes which really have no point.

    Examples being: Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, Dexter, Buffy, etc. That lack of focus just kills these series for me and makes it hard for me to finish watching them. I just want to see the story not go on amusing side quests with marginal reward.

    With books, I would point out series Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Conan, etc. These are less series but settings. I think the diminishing returns kicks in simply due to the uneven quality of the books involved. You may enjoy the setting but do you really want to risk reading another mediocre book? That single fact killed my love of several series, Dragonlance in particular.

  13. Agree with Pirates, Matrix, Smallville, Charmed, LKH (although I still read them both, her Merry Gentry series has done the same). Totally disagree with Angel whose last season and a half i thought was a waste of a great show.

    Would also add Alien/Predator movies to things that should have ended long ago

    Have to totally disagree with WordTipping about Dexter although I agree with the other choices. AS a 12 episode season every episode counts as far as i am concerned. I don't remember a single filler episode in all 5 seasons so far.

  14. Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom (Riget) is one show that met an untimely end due to the death of several main actors and the fact that it wasn't picked up for another season. It's a great shame as it really was a great show.

    Twin Peaks is a show that really suffered from the vagaries of studio execs. Although season two was enjoyable, it felt as though Lynch had been pushed to do something he hadn't wanted at the end of season one, which culminated in the massive fuck you that was season two's finale.

    Deadwood and Carnivale are two more whose endings felt abrupt and whose final seasons didn't feel quite right, as if they'd been curtailed early and the stories had suffered accordingly. The worst thing about TV shows is that they're so dependant on viewing figures and scheduling, dull financial/logistical concerns that in a perfect world would have no bearing on the stories themselves.

    I have to say, I think publishers' preferences for signing authors who will knock out That Bestselling Fantasy Trilogy/Series is similarly depressing. Will a standalone novel get the same chances that Book One of The Firestone Saga will? Probably not. More of the same, please! Especially once readers have been hooked into one world and set of characters...

    Re. China & Bas Lag, I'm torn. On one hand it's one of my favourite trilogies (despite not being linked by recurring protagonists and so on - which I find absolutely brilliant) but on the other, Iron Council was a fitting end. He's taken it as far as he wants to take it, and is obviously not in that space anymore creatively. I don't really want to see any more of Bas Lag than I've already seen, actually, in a way: part of why China's worldbuilding is so great is that so much of it relies on hints, ideas of what lies beyond 'the map', without actually taking you there. We don't need to see Tesh, or the lands of the Witchocracy - he's planted the seeds of imagination and that's enough.

  15. Piers Anthony's Xanth series: The first handful are pretty good, and I admit to actually enjoying the first 20 or so, but then it just devolved into an exercise of "let's see how many reader-submitted puns we can cram into a single book regardless of the plot".

    And as much as I loved The X-Files, that was probably on two seasons too long.

    Personally, I think the fourth Pirates movie has a lot of potential, what with Will and Elizabeth's story being done and the fact that it's based on the book that inspired the original theme park ride.

    Other examples of TV shows that ended before outstaying their welcome: Corner Gas and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  16. I argue the Matrix films thusly: The Wachowski's designed the Matrix story to encompass all the media involved across the board. A Multimedia story. Therefore the films on their own don't tell the whole story.

    The Animatrix shorts, short fiction (from the story by Neil Gaiman even!), the graphic novels (I think there are two with various stories) and the video games (mostly the Path of Neo and Enter The Matrix) are what fill out the story and make the second and third film much more palatable and easier to understand. The second and third film on their own really do become mired in mess and philosophy without reason and we even understand less of the machines character motivations as a robot society (known as Zero One), but even just the anime shorts "The Second Renaissance Parts 1 & 2" (both about 9 minutes long and can be found on Youtube) explain to me WAY more about the machines' plight and rift with humanity and it actually makes a much more compassionate case for them thus giving us a better, less slanted view, of the war. Those two shorts (written by the Wachowski's themselves) contained in the Animatrix set basically make the final third of the Matrix Revolutions actually make opposed to those people who didn't see this peripheral material and kind of went "Huh?"

    Now the fault for this lies with Warner Brothers squarely for not marketing all these peripheral non-main-movie pieces as such. So we have a society full of people who have seen the 3 main films, and I'd wager at least 65-70% of them haven't seen/read/played all the pieces...which I totally admit completely diminishes the enjoyment of the second and third films entirely.

    Having done about 85% of the peripheral media I can actually say that I enjoy the series as a trilogy MUCH more having done so...and so to everyone I know who didn't like it, I try to get them to check out the peripheral media.


    Phew, sorry for the long spiel. LOL!

  17. Your words ring true. Series that go on far too long like the Twilight 'saga', or 'drivel' in my opinion, do nothing but promote an author's intention to squeeze the last few drips of blood out of a dead horse.

    The timeless series as you have pointed out, like Fawlty Towers, Spaced, Angel, leave a slot that can be filled if the writers of these programs ever decide to do another series. But why spoil a classic?

    You have an inspiring mind and an insightful, decorative blog. :)


  18. Great post!

    I have to agree with the thing about Matrix and Goodkind for sure. I haven't read LKH for some of the above mentioned reasons. And I haven't watched TV for about 10 years so I have no idea about TV shows. I also only saw the first two pirates movies.

    Someone mentioned Aliens/Predator and I'd agree there as well.

    No has mentioned Robert Jordan...have his books don't gotten old yet? Also, Terry Brooks' Landover series should have ended after four or five books.

  19. The issue with Jordan is that the books (and therefore the story) are all one long one. So it hasn't finished yet. So it only outstays its welcome because in the middle books he padded them with extraneous crap and basically if we delete a whole bunch of that extra crap from the middle books the series would have been like 8 books and done by now. Instead we HAVE to linger on and keep reading to get the closure and the end of the story. So it kind of falls into the category and it kind of doesn't.

  20. For books that have outstayed their welcome, I submit the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I think it's on book 16 or something, and every book is the same exact thing over and over.

    TV show that ended too soon: Arrested Development. I loved that show.

  21. Spot on! Though I think one or two more seasons of Angel would've been fine with me.

  22. Great article Amanda :D I think you're spot on with everything, though I have a really soft spot for Charmed.

    As for book series that went on too long: I've heard a lot of people say that Feist has stayed in Midkemia too long and that the later books just aren't as good as the earlier ones. And while I still enjoy the later books, I think the fact that from Talon of the Silver Hawk on, I've always run behind on getting the books is telling. I used to be chomping at the bit to get my hands on the paperbacks when they were released (this was in my poor students days ;-))

    As for films, I posit the Terminator franchise. T1 and T2 were awesome, T3 was cool, but T4 seems to have been a let down (I haven't seen it) and while the Sarah Conner Chronicles seem to have been received well by fans, I just couldn't get into the series.

    Oh and just as I wanted to post I had a brainwave: ER! That went on for about three seasons too long. After the season that Dr. Green died, the series kind of went downhill for me and I didn't even watch the last seasons.