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On TV, there’s an art to a graceful exit

Josh Charles’s character, Will Gardner, was killed off so he could leave “The Good Wife.”

David Giesbrecht/CBS

Josh Charles’s character, Will Gardner, was killed off so he could leave “The Good Wife.”

Last week, actor Josh Charles did the unthinkable. He decided to continue to be a creative person, to challenge himself with new work, to be unmoored rather than complacent. To do this, he risked the outrage of fans and the possibility of – OMG, CU-L8R – losing Twitter followers.

After 5½ seasons as Will Gardner on “The Good Wife,” he left the show. “I felt however much that I’ve enjoyed the experience,” he said in a CBS press clip, “that I was ready for the next chapter of my life.” According to most accounts, Charles wasn’t at odds with the executive producers, and he returned to direct episodes after his character had been killed. He was just “ready to kind of move on,” as he told David Letterman on Monday night. This wasn’t David Caruso leaving “NYPD Blue” after one season to chase movie fame; this appears to be about acting, passion, and a sense that life’s too short to tread water.

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Charles broke one of TV’s most insidious and artistically deadening rules, which is that you never let something go if it’s still profitable. You never stop shaking the tree if the money continues to fall. If viewers want more, give it to them, regardless of the potential of the story, or the breadth of the role, or the vision of the actor. If the demo loves Neil Patrick Harris as Barney on “How I Met Your Mother,” or Sean Hayes as Jack on “Will & Grace,” give it to them until they cry uncle.

I was thinking and hoping that decisions like Charles’s were becoming the way of future. Recently, a number of Hollywood honchos have decided to leave the building before the building crumbled. Vince Gilligan of “Breaking Bad” and Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men” both set advance term limits for their shows, avoiding the sad fates of “The Office,” “Law & Order,” “E.R.,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and too many other dragged-out series to name.

Nick Grad, president of original programming at FX, announced the network’s decision to end “Justified” after six seasons, saying, “Going out at the right time is going to make your show last forever — we want to make shows that stand the test of time.” He was right. “How I Met Your Mother,” which wraps on Monday after nine seasons, is a good example of a series that could have been a sitcom classic had it left the air sooner, instead of a filler-filled also-ran.

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But Weiner and Gilligan are still the outliers, I’m afraid. Despite the thorough pointlessness and mediocrity of last year’s “Arrested Development” add-on season, the result of producers confusing fan love for a market opportunity, a number of canceled shows are coming back for at least one extra season. And I’m not talking about rebooted old series, such as those efforts to remake “Ironside” and “Charlie’s Angels” or Matthew Perry’s upcoming go at “The Odd Couple.” Reboots are usually bad ideas, too, of course. But they are trying to reanimate shows whose bodies have long been cold. They’re not really altering the legacy of the original show and cast by trying to stretch them out.

Fox is resurrecting “24” on May 5, with 12 news episodes of a series that was completely spent when it left the air after eight seasons (and one miniseries) in 2010. “Heroes,” a flawed show that helped trigger the latest wave of TV superheroes in 2006, is returning to NBC next year with 13 episodes. Called “Heroes Reborn,” the series will be produced by show creator Tim Kring, with the network apparently believing he can do better this time around.

And, alas, HBO is currently in talks to bring back the Hollywood satire “The Comeback,” with star Lisa Kudrow returning as Valerie Cherish, the older actress making a humiliating return to TV. What can I say? It’s blasphemous! That is the true reason for this column — to protest even the thought of reviving the one-season wonder from 2005, of trying to re-create the show’s great magic.

Like the first round of “Arrested Development,” “The Comeback” was ahead of its time, as it goofed ruthlessly on the artificiality of reality TV, the cynicism of network TV producers and writers (remember Paulie G?!), and our culture’s youth fetish. It refused to soften its truths in order to be likable and go easy on the viewer — which is probably why it was not a hit. Kudrow was very far from the candyland of “Friends,” as she and writer Michael Patrick King summoned the integrity to make fierce mockery of Hollywood’s worst tendencies.

That they would now seriously consider succumbing to those tendencies is just too awful. “Veronica Mars” fans may not have known better when they funded a feature-film return of their beloved series, but Kudrow and King clearly do know better. Just because there’s a desire for another serving doesn’t justify making more, when we’re talking about art and not, say, KitKat bars. One of TV’s virtues is the ability to tell a story over time, but that virtue can become a liability; not all stories are meant to go on and on.

Part of the beauty of “The Comeback,” along with its penchant for hard truths, is the fact that it died young. It quickly became legendary for its perfection, like other one-season wonders such as “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life.” It never had to succumb to the TV aging process that has corrupted so many promising shows. Its legacy was safe, like “Arrested Development” before the fall. Almost 10 years into its celebrated afterlife, please, let “The Comeback” stay forever young.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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