This Thursday night, two long-lived shows, NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” are ending for the season.
At a time when scripted cable and streaming series tend to end after five or six short seasons, it’s remarkable that the networks are still holding onto to these old shows — and, more than holding onto them, they’re still creating spinoffs from them.
“Law & Order: SVU” is finishing up its 22nd season, with its 494th episode. It is the longest-lasting scripted live-action series in the United States (“The Simpsons” is the longest-lasting scripted series, with 32 seasons and 706 episodes). “Grey’s Anatomy” is finishing up it’s 17th season, with its 380th episode. For comparison, Netflix’s “Ozark” is ending after its next, fourth season (with 44 episodes), and HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad” lasted for five seasons (63 and 62 episodes, respectively).
In some ways, “Law & Order: SVU” and “Grey’s Anatomy” could be put into the soap opera category. Each has many ongoing plots, most of them laden with melodrama, big cliffhangers, and involved back stories. They are cross-generational narratives, like “General Hospital,” that can go on as long as fans will still watch, with characters who become parents and grandparents over the years.
The story lines ultimately repeat themselves, but no one much cares. They’re comfort shows, peopled with characters that viewers have followed into and out of the same predicaments over the years.