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Time To Say Goodnight

Few things in TV are more rare than a graceful exit.

Johnny Carson, wistfully vacating his Tonight Show
throne after 30 years, set the high bar 12 years ago. Friends, wrapping its 10-season run last spring in a weepy orgy of self-congratulation on the same network—albeit one with precious few traces of the class Carson once conveyed—may have set a new low.

This year, at least two landmark shows will take a final bow: CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond, entering its ninth season, and ABC's NYPD Blue, in its 12th. Each is a classic of its type, well deserving the back-patting bombast that will inevitably greet their last chapters. (To Raymond's credit, series creator Phil Rosenthal insists the final episode will be only a half-hour, no matter how CBS chooses to celebrate it.)

, so groundbreaking in its bold language and frank sexuality when it premiered in 1992, is more than ready to go—if only to escape the puerile skittishness of the current post-Janet Jackson network climate. Creatively, though, Blue
has diminished in recent years as too much cast rotation took its toll and a formulaic sameness crept in.

Most recently, when the actress playing Andy Sipowicz's latest wife bolted the show (shortly before the character was about to give birth), the producers couldn't kill her off because it was felt that Andy, so magnificently played by Dennis Franz, had simply suffered too much over the years.

They had a point. When your tragic hero is no longer able to withstand tragedy, the story's over.

Raymond, on the other hand, is still on fire, in ratings and in the writers' room. Last season's brilliant finale was constructed around a nearly 15-minute sequence in which brothers Ray and Robert sat in a car and debated who deserved to care for their mother when the time came. A hilarious display of sibling rivalry and filial guilt-tripping, the episode demonstrated that this show has lost none of its gift for mining great comedy from the smallest yet most profound of domestic situations.

But the show's writers are justifiably afraid of overstaying their welcome. Their role model for leaving the audience wanting more: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which bowed out in 1977 after only seven seasons. Rosenthal believes no show has ever gotten better after a seventh year and considers it a near-miracle that Raymond
continues to score as often as it does. His goal is to end Raymond
before fans begin requesting it.

It's a safe bet that CBS would prefer keeping Raymond
around as long as possible. These days, launching new hits is a Herculean task, and networks are desperate to hold onto any brand-name franchise with viewer loyalty, regardless of whether it's still deserving.

With that in mind, here's a wish list of shows that have seen better days and which, in the best of all possible TV worlds, would do us all a favor by packing it in sooner than later.

The West Wing
(NBC, six seasons). Still an Emmy darling, but it hasn't been the same since Bartlet was reelected and Aaron Sorkin left. Last season, the show became a mopey, muddled political soap opera. Now Bartlet's a true lame duck, with Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits joining the cast as rivals to succeed him in the presidency. This is not an opportunity to restart the show. It's a signal to end it.

Will & Grace
(NBC, seven seasons). So shrill and unpleasant, and so reliant on splashy guest stars to provide a comic jolt, that it's hard to remember there was a time this show was considered sophisticated and fresh in its gay-friendly vibe. Now it's just a painfully cartoonish caricature of its former self.

That '70s Show
(Fox, seven seasons). Fox will hate losing this one, having used it for years like spackle to fill any number of holes on its threadbare schedule. But '70s, which is edging awfully close to entering the '80s, is likely on the way out anyway, with its cast of rising young stars unlikely to renew their contracts at season's end. Besides, they're getting a wee bit ripe to still be playing horny adolescents.

Star Trek: Enterprise
(UPN, four seasons). A while back, I coined the term Trek-haustion to help explain why this uninspired prequel hadn't clicked. It has been 17 years since The Next Generation
brought Gene Roddenberry's vision back to TV. Four series and hundreds of episodes later, it's time to give it, and us, at least a short rest.

(CBS, 10 seasons). Yes, it's still on. And still holding its own on Fridays. But fans won't be satisfied until Harm and Mac finally get together, which producers say won't happen until the end. Wouldn't it be nice to give the core audience what it wants while they're still alive?