‘Endeavour’ closes latest chapter in enduring ‘Masterpiece’ franchise

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Courtesy Mammoth Screen and Masterpiece

Shaun Evans in a scene from the final season of "Endeavour."

After nine seasons, 36 episodes and countless arrests, the beloved British television drama Endeavour will come to an end with the July 2 broadcast premiere of its finale.

Set between 1965 and 1972, the prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse series was a consistent hit for Masterpiece, PBS and local stations.

Endeavour depicts the early years of Sergeant Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) as he establishes himself as a detective in Oxford, England, and forms a close relationship with veteran inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam).

“I’m really bereft that it’s actually ending,” said Susanne Simpson, EP of Masterpiece

Series creator Russell Lewis, who was asked to write a pilot for the drama 13 years ago, said he’s also feeling sad to see the show come to an end. However, he insists that it’s the right moment to for it to do so. 

“It’s better to get out while the show is good,” Lewis said. “I always had an endpoint in mind. It was just a case of knowing when to activate it.” It also helped that Evans wanted to continue playing the character of Morse. 

Fortunately, the series’ creator and its star realized simultaneously that it was time to say goodbye. “Me and Shaun talked, and we knew that this was the time to end it,” Lewis said. 

Endeavour has delivered impressive ratings for Masterpiece ever since its 2013 premiere. At its most popular, Endeavour more than doubled the average primetime viewing audience for linear broadcasts, according to Kristen Kuebler, director of client services for the audience analysis company TRAC Media. The audience peaked during Endeavour’s second and third seasons but has continued to attract strong viewership. “It has hovered between one-and-a-half and two-times better than the primetime average over all nine seasons,” Kuebler said. 

That doesn’t match the titanic viewing figures for Downton Abbey, which at times tripled the primetime viewing average for linear broadcasts, Kuebler said. But Endeavour season eight did match the primetime average for Sherlock, another popular franchise in Masterpiece’s mystery strand, and outperformed both of Sanditon’s final two seasons. 

Over the last few years Endeavour has increasingly built its viewership on  streaming platforms. “A lot of people found the show during the pandemic,” Simpson said.  For season eight, Endeavour’s streaming numbers climbed 14% higher than season seven, which premiered in 2020. “We continue to get a strong TV audience while our streaming numbers go up, too,” she said. “That surprises me. But I’m so pleased. It’s a Sunday night habit.”

“It’s been a strong vehicle for stations in terms of building Passport viewers and membership,” Kuebler said, referring to the PBS streaming platform for station donors. “They’ve been able to do pledge messaging around the series. … A lot of stations have worked hard with digital and email messaging and had great results from leveraging Endeavour.

Endeavour was so popular in Toledo, Ohio, that fans complained when they discovered that its final three seasons would consist of only three episodes each, said Cathy Kamenca, TV programming and outreach coordinator for WGTE Public Media, the local PBS station. “They want more episodes,” she said. “They have always expressed that to me.” Previous seasons had unspooled over four or six installments. 

Kuebler attributes Endeavour’s popularity to its production values. It’s a “non-gory puzzle that audiences can figure out,” or, at the very least, “follow along with when it gets really complicated.”

It also helps that the characters and stories go way back with Masterpiece viewers. As well as being the prequel to Inspector Morse, which Masterpiece brought to American audiences from 1987 and 2000, Endeavour is also connected to Lewis. That spin-off ran from 2006 to 2015 and followed the crimes solved by Robert Lewis (Kevin Whately), Morse’s sergeant in the original series. In Lewis, Whately plays the character as a detective inspector cracking murder cases over nine seasons. 

Rather than comparing the connective tissue of these crime dramas to a certain superhero universe that dominates the cinematic landscape, Kuebler described Endeavour’s literary antecedent. “It’s a bit like those Dickens serials — where you get a good story every episode but it also builds on the longer biography of the characters.”

That’s how Simpson sees it too. Masterpiece attracts bibliophiles, and they love this series in particular, she said. “This is a very smartly written show that respects the intelligence of the audience. It’s tougher to watch than some of our other murder mysteries. You really have to pay attention.”

Other signatures of Masterpiece enhance Endeavour’s appeal. “The icing on the cake is the setting, period and costumes,” Simpson said. “Our audience loves history. Even though this show just goes back to the 1960s and 1970s, it acts as a time travel for people.”

Historical realities of post-war Britain 

A chance to show a grittier side of post-World War II Britain was part of what motivated Lewis to create Endeavour. “It wasn’t all Carnaby Street and the Swinging Sixties,” he said. “Most of Britain still had one foot in the 1950s in terms of fashion and society.” Lewis wanted to make sure that Endeavour depicted the historical reality and social values of the era, as well as including more working class characters. 

Anton Lesser as Chief Superintendent Reginald Bright. (Photo courtesy Mammoth Screen and Masterpiece)

Lewis praised how Masterpiece built Endeavour’s American audience over the last decade. But it hasn’t been an easy road. In its early seasons, each episode was cut by ten minutes to fit into Masterpiece’s timeslot. The trims were “never at the expense of major plot points,” Lewis said. “Great care was taken to remove only that which wouldn’t affect the overall story arc of each episode and the series as a whole.”

Masterpiece edited those first seasons down to length, and then worked with PBS and its U.K. partners to increase the time allotted for each episode, Simpson said. “When streaming began, we wanted to keep the versions consistent across platforms,” she explained.  

The U.K.-based production team has witnessed just how popular the series has become with American viewers. Die hard fans would travel to Britain to watch them shoot episodes. “That was always lovely,” said Lewis. “Regular migrating visitors who would come each year to see us film. It was great to see them and catch up.”

‘Another way to celebrate’ 

Eric Neumann, managing director of on-air fundraising at Maryland Public Television, hopes that fans’ love and loyalty to the series transforms into generosity for the final season of Endeavour. The drama has been one of MPT’s best performing shows in on-air fundraising since Downton Abbey, he said. “It probably brings in 20% more than the next title.”

The campaign to promote Endeavor’s June 18 premiere has also included a fundraising special and station events. The pledge program Morse And The Last Endeavour, which was released for broadcast June 11, featured interviews with Evans and Whately. “It was another way to celebrate with the audience the end of something they love and give them a chance to remember the things they liked about Inspector Morse and Endeavour,” said Simpson. 

Fundraising around episodes of Endeavor or any other Masterpiece series is tricky, Kuebler noted. For station members, “watching a well-put-together drama is like eating a great meal. You want to enjoy and savor it,” she said. To give fans what they want and avoid interrupting the drama, stations have found that it’s best to air their pitch breaks before and after the show airs.  

PBS stations in at least seven states are bringing Masterpiece fans together at in-person events and screenings. These events are integral for bringing like-minded people together so that they can honor the shows and characters that they’ve become so close to, said WGTE’s Kamenca. “It is nice engagement. We love talking to our viewers face to face.” She makes a point of talking up about other upcoming premieres while explaining the integral role that the station plays in the community. 

For WGTE’s recent screening of the first episode of Endeavour, “we had 94 people sign up,” she said.  That’s not as many as attended Downton Abbey previews, she said, but well above the turnout for screening events that WGTE hosted before the pandemic. “Downton Abbey was its own gigantic thing,” Kamenca said. 

When WGTE resumed hosting in-person previews last year, it changed its “formula” for promoting the events, Kamenca said. The new approach  “has been working wonders … and our attendance has doubled consistently.”

Once Endeavour delivers its finale July 2, fans will be able to watch every episode again, as well as every installment of Lewis and most of Inspector Morse, on PBS Passport. “It’s sad that it’s ending,” Kuebler said. “But there’s still so much enjoyment to be had from sharing these shows with people who haven’t seen them.” 

One day there even might be some more adventures to add to the franchise. “Have we talked about bringing Endeavour back? Yes, we have,” said Simpson. “But, as with all good things, when they end you need time to reflect. Bringing back such a beloved show can be tricky. You need a strong reason and a strong character to do so.” 

After working more than a decade on the drama, Lewis insisted that he is very much done with Endeavour. But even he wouldn’t completely rule out a further spin-off. 

“Never say ‘Never.’ Nothing would surprise me.” 

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