Earlier today, my friend Marsha Mason posted her weekly blog on Why The Face. This week, Marsha chose to focus on series finales of television programs, picking up on the How I Met Your Mother phenomenon now that the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling have died down.
Marsha considered this outpouring from the perspective of the magnanimous response of the show’s creators. An excerpt of her blog post:
And while they did what they felt they needed to do to bring their story to its completion, there was no way they were going to tell their audience that any of their feelings were wrong.
A beautiful way to look at the uproar.
But of course, Marsha’s post also made me think about the challenges of writing a series finale (damn you, Marsha, you made me think again).
I truly feel for showrunners who are faced with this task. It is a daunting task made that much more difficult by a dedicated audience, who for the most part can only be disappointed.
For me, the best series finales were done by shows like The Fugitive and M*A*S*H, where luckily, the writers had a hard end point in their story, i.e., the capture of the real killer and the end of the Korean conflict, respectively. In these cases, the resolutions between characters was more obvious (not to give the sense that the episodes would have been easy to write or weren’t written well). Similarly, The West Wing had the end of Bartlett’s 8-yr term and the inauguration of the new POTUS.
For other shows, the challenge is that the lives of the characters typically continue beyond the finale, if only in their fantasy worlds. From their perspectives, this isn’t the end of their lives; it’s Tuesday.
Thus, writers are forced to pencil in a flurry of seemingly arbitrary events to explain why the characters are parting ways or moving on, and typically, this means leaving a lot of unresolved questions for the audience. Closure is impossible when nothing is truly closing.
Take, for example, the end of The Sopranos…the family sits down to dinner in a restaurant…fade to black. After years of a series filled with violence that would make Titus Andronicus blush, the pure normality of this ending was almost a let down, and yet, rang as a true moment in human lives.
The alternative is to go big, such as the ludicrous ending of my beloved series House. The final 20 minutes or so looks like it was written by a group of pubescent boys hopped up on 24 consecutive hours of Grand Theft Auto. For god’s sake, it’s Gregory House…you couldn’t have him die of something he and his team couldn’t diagnose in time, only to have a letter arrive a week later from House showing he knew the diagnosis months ago?
Of course, the biggest complication is likely that most series have run out of steam well before they are given the opportunity for a series finale. All of the really great opportunities to end the series have long passed, the characters have little left to say to each other and it is only the blood-from-a-stone networks and die-hard fans who keep applying the paddles to the moribund concept. I give you the finale of Seinfeld. For this reason, I really do not look forward to the series finale of The Big Bang Theory.
(I feel an admonition from Lee Aronsohn coming on.)
In these cases, better the mercy killing of cancellation than the sad wheeze of life-support equipment.
(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission…finale!)