I was inspired by the recent X-Files revival to muse on a long held lament of mine.
That of the disappointing television series finale. Warning spoilers ahead for any TV show being discussed.
Television is long form story telling affording the opportunity to make characters part of our lives with weekly catch-ups. It rewards staying power making you feel like a confidant who really lives with these people and understands them.
Yet most TV shows never have a plan for the arc of the show, are cancelled prematurely due to low ratings, lose actors to personal volatility, creative differences, ambition, etc. When a show is successful it often runs too many years and show runners and/or stars can leave before it closes. If not then often without a plan for a finale the show will suck. Lately the greatest way to cop out of a prestige series is simply leave an ambivalent ending ala The Sopranos. While in my opinion it works well in that series I can understand how some fans of David Chase’s series felt cheated. The X-Files was the longest running science fiction series of its time ending after 9 years. Part of its appeal had been a long convoluted conspiracy mythology that had already started to contradict itself long before the series ended. After 9 years all we got was our heroes on the run and an alien invasion set date of 2012 which seemed a million years away in 2003. What a fucking cop out. I was never a regular viewer and true fans have told me that the mythology is not such a sticking point for them since most of the show’s best episodes were about stand-alone plots. Still five years later a movie came tying up no loose ends and doing a standalone plot. Eight years after that we got six episodes which varied in quality but overall made the series viable ongoing for continuing adventures. Now there’s talk maybe another series and a third film to wrap up the stories. This is for a show that started in 1993 and peaked around about 1998. I was in high school, now I am middle aged so please to all involved…
What is served by delaying for another series or two of six episodes? Tales unless they are The Canterbury ones should be finished, even those should have been finished!
This brings me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I did watch regularly. I was 18 when Buffy and Angel got it on and he lost his soul in a cliff-hanger halfway through Season 2. Every episode after whether filler or not had us fans wondering when and if Angel would get his soul back. Every episode was taped on the VCR and played again during the week with my siblings as we quoted Whedon’s witty one liners and mused on how it would all play out. In that moment I loved that show possibly a way I will never love another show because anything from when you are a teenager becomes sacred. I was after all finding out about love at the same time Buffy was. Angel did get his soul back and get sent to hell before returning in season 3. At the end of that season Buffy graduated high school and Angel left for L.A. Their love story having begun to repeat itself would now be put on hold as David Boreanz got his own spin off. Season 3 was a great year for the show with the introduction of rogue slayer Faith and the Mayor being a superb villain. My little brother noted to me that the season finale felt more like a series finale and sadly his words would prove prophetic.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same show for us after that, the writing became inconsistently funny and new storylines were far less enjoyable then the high school set ones. Which is not to say I regret the following four years Spike and Anya became fantastic main cast additions and there were some serious stellar episodes like Hush, Restless and Once More with Feeling.
Chosen brought Angel back for a cameo and but also acknowledged how much Spike had become just as interesting and popular a love interest. More importantly it had a stunning set piece finale, changed the status quo for the hero (giving every potential Slayer their powers automatically)and gave each character a chance to shine.
Angel which was probably a more consistent quality show over its five year run ended with our heroes in an alley about to go out fighting a horde of demons. It too had been a satisfactory finale but after eight years Buffy and Angel had not rode off into the sunset to live happily ever after. I know that shouldn’t be what I expect or want but after falling in love with these characters and their relationship despite how both shows had evolved over the years I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. In 2007 a Season 8 Buffy Comic followed and then a Season 6 Angel comic. I got to the end of both with not many answers and very disappointed how they had turned out despite the TV show writers being involved. Hence my central lament.
If there is a show that I feel more frustrated with it is Ally McBeal which I really discovered in 2011 but still carries a nostalgic factor due to watching some Season 2 episodes with my younger sister. If you’re a fan, you know Season 2 is really the best one. That show about a single female lawyer trying to find love in the modern era had its ups and downs but season 4 saw Robert Downey Jr. come on board and give the show new life. But his drug abuse eventually got him written off just as the two characters were to be married in the season finale. Season 5 attempted a reboot before I think the term was coined with a set of new characters for the firm as the most likeable character John Cage made fewer appearances. Typical of a David E. Kelley show interesting characters were left hanging with no plotlines and new characters were introduced randomly and then magically disappeared. A late add of Jon Bon Jovi and a daughter for Ally went nowhere and the show feeling a million miles from its fresh, oddball and original first season bowed out. Did Ally get back with her true love? No she left town with her daughter. John Cage alas was friend zoned after having made more interesting pairings with Portia De Rossi’s Nelle and Anne Heche’s Melanie. All these years later I still wish for a telemovie to show Ally reunited with Larry but Robert Downey Jr’s career success has made that a pipe dream.
Interestingly enough Boston Legal which perhaps was a better Ally McBeal 2.0 with boys did end right. Remaining characters were paired off, the firm survived, everybody got to stay together and do their jobs and Denny and Alan got married so Alan could be Denny’s power of attorney.
Well those are the season finales that I feel most passionately upset about. Let’s consider some that maybe stuck the landing. Feel free to disagree.
The best thing to come out of the Writer’s Strike of 2008 may be the reduced run of the BattleStar Galactica reboot series. Season 3 had felt a little bit like buying time but season 4 continually raised the stakes as the ship literally started to fall apart. Some fans don’t like the Series Finale where the fleet is flown into the sun after Earth is finally found, the Cylons are allowed to leave to find their own world, President Rosselin dies and Lee Adama decides to go walk about while Starbucks is revealed to be a Spirit and vanishes. What I adore about this finale is if you don’t agree with a character’s decision the story is left open for you to reverse it. Lee Adama is a born leader, I know he’s going to go exploring but soon he will return and he will lead people because that’s what an Adama does. How many shows develop their characters and their worlds so well that after all that time you can feel the freedom and confidence to do that following a finale.
The Wonder Years
Possibly my favourite series from my childhood, the finale after years of obsessing over Winnie Cooper had Kevin and Winnie lose their virginity in a barn. A voice over prologue at the end declares that Kevin’s father died, Winnie went to Paris and remained friends with Kevin who married somebody else and had a kid. Wait…WTF! Somehow though even at 13, I somehow understand after talking to my own Dad that life can turn out like that. The finale may be contentious for some but for me the show was always honest about life’s realistic turns and the wistful nostalgia Daniel Stern’s voice over carries for those days becomes so much more poignant when you realise that Kevin only has memories of his father from that time really.
Sitcoms notoriously run too long and lose talent and stop being funny. This maybe the gold standard though for how to do it right. If you cast back to the mid-80s and Sam and Diane getting engaged and moving in together you might have been very excited to hear that Shelley Long would return for the finale. Last time she was walking up the steps away from the bar declaring she would be back in a year. Old slugger Sam knew better and watched her departing figure go repeating “Have a nice life.” The writers knew something about those characters and about life in that exchange that went beyond Shelley Long leaving a popular show to pursue a film career. All those years later when they wrapped the show they displayed that wisdom again. Sam and Diane did not ride off into the sunset however much some fans may have wanted them to. No instead Diane went on with her career and Sam returned to his bar and its regulars. As each character got a send-off in a late night smoking session to welcome Sam back, Norm was left to declare that Sam all along had stayed with his one true love. Friends saw Ross and Rachel get together, Monica and Chandler have a baby and the friend stay friends while dramatically moving out of the apartments but Cheers has the greatest sitcom finale of all time.
The Late Show with David Letterman
Essentially a glorified clips show David Letterman’s sojourn still has big ticket guests doing an excellent Top Ten and the man himself holding centre stage in an honest speech saying goodbye. The montage of images played while the Foo Fighters close with Evergreen though is the kicker. So many memories and then Letterman steps up onto the stage waving to the crowd. Perpetually beginning for posterity’s sake as the show ends for good.
Repeating a feature of several later episodes the finale chews up valuable time with Don going to a retreat isolated from the rest of the characters back in New York. Where will the story end we wonder and then he quite possibly makes a breakthrough emotionally. We follow a montage of characters Peggy finally happy in a relationship and at work, Pete reunited with his family and hitting his peak like Don before him before his inevitable decline, Roger Sterling happily seguing into retirement and travel with a likeminded companion, Joan finally the boss, Betty in control of her life but sadly at the end of it and the wise rebellious Sally accepting responsibility in the family. When Don opens his eyes is he about to return to advertising with the famous Coke campaign that closes the series or is it just a gentle mocking of Don’s industry and our subsequent consumerist culture? These ambivalent endings can feel like cheats but when it comes to The Sopranos and Mad Men I am fairly happy with the results.
So what are some of favourites or least favourites? How do you rate the finales of Airwolf, Alf, Alias, The A-Team, Breaking Bad, Boston Legal, The Cosby Show, CSI, ER, Family Ties, Frasier, The Golden Girls, Hill Street Blues, Knight Rider, Lost, Magnum P.I., M.A.S.H., N.Y.P.D. Blues, Seinfeld, The Shield, The Sopranos, The West Wing?