In the past three days, three game-changing longrunning series aired their final episodes: ‘Lost,’ ‘24,‘ and ‘Law & Order.’ (Yes, ‘Law & Order’ was totally different from anything else on the air when it started.) ’24’ ended last night with (spoiler alert) Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) fleeing the country after the President Taylor (Cherry Jones) admitted that she was wrong to sacrifice Jack all her principles for the sake of a peace treaty. The heart of the episode was a decent finale after a relatively weak season that lost major points with me when Jack’s best love interest, Renee (Annie Werschling) was killed. It was a finale that did not feel like a true ending, since, as every fan knows, Jack will continue to fight the good fight in a major motion picture.
Last night what is likely the final episode of the original ‘Law & Order’ also aired with absolutely no resolution or fanfare — not that television’s purest procedural needed to explain its mythology, but the audience of primetime’s longest running drama deserved something special. They got a routine episode involving an angry blogger. Insert your own meta joke here.
The Last Two Minutes of ‘Lost’ – Satisfying Or Not?
The ‘Lost’ finale is the one that has divided fans. Some found the revelation that the Flash Sideways was an imaginary construct that brought the characters together in the afterlife was a powerful and uplifting ending that delivered emotional closure, while others think it was a cop out that left many of the important questions about the island unanswered. I leave it up to Fancast’s resident ‘Lost’ expert to handle the specifics. (I bailed on the show in season three, came back for the final season, then gave up on it again then tuned back in for the finale.)
I am here to focus instead on why series finales are often so aggravating. The end of ‘The Sopranos‘ still gets viewers’ blood boiling. I am still furious about the way ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ ended seven years ago. The scooby gang fled a destroyed Sunnydale in a bus. Bogus.
Relatively few television series even get a proper finale. Many are canceled without giving the writers time to wrap things up, as happened to ‘Law & Order’. Or there are the attempts to craft season finales that could double as a series finale if a show’s future is in question, which often end up working as neither. When a show gets any sort of closure whatsoever, it is a small miracle. But the stakes are so high. The finale has become not only a way to wrap up all the plots but a referendum on the show’s meaning. Disappointed viewers are likely to walk away grumbling that they wasted years of their life on a series that did not deliver the promised pay off.
In the age of online viewing and box sets, when it is common to rewatch or start watching shows that have long since gone off the air, television finales have assumed an outsize importance. They have become the show’s legacy and meaning. I know several ‘Battlestar Gallactica‘ fans who were so so angered by the unsatisfying finale that they can no longer bring themselves to watch any of the earlier seasons that they loved. In contrast, universally beloved finales like ‘The Shield‘ and ‘Six Feet Under‘ keep the shows’ fandom alive.
So what separates the awesome finales from the angering? My first instinct was to say that it is far more difficult to come up with a satisfying conclusion to a sci-fi/fantasy show than a straight up drama. Genre shows have to deliver satisfying conclusions to both the show’s mythology and the characters’ dynamics. Then I remembered the pitch-perfect conclusion to ‘Angel‘: Angel and his comrades decide to stay in a doomed battle with the Wolfram and Hart senior partners, well aware that they are all going to die. The series ended with Angel simply saying,”Let’s get to work.” It arguably ended the same way as ‘Lost’ did: everyone dies together, yet the scene so perfectly encapsulated all of the series themes, while wrapping up the ongoing storylines, that it was brilliant and satisfying, and its triumphant sadness fit the downbeat series.
However, genre shows are more likely to have fanbases with different factions who watch the show for different reasons. ‘Lost’ showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have always claimed that the show was more about the relationships between the characters than the mysteries of the island. They wrote the finale accordingly. That worked for viewers who watched for the Sawyer/Kate/Jack triangle. The numerous fans that spent countless hours speculating about the significance of the statue, the Dharma initiative, the numbers and the rest of the mysteries of the island, were frustrated.
Indeed, numerous finale problems seems to occur when the show’s creators and much of the show’s fans disagree on what the show is really about. ‘The Sopranos‘ viewers were watching the show’s finale in search of some sort of closure to Tony’s story instead got a blank screen. It seemed like David Chase was writing to please himself, rather than the audience. The result: an angry audience who resented being told, essentially, that what they wanted to see was stupid and superficial.
Another root cause of bad finales is the show that, creatively speaking, should have been canceled sooner. By the time ‘The X Files‘ ended, David Duchovny had left the show, Gillian Anderson was barely on, and nobody was watching. The attempt to resolve Mulder and Scully’s relationship, along with numerous dropped conspiracies, in two hours created a universally panned finale.
In contrast, series finales that work focus on the show’s core themes — as understood by the audience, that often mirror the pilot. ‘Ugly Betty’s‘ writers understood that viewers wanted Betty to reach her professional and personal potential, and step out of the shadows. That’s exactly what the finale delivered without resorting to schmaltz. Just as in the pilot, she got a new job that took her out of her comfort zone. The difference was that this time, she was in a position of power, not a hapless fish out of water. ‘Six Feet Under‘ began with Nathaniel Fisher’s death, the show’s central subject. It made sense that it ended with the deaths of the rest of the Fishers.
The three finales that aired this week fell somewhere in the middle. ’24’ and ‘Law & Order’ will, in all probability, quickly be forgotten. The end of ‘Lost’ will always be debated, but there are plenty who loved it. But, unfortunately, none of these groundbreaking shows got a send off that is truly worthy of their impact on television.