Keep Your Neutrons Flowin'

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Monday, May 24, 2010

It's Over!: A Musing on TV Finales

So many shows are ending this year, by choice or otherwise, that I felt it necessary to address the nature of series finales and how often they are less than satisfying to the fan. Specifically, I'll be like everyone in the known universe and talk about "LOST" because I just watched it.

In this day and age, it's amazing that shows even get a "planned" ending. More often than not, the show gets axed by the network brass after the last episode gets filmed and there's never a proper (or even a rushed) sendoff. It just ends. Take "Firefly," which didn't even get to air all of the episodes it had filmed before getting the boot. Yes, the show was revived for a really good spinoff movie, but one wonders how much more the characters could have accomplished if the series was allowed to progress. Then there are those shows, the bulk of them, that barely get time to develop a fan base before shuffling off to Buffalo. So when a show gets the opportunity to end its own way, on its own terms, it's a pretty special thing.

But it's a double-edged sword. The longer a show goes on and remains popular, it becomes increasingly difficult to end things with the proper amount of gravitas and make all the fans happy AND end the narrative naturally. You also don't want to overstay your welcome. Look at "Heroes." "Heroes" had the opportunity to be one of the best tv-experiences ever. A fantastic 23 episodes and out, but instead it got to big for its own britches and went on for three more awful seasons. It's hard to sustain even the best of concepts. I won't go so far as to say it can be a burden to have a successful and popular show, but it's definitely a tricky place to be in.

Even shows that remain popular and have great finales, like "M*A*S*H" for instance, run the risk of overstaying their welcome. "M*A*S*H" actually lasted longer than the Korean war it was depicting. I almost have more respect for a show that chooses to end while the getting's good. The show might not have as big a cultural impact that way, but it sure as hell would have a bigger thematic impact. It's easier to craft a complete narrative over three seasons than it is over eight.

"LOST" decided its sixth season would be the last, giving it finality and time to craft a proper ending. Now, people will argue forever as to whether it was a "proper" ending, but it was an ending, a definite one. It was ambiguous, granted. But some of the best shows, especially genre shows, end in such a manor and they're talked about still. "St. Elsewhere" ended with the entire series existing within the mind of an autistic boy with a snow globe. "Battlestar Galactica" ended with some kind of parable about how present day Earth is what happened after thousands of years of humans and cylons mating and then we better watch out because we make robots too...or something like that. "Battlestar" is a lot more heavy-handed than it probably could or should have been, but essentially it was effective. Possibly the best, "The Prisoner" ends with our hero, the titular Prisoner, unmasking the fabled "No. 1" to reveal first an ape mask and then his own maniacally cackling face.

"LOST" ended with two storylines, one in the real world and one in the weird sideways universe (which we finally learn the nature of at the end). This satisfies both halves of Campbell's hero's journey. In the Island World, Jack travels the external path, encountering monsters, a cave, certain doom, and his own mortality. In the Sideways World, he's on the internal path, dealing with his father issues and his own faith and issues of failure. This is pretty textbook storytelling, albeit with some curve balls thrown in along the way.

Both journeys end triumphantly, which should satisfy everyone, right? Well, there are also about 900 mysteries the show brings up that don't get addressed, but to be honest, all of that stuff is window dressing when you get down to it. The characters are what mattered. We found out WHAT was happening, we don't really need to know the HOW or the WHY.

This is not to say it was perfect. The episode ended more or less without conflict. Once the ____ _____ was defeated and Jack put the ____ back in the ____, there was next to nothing left to worry about. It sort of felt like the end of summer camp. A lot of buildup to not much fanfare. We all go home and remember the fun we had, but it's basically all too fleeting. In the annals of television, I still think "LOST" will go down as a great sci-fi show with a pretty okay ending. And that's as good as you can hope for from a finale these days.

You're welcome.

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