Thursday, May 27, 2010

Series Finales: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Michelle Gagnon

Let's talk about endings today. I've been in a bit of a fugue state since LOST concluded on Sunday night. Endings tend to be bittersweet, and this one got me mulling over the final episodes of some of my other all-time favorite shows. Fans of LOST, THE SHIELD, THE WIRE, LAW & ORDER, SEINFELD, THE SOPRANOS, and SIX FEET UNDER, here's your warning: if you haven't seen the final episode of these series yet, there are spoilers ahead...

I became hooked on LOST early on. Over the past six seasons it was sometimes fantastic, occasionally maddening, and always puzzling. At the moment, how to draw something to a close is a particularly relevant subject for me, since I recently finished the fourth book in my series. All of those books have primarily focused on the arc of two characters, and with this final book, that arc needed to draw to a close. Mind you, I'm not done with the series, but the focal point will shift with the next book. Because of that, I really wanted to wrap things up in a way that was ultimately satisfying (although not necessarily "happy"). It's a challenge that most series face. Some rise to the occasion, others fall flat.

So here's my rundown of the best and worst television series finales. Feel free to chime in on what you thought of each:

  • LOST: To be honest, I didn't have high expectations for this finale. I knew going in that there were so many dangling threads, there was simply no way the writers would be able to tie them all up. Yet I was pleasantly surprised. What I think they gave us, in the end, was viscerally satisfying. The characters that we've grown to care about all completed their journey, there were some nice tie-ins to incidents going all the way back to the pilot. That initial episode concluded with Jack saying, "If we can't live together, we'll die alone." As it turned out, living together meant that when they did die, they weren't alone. The finale didn't answer every lingering question (what was the island after all? Just a giant MacGuffin?) but it managed to deliver what the show has alwayLost.jpgs provided in its best moments. Since the debut it was an emotional ride, focused on the characters and the journey they've undertaken together. It provided enough answers to give some satisfaction, while still leaving quite a bit open to debate. I suspect that if the writers had known from the outset how many episodes total they'd have to play with, it would have been a much tighter story arc. But alas, that's not how the world of TV works. Going in, they never could have guessed what a hit the show would become, and how many slavering fans would dissect every scene. That being said, I think they did a great job. In the end the series shone a light on the true meaning of love and friendship, redemption, and mortality. Some people complained that it was mawkish and maudlin. For me, the sentimentality worked. After all, I'd spent years with these characters. I cared about what happened to them. I wanted things to work out for them- and based on my interpretation of the finale, it did.

  • THE WIRE: Still, hands down, the best show ever produced for television. And the conclusion delivered. As always with this show, things weren't tied up with a neat bow, because real life isn't like that. But we saw the torch being passed to a younger generation, for better and for worse. We saw redemption for McNulty, justice for Daniels, and Bubs getting a new lease on life. This was probably my favorite series finale ever. Well done across the board.

  • THE SHIELD: Tough one here. I loved the show from the outset for the moral gray area that all of the characters occupied. Like the WIRE, it felt more real than the vast majority of police dramas. It was never as simple as the good guys vs. the bad guys, the-shield.jpg because every character possessed the capacity for both good and evil acts (even Dutch: remember him strangling that cat?) And the conclusion here was grim. In the end, Vic Mackey ended up losing his family and friends, stuck in a day job that was for him a living hell, with all of his crimes brought to light. Things didn't really end well for most of the characters we cared about: they were either dead, in jail, or alone and isolated. It was the furthest thing from a happy ending, yet it was satisfying, because there was a sense that justice had been done, and everyone ended up paying the price for it.

  • SIX FEET UNDER: This finale if right up there for me. The final few minutes in particular, when Claire was driving away from her family to start a new life, interspersed with flash forwards that tied in so nicely to the opening of every episode, were sheer genius. Viewers witnessed the death of every major character in a sort of time-lapse montage video: some demises were funny, others tragic or mundane. Thanks to those snapshots of their future lives, it was probably the most satisfying series ending I've ever seen.

  • LAW & ORDER: I just watched this last night. I'm not sure if the writers were aware that this particular episode would mark the end of the second longest-running drama on television. Either way, I like that they didn't over do it. Most of the episode was just like any other installment, although this time (interestingly enough) there was no actual homicide (and if you're going to get picky, no real reason for Lupo and Bernard to be investigating a potential terrorist threat. But I digress). The final scene with the lieutenant was heartwarming, although the great strength of the show was that viewers were left largely unaware of the personal lives of the characters. You were treated to tantalizing tidbits here and there, but the focus always remained firmly on their work lives (this is why they were able to keep going for twenty years despite a slew of cast changes, in my opinion).
Now, on to some finales that disappointed.
  • I realize that this is probably going to spark some debate, but I was one of the people who really loathed THE SOPRANOS finale. There were many far more interesting things they could have done, as opposed to that surreal, disjointed final scene in the diner (Speaking of which, if you missed the LOST alternate endings odeadwood.jpgn Jimmy Kimmel, see them here. Brilliant). The writers could have gone back to the pilot, bringing back those damn ducks. They could have had that Russian finally wander back out of the woods (speaking of threads that were never tied up). While I appreciated that they ended with the family, which is largely what the show was about, I still felt let down.
  • SEINFELD: Terrible. Just awful. Having the characters end up in jail was absurd, and not in the trademark manner of the rest of the show. It felt forced, nasty, and just plain silly. Worse yet, there was nothing funny about it- which is downright criminal for the conclusion of one of the all-time funniest sitcoms. I have never been more disappointed by the end of a series.

  • DEADWOOD: This show ended prematurely, and on a flat note thanks to some serious missteps by HBO. It's a shame that they'll probably never be able to get everyone together again for that hinted-at film that was supposed to make up for it. What started with a roar ended with a whimper.
So I'd love to hear what you think of these, and other shows I might have missed. Who did it well? Which finales bombed?

11 comments:

  1. Some other ones that disappointed:

    MASH: From the writing perspective, it was at least three episodes cobbled together to make up single huge episode. Very disjointed because of that. I'm guessing network interference. But I had problems with the star of the show suddenly breaking down and going nuts--it was like someone said, "Let's mess up Hawkeye for the ratings!" In the context of the series, it was discordant, rather than a natural ending. I also found it kind of hard to believe that, in a busful of people, that no one else noticed that the mother had smothered her baby and didn't have their own reactions to it.

    Star Trek--The Next Generation: The show took us into an epilogue way into the future with the lead star having an incurable problem, then travels back in time. The show had been well-written over an extended period of time, but this one felt more like they really weren't sure how to end the series, so they just did something. Disappointing and not satisfactory--it was two hours, and it felt like it was too long. I kept wondering what the point of the episode was.

    Witch-Blade: Hands down, the worst season ending--I don't think they realized they would get canceled. We spent the whole season with Sarah dealing with the powers of the Witch-Blade, and they pushed her hard that in this episode she couldn't take it any more (her partner died; she discovered something about her father's death; etc.). It motivated her to use the blade to reverse time, and reset the show back to the pilot episode! Made me feel like the producers realized they painted themselves into the corner, so they solved it by telling viewers, "Oh, by the way, the whole season didn't count!"

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  2. I agree about the ending of THE WIRE. It gave you the feeling these people were still out there, living their lives; you just weren't going to be allowed to watch them anymore.

    THE SOPRANOS should have ended with the next-to-last episode, with Tony sitting on the bed holding the rifle Bobby Baccala gave him. Even though the scenes of the family entering the diner at the end were a picture perfect example of how to build tension, the actual ending let all the air out of the balloon.

    I watched all of DEADWOOD again a few months ago, and the ending isn't as jarring when you know there's nothing to come. Still, it's not what the show deserved. I'm boycotting David Milch; HBO offered him a way to wrap things up, and he chose to make JOHN FROM CINCINNATI.

    The best last episode ever was of NEWHART, when he wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette and realizes evetything that happened at the inn was a dream. That was inspired.

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  3. I agree, Linda- MASH was a bummer.
    And Dana, if you liked the Newhart finale, you simply have to watch the lost alternate endings. They're side-splitting.

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  4. HBO moments. Lots of people feel the Sopranos ending was a disappointment, but I couldn’t disagree more. Without being a slayfest (and this is interpretive) the ending effectively conveyed Tony’s violent death. The lights simply went out, and this was foreshadowed way ahead of time with Bobby Baccalieri and Tony’s talk at the lake camp, that in death everything just goes black. No fanfare, just blackout. The Wire’s ending was perfect and I agree w/ you Six Feet Under even more so—everyone dies—nothing could be more life affirming. And while it never found its stride (perhaps from more than one poor casting choice and choking, unusual plot lines and dialogue) HBO’s John From Cincinnati’s finale was just plain embarrassing, leaving so many pick-up sticks on the table. I know I’m alone on liking the show, but JFC was pushing something complex… cutting it cold was a real chicken move.

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  5. You can add Star Trek: Voyager to the let down list. Everything but the final 2 minutes was good for the most part. Then suddenly they escape down a wormhole that just happens to lead to Earth's solar system? Lame in the extreme. Plus, fans of the series will note that the ship had known about and used the tunnels before. So was Voyager like a rat in a maze when inside and couldn't find its way home? Yet they miraculously did in the final moments of the final episode. Again I'll say, lame.

    Star Trek: The Next Generation's ending was kind of satisfying for me, but I had to see it more than once. With all due respect to Linda, it tied back in with the pilot episode (or was that the first episode spanning two hours?) rather well. Time travel is a favorite plot among Trekkies but it can be so over the top that it's best reserved for special occasions such as this. The future Geordi La Forge definitely needed a makeup makeover though.

    Ugly Betty, like Law & Order, seemed to lack a real ending too. The series got canceled prematurely so the writers had to squeeze all they had planned into the final season. Personally, I stopped watching after the nephew's storyline turned gay (And they called this a family show?) but my wife continued tuning in. So I ended up seeing the final two episodes. The end was predictable, expected, and just lacked substance. Betty is left in London presumably having launched her career in the fashion world. Yet she miraculously runs into Daniel randomly on the street. In London, population approaching 8 million. Seriously, they did this. And Daniel didn't express his love or care for her. He spoke some mumbo-jumbo about needed to find himself. Then they agreed to have coffee or something. In short the ending - their relationship - was left entirely open ended. I wanted some kind of closure but this gave none.

    But isn't it strange I can easily remember the bad endings and yet no good ones are coming to mind?

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  6. Life on Mars, the US version, made me angry. Actually angry. For at least a half an hour after I was mad at the writers and producers. They spent the season building up a mystery and finding out at the end was that it was all just a drug-induced dream was very disappointing.

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  7. Jarrett, that was the ending to Life on Mars? How utterly disappointing. That show had promise.

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  8. I'm with Dana, the ending of Newhart was inspired in the way it looped back to The Bob Newhart Show. I still remember my reaction when the light came on and I recognized the bedroom.

    As far as drama, I was happy with the ending of The Shield. You just knew Mackey wasn't going to accept the life as a cube rat.

    I loathed the ending of Seinfeld and MASH

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  9. Like the final episode, the 200th (should a show make that many) is special too. So, in the same vein as this post let me share 3 of those:

    Cheers had a nice 200th episode. Seinfeld too as I recall. But CSI had a real stinker. A boring episode where nothing interesting or exciting happened. The writers failed to make the audience care for the girl who died. I'd rate it as one of that series' worst.

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  10. Both Buffy and Angel ended on just the right notes, IMO.

    AS did 24. One of the most inventive, exciting shows to hit TV, ever.

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  11. Lost finale sucked. There's now way to spin this.
    And I think people saying that it was such a beautiful sweet ending are just shippers, people happy because their favorite couple ended up together. Even if they were dead, rotting corpses.
    But apparently shippers are very powerful and every tv show must end with romance crap. And god.
    So six seasons about an island and then the end is about dead people all smiling, all white all hetero in a church?
    Please, I feel the need to puke.

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