For anyone who knows me and anyone who has been following this blog it may be quite apparent: I’m fond of television. I refrain from saying good TV because that certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that TV classics have a special place in my heart and probably yours. That they have a quality most modern shows are struggling to repeat. That their appeal grows in proportion to their age, out of nostalgia for our youth or the good old days, I do not know. That will have to be a topic of another post. What I want to talk about today is an integral part of any television series. Finales, those long awaited yet dreaded farewells to our favorite shows. Those final episodes we miss when TV series get canceled on short notice.
Personally, I love a great finale when the audience gets a chance to say goodbye to their favorite characters and the writers get to wrap up their storylines. Some of my favorite examples are M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. All shows that stayed true to their formula and honored their protagonists by creating a melancholy but optimistic end. The West Wing as one of my favorite modern shows on the other hand aimed high but fell strangely flat. Set in a political environment, for me, the last episode was too quixotic to meet my expectations. Although it wasn’t as disappointing as The Wonder Years nor as sobering as The X-Files, it still lacked the critical essence of a program I had thoroughly enjoyed for seven years. It may be a matter of taste, but I like to imagine my favorite shows to continue ad infinitum. “Now it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning” will always be my favorite line to end a show. And who else could have said it but Raymond Burr on Perry Mason, a show that has out-classed many by paying tribute to its crew in the final episode. That’s my preferred way of saying goodbye. To leave the fans with a sense of gratitude, hope and infinity. The characters we’ve come to love over the years continue to exist even if we don’t get to visit them anymore on a weekly basis.
A great exception are finales that offer a conclusion to a finite storyline or explain events that seem to have pushed the boundaries of the original tale. Roseanne is such an example. Although not one of my favorite shows, the explanations the last episode offered to make sense of the exaggerated plot of the final season still resonate with me today. Equally memorable was Six Feet Under, a show I increasingly disliked over the years but always held in high esteem for its stellar cast. The outlook we got on the fate of the main characters met with a sense of closure that pushed the program on an almost ethereal level. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Malcolm in the Middle, a show completely different in style but similar in its ability to complete a given storyline.
With all these good examples, I almost shy away from mentioning the frustrating ones we all know exist. Those let down finales and anticlimactic farewells with the potential to ruin the fun of an entire show in retrospect. Battlestar Galactica is my favorite example. A show that lost its promise in the last season when it was interrupted by the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. Chopped into two halves, the long awaited revelation failed to address one of the program’s most haunting signature sentences and ultimately revealed that the Cylons (like the writers) never had a plan. Although given the time to bring a complex story to a fruitful end, the final season was dragged out but rushed at the same time. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, ALF and last year’s Alcatraz did not even get a chance to conclude their stories which is probably the most dissatisfying way for a show to say goodbye. With a cliffhanger and many burning questions, fans were denied the satisfaction of a proper conclusion and thus nurtured the reluctance of fans to invest their time in new programs.
The most appealing alternative for anyone who has been left hanging in mid-air more than once may be the great array of mini series TV has spoiled us with over the years. These programs are, after all, thought through from beginning to end and offer a guaranteed conclusion (although not necessarily a happy end). Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House or Angels in America were all equipped with unforgettable finales that live up to the series’ initial promise of quality and entertainment. Each one of them a great treat for TV enthusiasts and a milestone in television history.