Memorable Finales

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.

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Getting in the Mood

TV themes. Do you remember when they lasted longer than only a couple of seconds? When the sound of your favorite show put you in the mood for an episode of fun, suspense or tears? Did you know the lyrics by heart? Did you recite them or sing along? Do you still find yourself humming those songs while you cook, do laundry or are cleaning up? Do they still put you in a good mood like they used to? Bring back memories of characters once dear to you like friends or relatives?

Today, a lot of shows save up time by using trademark teasers rather than songs that last longer than a mere moment. Castle, Malibu Country, The Good Wife are some of my favorite examples. If you sneeze, you may miss the catchy intro. Sad news for anyone who suffers from hay fever or catches a cold. There are exceptions no doubt: Elementary Downton Abbey or Rizzoli & Isles. I enjoy all of these shows once in a while but the less new programs offer a catchy melody or song, the more I miss that positive trigger classic television used to lure me in. Granted, for the sake of commercials, screen time has been cut down over the years. While a Perry Mason episode still lasted an average of 50 minutes and Bewitched an entertaining 25, most shows only get 43 (or 21) minutes today. So while it was great to hum along to Family Affair or Hart to Hart in the past, it makes sense for Go On to save up time and use those theme song seconds for the storyline.

Although I know the reasons and appreciate a couple of contemporary programs for their beautiful tunes, I still miss those beautiful TV songs that used to stick with me all week. Bugs Bunny, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Flintstones. I Love Lucy, The Muppets, Bill Cosby, Growing Pains. Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, The Golden Girls. Love Boat. Cagney and LaceyScarecrow and Mrs. King. Even shows I didn’t like for anything but their catchy themes such as Family Matters or Full House. Do you still remember your favorite melodies?!

America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

The Golden Girls

TV classics: The Golden Girls

USA 1985-92, seven seasons, 180 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, NBC, color. Cast: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty

Plot summary: It can be fun pushing towards retirement, if you share a house with friends and know where to get Miami’s best cheesecake to get over your troubles with family and men.

Review: Cynthia Fee sings Thank You For Being a Friend and the pictures introduce you to a show about friendship, pun and laughter. Bea Arthur is credited first, then Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty. As Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia, they share a house in Miami, three widows and a divorcée. Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is a teacher whose sarcasm matches her Ma’s (Estelle Getty) sharp tongue when Rose (Betty White) shares her small town wisdom and Blanche (Rue McClanahan) brags about her nightly escapades with men. They butt heads at times, are jealous of each other and sometimes snarky – all in all, however, they are good friends and there is nothing a piece of cheesecake couldn’t mend.

Premiering on September 14, 1985 on NBC, The Golden Girls were an instant hit on television, securing an audience from and beyond the Greatest Generation. With three small screen veterans as leading ladies, the show managed to build up on their previous fame without typecasting them. While Bea Arthur’s character showed certain parallels to Maude, Vivian Harmon and Sue Ann Nivens did not make a reappearance. Although originally auditioning for Blanche Devereaux, Betty White ended up playing naive Rose Nylund from St. Olaf, Minnesota, while Rue McClanahan got to show her playful side as a man-hungry Southern Belle. Blessed with fantastic scripts right from the start and Estelle Getty as TV’s new discovery, the show had a successful run of seven years and addressed many previously untouched topics.

Following Bea Arthur’s departure in the show’s popular finale in 1992, The Golden Girls lived on for another season at The Golden Palace and graced Nurses, as well as Empty Nest (both also created by Susan Harris) with occasional guest appearances. Twenty years after going off the air, The Golden Girls are still dearly remembered by a worldwide audience. Released on DVD and available as individual seasons or a complete boxset, the show still attracts fans across the generations by walking the fine line of entertainment and quality. Rewarded with sixty-five Emmy nominations, the writing and cast was top notch then and remains funny today. In times of reality TV and anything goes, the show is still refreshing and, like Betty White’s popularity, never seems to get old.

My Friend Irma

TV classics: My Friend Irma

USA 1952-54, 2 season,  episodes approximately 30 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Cast: Marie Wilson, Mary Shipp, Sid Tomack and others

Plot summary: Irma Peterson lives with her roommate Jane Stacy who has many stories to tell about her sweet but simple-minded friend.

Review: Like many of its contemporary hit shows, My Friend Irma started out as a popular radio program. Created by Cy Howard, the show was on the air for seven consecutive years before it found its way to television in the last two years of its enduring success, starring Marie Wilson as Irma Peterson. Introduced by her savvy roommate Jane Stacy (Mary Shipp), each episode covered a mishap adventure of the show’s title character Irma. Sweet but not the brightest bulb in the city, the ingenuous secretary from Minnesota easily stumbled into trouble with her boss, her nitwit boyfriend or other recurring characters on the show, a fact that amused her roommate as much as the audience. With her simple mind and sweet nature, the character could very well have been an inspiration for Betty White’s beloved Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls, a show that’s still popular amongst fans of all ages. As a lighthearted comedy program, My Friend Irma also has the potential to entertain old fans and new ones, especially those who are interested in classic comedy and storytelling. Although sometimes silly and over the top, the show is entertaining and a lovely distraction for anyone who is tired of the anything-goes plots and reality TV of today, and one of those gems from Hollywood’s golden days a lot of us have a great time exploring again in public domain or on DVD.

My Friend Irma sample episodes “Irma Gets Engaged” and “Dating Barrington”

Side note: For movie buffs, the show also had two successful spins on the silver screen, introducing Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin to an adoring audience in My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).

The 80s

The 1980s

Looking back, the 80s seem to have been dominated by aerobics, a blindingly rich pink and shoulder pads. What the decade brought us was yuppies, legwarmers and a 1950s comeback. Blue jeans were stone washed, perforated and often tight, and career women wore sneakers on their way to work and then switched back into their heels before entering their business palaces. Bows were big on prom dresses and wedding gowns, men had mullet hair, women perms, and artificial fabrics and colors were the thing to wear. Madonna released her debut album in 1983, The Bangles were popular and so was REM. Lean cuisine entered the market and dieting was a public motto now along with a general fitness craze.

On TV, Murder, She Wrote with super sleuth Angela Lansbury as J.B. Fletcher was mighty popular, as well as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss. Other famous shows were The Greatest American Hero, Remington Steele, Fall Guy or ALF. Like in the 70s, the list of household names is long and many of these shows are still well received on DVD or in re-runs today. Continuing a tradition that started back in the 1950s and 60s already, the 80s brought us a lot of shows with Hollywood legends, familiar faces and names. Falcon Crest, for example, featured Jane Wyman, Hotel first Bette Davis and then Ann Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck graced a season of Dynasty‘s spin-off The Colbys. In 1985, my favorite Perry Mason returned to TV after almost 20 years of absence and reunited Raymond Burr with Barbara Hale as Della Street for twenty-six star-studded TV movie episodes that lasted well into the early 90s. Women continued to redefine their image on stellar shows like Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls and Designing Women, standing their post-feminist ground as working mothers, single women and retirees.

At the movies, teen flicks like Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club turned into box office hits, as well as dance movies like Dirty Dancing, Fame or Footloose (which was just recently remade). All in all, 1980s cinema was dominated by comedies, action movies and romance, creating stars like Molly Ringwald, Michael J. Fox or Patrick Swayze. Some of my decade favorites are Out of Africa, The Big Chill, Beaches, Mask, Matewan, The Doctor or Steel Magnolias. As the last full decade that knew how to create old style Hollywood momentum, the 1980s brought on many more memorable TV shows and films with a lot of stars that are still around these days, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris or Michelle Pfeiffer only to name a few. The 80s also rediscovered class – now guess who’s fond of that?!