The HBO series “True Detective” on Sunday night finished its eight-episode arc exploring the partnership between one Detective Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). What’s remarkable is just how popular the show became in such a short time -– becoming engrained in popular lexicon in a way that a TV series usually needs years to forge.
It’s also remarkable that, in only eight episodes, “True Detective” managed to piss off the Internet with its finale -– something also usually reserved for a series that has logged quite a few seasons. Yet, after Sunday’s finale, there it was: The now-commonplace complaints that a finale didn’t live up to expectations. The problem is, we’re never again going to get a so-called “great” finale. The Internet will make sure of it.
This isn’t a criticism of the Internet or social media. There’s a good chance that a show like “True Detective” may have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the Internet. It’s usually the Internet’s love for a television show that results in its eventual doom.
The problem is, a fan of any particular show will read online scenario after scenario of what could happen in an upcoming finale (I am guilty of contributing to this problem) and, inevitably, that person will find a scenario that he or she really likes ... and then he or she will be upset when it doesn’t happen. (And I firmly believe this trend started with “Lost.” I have a hard time believing we’d have read as many think-piece theories last week about The Yellow King -– which really wasn’t supposed to be much of a mystery -- if it weren’t for all of the think-piece theories that came before about the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42.)
The first season of TRUE DETECTIVE runs 8 episodes and 8,000 thinkpieces.
— Matt Singer (@mattsinger) March 10, 2014
I brought all of this up to Slate’s television critic, Willa Paskin (partially just to find out if I’m being insane), and she responded, “Yeah, I think this is real. I've been thinking about it, too. I think the explanation is two fold: one, we are all paying a lot more attention, doing a lot more thinking about what we want in a finale, a lot more aware of other finales. Our expectations are too high. We're looking for something specific. We're not as open minded as we should be. And people making the show are aware of our expectations and that can lead to swinging for the fences, wildly, or playing it safe, boringly.”
Paskin is dead-on right about the showrunners being aware. Even if a showrunner somehow forces himself or herself not to be aware, then he or she is consciously aware that he or she is going out of the way to not be aware. In other words: In 2014, it’s impossible to ignore one way or another. It’s like trying to ignore the guy at the bar yelling at you, “Hey, underpants.” It’s mature to say, “I’m not listening,” but you’re also lying.
The finale of “The Sopranos” was criticized for its ambiguous ending. But, when a series shrouds its finale in ambiguity, at least it allows us to shoehorn in our preferred resolution. Did Tony Soprano live? Did Tony Soprano die? Whatever you wanted to happen in that particular scenario, well, a case can be made either way. People love to say that they hated the "Sopranos”’ ending, but I suspect even those people secretly love it because we are still talking about it seven years later. Today, I really do think people get upset when a finale doesn’t give a viewer enough to talk about.
By giving us a straightforward finale, “True Detective” didn’t let us have our moment. “But what about that crazy theory I read last week? I liked that! You mean this show was only about the relationship between two detectives?” It’s as if everyone wants everything to end like “The Sixth Sense.”
Even the “Breaking Bad” finale, which received a generally positive reaction, was criticized for being too tidy. If the finale of “M*A*S*H” aired today –- a finale of a drama-comedy that’s regarded as one of the best to ever air -– people would have been mad that B.J. spelled out “Goodbye” with the rocks. “Why wasn’t it something more vague? I read a theory that it was going to spell out ‘I am the Yellow King.’ Why didn’t Hawkeye’s helicopter explode?” It has become impossible to win.
“Social media makes us aware of everyone else's opinion and complete fractures the illusion of consensus,” added Paskin. “You can always find someone who hates something (or loves it). I'm sure if ‘M*A*S*H’ were on now, some people would have hated it, and we would know about their hate.”
(I do hold out hope that the finale of “Newhart” would still be as revered today as it was in 1990 for the reasons mentioned below.)
I asked my HuffPost colleague Mo Ryan about this (still seeking more validation) and she theorized that this may be true, but there’s a large difference between how people react to finales based on whether it’s a drama or a comedy. “There's a huge split in the drama realm, almost every time around,” Ryan said. “There are those who want the story elements to line up and be tied off neatly, and there are those who want the characters to get some kind of resolution. People may want a mixture of those two things, but those seem to be the two ends of the spectrum. Comedies have an easier time of it because it's 90 percent about the resolution of the characters' lives. In many of them, there’s not really a mythology or big plot structure to service.”
Paskin, too, said she thinks it’s still possible for comedies to escape the Internet’s web of love-wrath. “I think the stakes on comedy finales are just much, much lower. Who even remembers? It's just not the culmination of a story in the same way.”
Which is interesting, because when I posed this same question to Will Leitch, he listed three comedies, “’30 Rock’ did it perfect, ‘Eastbound and Down’ did too, and I bet ‘Parks and Recreation’ will too.” Then he added, “If you're asking if there will ever be universal 100 percent agreement on the Internet that something was perfect, well, no. But I think the fact that people feel pressured to come up with ANGLES! and HOT TAKES! on things assured that long ago.”
Leitch’s point about angles! is valid. (Again, I’m as guilty as anyone.) But I do believe the real problem comes from us, the person who loves a particular television show. It’s easy to make fun of fanboy culture (a culture I admittedly dabble in from time to time), but complaining about Rust Cohle’s final motivations is absolutely no different than complaining about Superman’s motives at the end of “Man of Steel.” In 2014, we are all fanboys. Serialized television is no different than serialized comic books and, yes, there is an investment in these characters and, if we love them enough, nothing will be good enough for them ... even if it comes from the person who created those characters. We feel a weird sense of entitlement to the things we like.
To this point, Lane Brown, the culture editor at New York magazine, elaborated, “Part of the problem is that most TV shows now are serialized (as opposed to episodic), which means series finales are the endings of 60-hour stories instead of hour-long ones, and there's lots of extra pressure.” Brown also blamed the phenomena of the anti-hero: “Most of the shows we like now are about antiheroes (or at least screwed-up protagonists) whose appeal is that we can hate and love them at the same time. Series finales require a showrunner make a definitive final judgment about his/her main character (Walter White either walks free or gets punished), which is bound to disappoint at least half of the audience.”
Brown then astutely pointed out something I had never really considered, “It's probably not an accident that the shows that the Internet remembers most fondly (‘Freaks & Geeks,’ ‘My So-Called Life,’ ‘Veronica Mars,’ ‘Party Down,’ ‘Arrested Development’ until it came back, etc.) are the ones that never got endings.”
So, it’s kind of official: Your finale will suck, even if it doesn’t. That’s just the way it is now. (Sorry, Matt Weiner.) But, you know, that’s okay, because your show probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have a finale that everyone hates if it weren’t for all of those people who now hate your finale. So, it really does seem like the only winning move (oh my God, I’m really going to paraphrase Joshua from “WarGames,” aren’t I? Yes, I am) ... is not to have a finale.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.