It's hard to get a TV show on the air, but it's even harder to end one.
The fuss over the "How I Met Your Mother" finale is just the latest in a series of uproars over closing episodes. Even "True Detective" couldn't avoid the buzzsaw of opinion regarding its first-season finale.
Note to showrunners: Don't ever end anything, nothing good can come of it.
I'm kidding, mostly, and what's more, I don't necessarily think kerfuffles over series finales (or even season finales) are bad things. As someone who loves a good debate, I find them invigorating most of the time (until mental exhaustion sets in, and then I step away from Twitter for a day or two).
The fact is, TV is exceptionally vital, varied and interesting these days, and I would argue that the better TV gets, the more difficult good endings are to pull off. Endings have always carried inherent difficulties, but I have a sneaking suspicion that as TV has improved, finales have ascended to new and sometimes terrifying levels of difficulty.
That's why, before they air, my attitude toward most finales can be summed up with the phrase "Please don't be terrible." Approaching finales with this mantra in mind has served me in good stead (though it didn't save me from being disappointed in the "Breaking Bad" finale, which was structurally sound, I guess, but morally evasive. Just my two cents).
Battle stations: I generally liked the "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" finales. As noted, I didn't love the "Breaking Bad" finale. But here's the kicker: I unequivocally love those shows. And a few decades of TV-watching and a decade of watching reactions to high-profile finales at close range has taught me to lower my expectations when it comes to endings. I don't hope for a home run; I hope for a solid single or a double.
Let's face it: Most series finales are far from classics. Final episodes are most likely to be in the middle tier of any ranking of that show's episodes -- at best.
On a recent Talking TV podcast, Ryan McGee and I gave a challenge to our listeners: Can you think of a series finale that also deserved to be in the Top 10 list of that show's episodes? In other words, how many series finales are among the best episodes that program has ever done? The resounding answer from our listeners: Not many.
There were stray nominations for "30 Rock," "The Office," "Futurama" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." I nominated "The Shield" (and in that case, I consider the last two episodes the series finale). (By the way, I'm sure there are at least a few more that qualify; please feel free to share your thoughts on great finales in the comments.)
Two shows that ended in the mid-aughts generated the lion's share of feedback: "Six Feet Under" and "Angel." As listener David Pirozzi said of the latter drama in an email, "It fully brings home the story and the series' many significant themes."
That was the refrain among those who brought up both "Angel's" final episode and "Six Feet Under's" lovely closing montage: The last hours of those programs encapsulated and distilled much of what people loved about those shows in the first place. The finales put their characters in meaningful situations and found resonant and meaningful ways of expressing the themes and ideas at the shows' cores. The finales didn't feel tossed off, desperate, jury-rigged or overly labored. They just felt right.
Listener Alex C. spoke for many when he cited the "Dexter" and "HIMYM" finales as episodes that "felt different from the show we thought we were watching. I would argue 'Six Feet Under' has the most thematically appropriate finale of all time."
But themes are only one thing that creators are wrestling with when the time to end a show comes around. They also have to address structural elements that have been years in the making. The fact that the creators of "How I Met Your Mother" felt the need to stick with an early plot element ("Aunt Robin") and a scene with the kids filmed many years before is one of television's most confounding mysteries. They had plenty of time to arrange for an ending that felt more organic and fitting, but as many critics noted, that would have meant the show would have had to be more rigorous and disciplined about the characters' development over time. As is so often the case, the seeds of that finale's problems were planted years before.
Trying to do too much in the finale is another trap. When the end is nigh, most shows have six or seven seasons' worth of material to conclude, and that can be a daunting challenge, but as we discussed in a new Talking TV podcast (Part 2 of our discussion of finales), finales don't have to be overstuffed and ungainly, as many are. Part of the reason that "The Shield" finale was so satisfying is because the entire final season dealt with various bits of business, leaving the core emotional and moral wrap-ups to the last two episodes. The final episode felt clean and momentous, not overstuffed and wobbly.
That said, the finale formula is going to be different for every show. There's almost no way that the long-running "Supernatural," for instance, will be able to do justice to its fans' decade of loyalty whenever it ends (years from now, of course). The fans have so much history with that world, all a good finale can do is pay homage to the most important parts of it. Whether a long-running show is a procedural or not, whether it's comedy or drama, whether it's on the CW or in a loftier precinct, there's often just no way to do the whole enchilada justice, but it's always intriguing to see the strategies used in the attempt.
For prestige-laden or ambitious dramas, finales often have the bonus round known as "Telling Us What It All Means." Even if they don't really want their finales to make grand statements about the characters' choices, actions and ethics, writers know that the their finales will be mined for those statements, which is one reason concluding episodes often reek of flop sweat. And creators often understandably have a hard time saying goodbye to their shows and their protagonists (I wonder if that's one reason the "Breaking Bad" finale -- in my view -- went easy on Walter White).
Weirdly enough, I'm not too worried about the finale of "Mad Men," which begins its final season Sunday. It's a show that's long embraced a certain amount of experimentation and nobody expects a show about ambiguity to be overly definitive (though I do expect, for many reasons, a fair amount of nostalgia in the goodbye to Don, Peggy and Joan).
Still, it can't be denied that there's a certain amount of avoidance and deflection in many finales, or displays of "cleverness" that ultimately feel cheap and undernourishing. (Reading interviews several years later made me understand what David Chase was trying to do with the "Sopranos" finale. It didn't work for me, but c'est la guerre -- and I still love the show.) Some finales over-focus on plot mechanics and wrapping up loose ends (a couple of handy ways to avoid deeper storytelling dilemmas) and others indulge in odd digressions and tonal experiments that leave people scratching their heads (yes, "Seinfeld" finale, I'm looking at you).
The criminally underappreciated "Angel," as many listeners pointed out, is one of the few dramas that ended in a way that felt emotionally, tonally and thematically appropriate. There were complex scenes of high emotion, a smart wrapping up of all major business, and its final image remains seared in fans' memories. Speaking of last looks, though the "Six Feet Under" finale is not among my all-time favorites, I appreciate what the closing montage of its finale accomplished. It was not just an exceptionally memorable sequence (set to a wonderful song), it helped people forget how annoying the Fisher family had gotten in those final seasons. Amazingly enough, it retroactively erased a lot of the sourness from the show's closing run.
So, barring acts of extreme genius, which are few and far between and are usually driven by months of storytelling discipline, rigor and clarity, the most I allow myself to hope for in the realm of finales is "good enough." The "Friday Night Lights" finale, for example is probably not in anyone's pantheon of the show's best episodes, but it worked. Everyone got a fitting sendoff and it felt satisfying on an emotional level, which is what mattered most for that particular show.
All that said, I reserve the right to hope for finales that are more that "pretty good" or "good enough" or "not terrible," and I know sometime down the road, I'll be disappointed by a finale and won't be shy about sharing my views.
But as I said in this week's podcast, the fact that we get so worked up about finales is, in a weird way, a sign of TV's health. The shows we watch, whether they're comedies or dramas, are trying new things. Many of them are working harder to plumb the depths of the human experience. They're trying unusual techniques and more complicated approaches, and they have characters that are harder to pin down.
The current crop of showrunners grew up on TV and they know we did too, so they work that much harder to keep our interest in an increasingly competitive landscape. Not everything works, and it's not rare for writers stumble on the way to the ending. There's a lot of pressure, and sometimes people freeze up as the end nears. For writers, it's the end of an era and a goodbye to a job, as well as a creative endeavor. Of course they're going to have trouble nailing the dismount.
But if you don't like an ending, kerfuffle away, I say! Find your people and fume or frolic as the mood strikes. It's not a terrible thing that we have more ways to express ourselves and more people with whom we can connect over things we love (or don't love). We don't own these shows, but I'm glad we're so invested in many of them and care about their endings. As long as commenters, debaters and disagreers don't descend into ad hominem attacks, go ahead and opine and react. Paraphrasing Chairman Mao, let a hundred (thousand) tweets bloom.
So now I'll throw the Finale Challenge to you, readers. In the comment area, share your thoughts on TV finales that really worked. If you think a scripted program's finale is a classic -- and maybe even belongs in a Top 10 of that program's best episodes -- do tell and let us know why you think that's the case.
On last week's Talking TV podcast, Ryan McGee and I discussed various shows and the reaction to the "How I Met Your Mother" finale. In this week's Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below, Ryan and I discussed "Mad Men" (no spoilers), "The Bletchley Circle." As noted above, we also talked about finales in greater depth and discussed listener feedback to our Finale Challenge.