But there are other forces at play, and it’s worth remembering that in some senses satisfying series finales may simply be impossible to pull off. All we need do is consider the purpose of television. This is beginning to change – and that’s a whole other blog post – but for most of television’s history, series were created with no endpoint in mind. In fact, the definition of success in TV land has been to go on and on indefinitely. Open-ended stories. Now, that’s one of the great things about television, a quality that separates it from its close cousin, film. We can immerse ourselves in a television world in ways unlike almost any other kind of entertainment. Consider – if you’re a soap fan, you can spend an hour every weekday of your life with the characters you’ve come to know and love. One or two soap actors have broken the fifty-year mark playing one character, and Kim McCullough has been on General Hospital as Robin Scorpio off-and-on her whole life. Gunsmoke lasted twenty years. Kelsey Grammar played Frasier Crane for over two decades. The Law and Order universe dates back to 1990.
When we get attached to these worlds – and if a series is successful it means we are attached – the first problem is, how can we ever possibly give them up? It’s like moving away from your home town. No, it’s worse: it’s like moving away from your hometown and then having it completely destroyed by a nuclear blast. There’s serious grief involved in a show’s end. And with that kind of emotion, our brains are hardwired to reject whatever sad little ending a series’ producers can dream up. Flat out reject it: “Sorry, I’m not having that.” I’m still grieving over The Love Boat.
Beyond that, though, consider the structure of television, that open-ended, world-that-seems-to-promise-to-go-on-forever thing. Game of Thrones lasted for 73 hours. 73 hours, and we expect writers to put a bow on it in an episode or two? And one more time, if a series is successful, if we buy into its world, invest in it as a kind of reality, it just isn’t supposed to end. No matter what happens to Dexter Morgan at the end of Dexter, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives wondering about him. You don’t become a part of someone’s life, watch everything they do, hear their inner thoughts, and then just walk away.
At least two series have managed to pull their endings off in a satisfying way. Both of them did it by undermining the reality of the series. If we invest in series as worlds, worlds not too far removed from real life, then the only possible way to keep us from grieving when those worlds go away is to remind us that they were never real. For St. Elsewhere, that came in the form of a final shot, pulling back from St. Eligius and revealing that the whole thing existed in a snow globe. Newhart took a similar route. In the final scene, Bob wakes up to find himself back in his previous sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, in bed with his wife, Emily. All of Newhart becomes nothing more than a long fever-dream. Clever as hell. But more importantly, it strips Newhart of its reality, allows us emotionally to let it go: “Anyway, it was never real.”
Unfortunately, TV shows can’t all adopt the Newhart formula. The fact that two shows managed to get away with it and so near to one another in time, was probably pressing our luck. The newest solution seems to have more traction: simply limit the number of episodes right from the start, control the whole trajectory from beginning to end before you shoot one scene. And remind us – this is a “limited series.” That way we know going in exactly when the end will arrive. The only problem is, we still don’t seem to be able to let go. How many recent “limited series” have networks, under pressure from fans, been tempted to renew. HBO, for instance, flirted with a second season of The Night Of and have apparently given in to pressure with The New Pope.
Which only goes to prove my point: television just isn’t meant to end, and until someone realizes that and creates a never-ending show, we’re just never going to be happy.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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