Television Rules The Nation #5: Introduction to Finality

Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Previously on TRTN...

Oh. Spoilers for Breaking Bad's finale, I guess. Sorry 'bout that.
I don't say this often, but let's talk about high school.

A whole decade ago, I was a fresh-faced young lad of fifteen, who spent most of my free time hiding from daylight in the safe, cool cocoon of my parents' basement. In between bouts of Guitar Hero and shotgunning literally dangerous amounts of Mountain Dew Code Red, my two favorite TV shows were Firefly and Scrubs. That's right, I was the kid who went through his teenage years idolizing Zach Braff and swearing in exaggerated Cantonese (for some reason, high school wasn't super easy for me).

It's sweeps/finale season right now, and that got me thinking about those two shows, which are basically a study in contrasts for how shows can eventually meet their end. Firefly didn't even get to air all its episodes before being rather famously screwed over by the Fox Network, who either didn't understand the ahead-of-its-time cult classic they had on their hands, or just didn't care. Scrubs, on the other hand, ran for nine full seasons and fell right on the bell-curve for a latter-day NBC comedy -- peaked in the second or third season, began dropping in quality after the fifth, etc. -- and, while it lacked the cultural impact of Friends or The Office or even 30 Rock, was a consistent and respectable part of their lineup for almost a decade. Its latter seasons were pretty roundly uninspired, however, (give or take an outlier that we'll discuss below) and its dramatically revamped ninth season is still reviled by fans when it's not being outright ignored by them. Put simply, Firefly never got a chance, and maybe Scrubs got one too many.

But that begs the question that I wanted to get into when I started writing this article: when is right to end a show? How does one even go about such a process? Considering the recent high-profile debacles and controversies when it comes to season/series finales, it's clearly not an easy task. It's not even quantifiable, really. That last link discusses the Mad Men finale, which, while it didn't set the internet ablaze with vitriolic, flaming hate in the same way that Dexter and How I Met Your Mother did (unsurprising, given that its target audience tends to be a bit more literary-minded and less reactionary), it's been met with a wide range of reactions that range from tears of joy to groans to apathetic shrugs. And for the record, showrunner Matt Weiner doesn't appear to be too bothered by any of that, as he maintains that he didn't feel he "owed" anything in particular to anyone.

While I don't exactly agree with Weiner's dismissive attitude, I can at least grok it. It's not controversial to say that the process of ending a show is waaay harder than starting one, and just saying, "eff it" is as valid an approach as any. It's no better or worse than the alternatives.

Admit it, the theme song just started playing in your head.
And what are those alternatives? Well, it seems like either you die a Firefly, or you live long enough to become a Scrubs Season 9 (or, if you're Vince Gilligan, you can just say screw the rules and make a perfect ending). And if I have to choose between those two extremes, I gotta say I'd err closer to the Firefly side of the spectrum. Sure, it was disappointing that we only ended up with one incomplete season and a post-cancellation movie, but ultimately I'd say that the show benefited from how little it got. Writing a long-form television series -- doesn't matter if it runs for two seasons or thirty-three -- is a losing race against the simple forces of narrative entropy and diminishing returns. Eventually you're going to run out of stories to tell, and the longer you run the clock the more likely it becomes that you'll repeat yourself, or lose track of one of your characters' personalities, or betray your audience's willing suspension of disbelief. Firefly's continued cult success and galvanized fan adoration is a direct result of the fact that it never lasted long enough to run into any of these problems: the whole series, start-to-finish, is all killer and no filler. Had it run for longer, sure, it might have made some serious classics, but there's no way it wouldn't have produced a few stinkers along the way. No one, not even the revered Joss Whedon, can bat a thousand. Television as a long-form narrative is fascinating because, unlike a film or book series, each individual part is inextricable from the whole. Rough episodes, lame arcs, lackluster seasons...these things do harm to a show's legacy long after the finale's wrapped, and mark the dividing line between truly essential "great" television and disposable "meh" television (if you want proof, look at how many people are still sore about "Threshold" from Star Trek Voyager). Firefly is and remains great television, because we never had to sit through them screwing up Mal and Inara's romance, or get bored waiting to figure out what the deal with the Hands of Blue was, or realize that they'd run out of things for Wash and Zoey to do. Regardless of the "why" behind it, Firefly ended on a high note and left its audience wanting more, and that's about the best you can hope for when it comes to ending a show.

That pants flag up there is funnier than Scrubs' entire 7th season.
The thing that messes me up about Scrubs is that it had that ending. Season 8 was, for all intents and purposes, a total statistical anomaly -- yeah, it recycled old plots and dramatically rewrote characters and their relationships across the board, but it did so in a clever, self-aware kind of way that all seemed to be leading up to a definitive endgame. Moreover, it was funny and had heart in a way the show hadn't had since the middle of its fifth season. The finale -- even titled "My Finale" -- was a note-perfect sendoff for the characters and the setting. Season 5 of Supernatural did this as well, streamlining its stories and tying up its loose ends in preparation for its finale (which had a similarly final-sounding name: "Swan Song"). The showrunners behind both series seemed to understand and be motivated by the same notion, one that was given voice in the opening narration of "Swan Song": Endings are hard. It was clear on both shows that a lot of time, thought, and effort had gone into crafting a satisfying and definitive end.

And then they both...just...kept...going.

Scrubs got saddled with a superfluous single-season pseudo-spinoff (what alliteration!) and Supernatural decided that it was just gonna keep on running until the inevitable heat-death of the universe. Bitter? Who's bitter? *teeth clench* I'm fine.

But I think the we can take away from these three examples is pretty simple: how you end your show isn't nearly as important as when you end your show.

The issue is that this line of thinking directly contradicts conventional industry and fandom wisdom. If you asked a network executive when the best time to end a show is, the cynical truth is that you'd probably get some variation on, "Whenever the show stops turning a profit." If you were to ask a fan when the best time to end a show would be, they'd probably say, "Never", or maybe, if they were uncommonly self-aware, "Whenever I become tired of it." But here's the problem with that line of thinking: if the only way you'll end a successful show is after you've run it into the ground and burned away all the goodwill your audience had towards it, then, well, there you have it. You'll destroy every successful show you have. That's creatively stifling for the artists, frustrating for the fans, harmful to the show, and ultimately deleterious to the industry.

What happened to Firefly is one of the great tragedies of modern nerd culture, but, speaking as someone who's been a fan since his embarrassing teenage years, I'd rather not have enough of a good thing than have so much of it that it stops being special, and starts feeling like a chore.


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