Series' Finales: The Good and the Awful

Although I don't care for the Phillip Stroh
storyline, The Closer ends on the right note.
It is Season 7 or 8 or--in the case of Law & Order--Season 500. The final episode looms on the horizon and . . . often falls flat.

The problem, of course, is all the pressure to make the end BIG and AMAZING and--even more problematic--to pay off all the stuff that came before.

Truth is, the best endings occur when the writers ignore the pressures and simply produce good story.

Here are a few examples of the good and the awful (of course, there are spoilers!):

Good: Monk
The final episode of Monk is surprisingly good, considering that the six-fingered man fell perilously close to big, bad, conspiracy theory territory.  But the story was neat, fast-paced, and psychologically accurate (I won't disagree with those who think Monk should have opened the present years earlier, but I also think Monk couldn't have handled the truth about Trudy--whom he always idealized--until that moment in the show). 
Awful: Castle
Let's face it: the entire Season 8 was a huge mistake. Nathan Fillion did his darndest to carry the show with help from the supporting cast but the absence of Stana Katic from many of the episodes makes the season practically non-canon.

On top of which, while Season 7--which was likely supposed to be the last season--ended on a lovely, lets-go-forward-into-the-future note, Season 8 ended with one of those stupid endings that ABC seems just a tad too obsessed with (see below): "they could be dead/they could be alive/it could be a dream!" endings.
Possibly one of the best finales of all time.
Good: Star Trek: The Next Generation
"All Good Things..." is one of the best series' finales on record (in fact, I think I'll rewatch it this afternoon!). It not only gives the viewer a nice recap of previous seasons/episodes, it also handsomely pays off the pilot and Q (John De Lancie) specifically. It includes an actual plot. It utilizes time travel intelligently.  And it leaves the reader with hope for the characters.

Unfortunately, by the time the writers reached the finales of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, they had kind of gone off the deep end in terms of trying to be "unique." Voyager's seasons contain some very, very clever time travel episodes. But I don't care for how it is used in the finale.

I'm not placing Voyager's finale in the Awful category, however, because--kudos to Star Trek writers--despite the tiresomeness of time travel, the finale is still a strong story with decent payoffs. It is not . . .
Awful: Dexter and Lost
I have never seen either of these finales, so I am going off the complaints I have heard. Which are many! Plus they are useful comparisons to the above examples because both utilize the "is it a dream/is it reality?" approach.

I consider this approach the second epitome of writing cop-out-ness (the first is using death to solve a problem). When I talk to my students about argument/persuasion, I always say the same thing:
"When you are writing your essay," I say, "and reach the end, do not abandon your thesis! You've just spent the entire essay arguing that people should support a particular cause or theory. Do not get to the end and say, 'Well, you have to make up your own mind. This is just my opinion. Whatever.' Waffle. Waffle. Waffle. I've read wonderful essays that totally convinced me of an argument until I reached the end, and the writer gave up. I get so upset, I throw the essay across the room!!"
Decent open-ended finale: Frasier.
This is exactly how I feel about series that give up on its characters because the writers are trying too hard to be "clever." 
Of course, I haven't included all those seasons where the writers meant to keep going but couldn't because the show was cancelled. Sometimes, that is the worse. Sometimes . . . it is nice to know that the characters are still out there somewhere treading their way through the wide, wide universe.


FreeLiveFree said...

I used to have a tape of All Good Things. It really was one of the best finales. I liked the ending of Monk for the most part too. Yeah, he should have opened the present earlier, but that's exactly the kind of thing people do. Also they set it up in an earlier episode years before.

My favorite final episode of a tv series was the last episode of Cowboy Bebop. I was stunned after seeing it for the first time. Since it was an anime series that was not based on a manga it was planned from the beginning with a finite amount of episodes. Anime that is based on manga quite often goes off the rails when ends before the manga. Compare the first adaption of Full Metal Alchemist with the second. The later was superior.

Quote: Sometimes . . . it is nice to know that the characters are still out there somewhere treading their way through the wide, wide universe.

That's a good way to think about since I seem to have a lot of favorite shows that end before their time.

Joe said...

I suspect that the biggest reason is that few shows end when they are good, let alone great. Exacerbating this is that the writers, especially, tend to see the quality slipping and get out earlier than the rest (though not always voluntarily.)

Another compounding problem is when the show's creator had a definite number of seasons and overall arch to those seasons roughly in mind--Supernatural--or they thought the show was going to end before it did and wrote to it--Buffy (though this is odd since I thought the last season was horrible, but the last episode was pretty good.)

BTW, there is no ending as fabulous as "Newhart".

PS. Roswell is another odd duck. I though it started slow, had a rough middle season, but ended really strong with its last episode being very good. I think they could have created a spin-off of itself. Why they didn't is probably some internal soap opera.

Joe said...

Oh and the original "Life on Mars" (not the rancid US remake) has a fabulous ending, but I strongly suspect that ending was written along with the first episode. (I further suspect that the show had more episodes than originally planned for, but I didn't mind.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

Yeah, as I prepared this post, I realized that horrible finales are not hard to find but horrible last SEASONS or worsening seasons are easier. After all, Joss Whedon was recalled from his numerous other projects to write the finale of Buffy.

With British shows--who knows what the end is?! They seem to settle instead for having multiple and endless "reunion" shows. Which are never quite as good as the original show but one is so thankful to see all the characters again, one decides not to mind.

FreeLiveFree said...

I always thought Buffy should have ended after the third season when she graduated (and blew up the school.) The show lost something after that.