The end game

Sweet sorrow? When it’s time for TV series finales, parting is almost always botched.

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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It took only a split second — one violent cut to black — for “The Sopranos’’ to set the TV world on fire. That visual full-stop at the end of the HBO series, that final non-statement statement by creator David Chase, challenged eight years of fan adoration. Like so many beloved shows, including “Seinfeld’’ and “Roseanne,’’ “The Sopranos’’ left much of its audience cold when it left for good in 2007, scattering seasons and seasons of good will.

In terms of hours, a TV series finale is but a blip. After a show premieres, it airs week to week, year to year, a running stream of middle and then more middle. Before its series finale next Sunday — a 5 1/2-hour extravaganza that will include a two-hour recap, a 2 1/2-hour finale, and a Jimmy Kimmel post-show, ABC’s supernatural island drama, “Lost,’’ will have delivered 119 hours of story line across six years. Fox’s counterterrorism action series “24,’’ which stops ticking for good the following night, will have offered 192 hours across nine years. That’s a whole lot of middle.

And yet final punctuation is vital to serial storytelling success. Just as readers expect Charles Dickens to pull plot strings together at the close of his novels, TV viewers want script writers to tie the bow. Especially when it comes to long-accumulating mysteries such as “Lost,’’ “The Fugitive,’’ or “The X-Files,’’ we eagerly await the denouement, the closing salvo that will throw the entire series into perspective. When we don’t get proper closure, when the goodbye goes awry, a bittersweet farewell merely leaves a bitter taste. Just ask the nearest ex-“X-Files’’ fanatic.

Indeed, finales are important enough to permanently color a show’s long-term legacy. The end can justify — or undermine — the many years of means. If Tony Soprano had been killed in those last “Sopranos’’ moments, the series would now look alto gether different in retrospect. It might seem to rest on a moral pivot, with Tony punished at last for his ugly deeds. Instead, the “Sopranos’’ finale stubbornly refused to hand us a verdict, pushing us to make our own judgments. If heroic agent Jack Bauer dies in the last episode of “24,’’ as some have speculated, the series will become the portrait of an American martyr — and the promised movie, too, will be a prequel to self-sacrifice. In 1988, when six seasons of “St. Elsewhere’’ were finally revealed to be the daydreams of an autistic child staring at a snow globe, the series forever sabotaged its hard-won honesty.

Finales inevitably do very well in the ratings; even sporadic viewers of a series want to know the end of the story. The numbers will never be as huge as they were before cable domination, when 76.3 million turned out for “Seinfeld’’ in 1998 and 105.9 million watched “M*A*S*H’’ in 1983. But next Sunday’s “Lost’’ event will surely be a baby blockbuster.

So why is it that TV writers and producers almost always botch finales? Given the importance of the farewell, why do they so frequently stumble to their conclusions?

The botches take different forms. Finales rely too heavily on sappy emotions (“Friends’’), stupid twists (“Roseanne,’’ “Will & Grace’’), pointless irresolution (“Quantum Leap’’), unnecessary deaths (“Alias’’), or messy evasions (“The X-Files,’’ “Twin Peaks’’). In 1997, the “Roseanne’’ finale set a new low for it-was-all-a-dreamism by revealing that much of the series had been Roseanne’s fictional writings. Besides being a tedious rehash of the series, the “Seinfeld’’ finale put off viewers by turning the beloved characters into criminals. We knew George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer were self-absorbed and petty, but they didn’t deserve jail time.

There have been only a handful of finale triumphs in the history of TV, led by the extraordinary “Six Feet Under,’’ a show about death that died in fast-forward splendor in 2005. The last minutes of “Six Feet Under,’’ in which we saw the futures of all the major characters play out, was the perfect bookend to years of stories. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show’’ gave us a touching group hug after everyone was fired, and “Newhart’’ sent up finales and itself by making the series into a dream by Bob Newhart’s previous sitcom character. These positive examples are few and far between, though, dominated by the misguided likes of “Felicity,’’ in which the heroine traveled back in time to make a different choice of partner, and “Life on Mars,’’ in which the hero turned out to be a future astronaut.

The rampant botching of TV finales makes sense, to some extent. The idea of a finale goes against the very nature of series TV, which is to swim forward. TV writers and producers are all about opening up a premise, finding ways to keep a story going, to keep characters interesting. They fight against ending, not just to keep earning enough viewers to please the networks, but to keep narrative potential. So when they are presented with the task of bowing out, they are in alien territory.

And often, no one wants to say goodbye — not the writers and producers, not the actors, not the viewers. Just like in life, finality is daunting. Many of us would rather just duck out than have to craft or witness a final farewell. In a way, goodbyes remind us of death. The disaster that was the end of “Seinfeld’’ may have been a manifestation of dread — of having to leave behind those characters, and that winning sense of humor.

Then again, some finale debacles may just be a manifestation of burnout. After years of shooting a series, those involved at all levels may be on automatic pilot. The final years of “Frasier,’’ for example, were lackluster and obligatory, with repetitive story lines and tiresome fallout from the union of Niles and Daphne. By the time “Frasier’’ ended in 2004 after 11 seasons, everyone — those on the show as well as viewers — seemed more than ready to let go. Fitted with a marriage and a birth, the finale was mild and emotionally strained. For “Frasier,’’ and for so many other shows, a cut to black would have been a mercy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit