If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to know how something ends before experiencing it, you’re not alone. A good plot twist, resurrected character or unexpected ending usually carries more emotional weight when you haven’t read all of the details online months in advance. Fortunately, once a show has ended, it becomes part of our cultural landscape; even if you never caught the ending or watched the show, knowing that the story has been cauterized is somehow satisfying.
I sometimes like to know the entire plot of a series before deciding whether or not it’s worth experiencing and/or wasting my time on. Take the details of Ken Jennings’ run on Jeopardy!, which were broken online (this link contains spoilers) and then picked up by AP and other news outlets. On the one hand, I’d rather be surprised by what Jennings has in store for him in this next season of Jeopardy !, but there’s that other part of me that wants to know beforehand. Knowing Jennings’ fate doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the show%3B instead, it allows me the opportunity to pick up on subtle clues I might have otherwise missed, adding a whole new layer to a show as hackneyed as Jeopardy ! Besides, David Foster Wallace did it better in his story “Little Expressionless Animals,” in which a woman surpasses a Jennings-like run on Jeopardy ! amidst the absurd feuding between Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak, only to be beaten at the game by her autistic brother.
Everyone enjoys a good ending. In the land of TV, endings are rare—either they’re an event or they’re like a casual slip out the back door at a party with cans of beer in your pockets. Think of it like this: it’s the finale of Friends vs. a pilot that didn’t get picked up or a contract that didn’t get renewed during the summer break. The latter endings are different: The drama involved has more to do with TV network politics than with character development.
Angel is a good example of a series that was ended by network mandate rather than by the production team. In retrospect, it was a decent enough ending, with some characters dying heroically and the threat of a large battle looming in downtown Los Angeles as Angel led his friends into the end of it all, but it was abrupt and left far too much of the narrative unresolved. While it’s a shame that the WB opted not to give Angel another season to put all its narrative ducks in a row, seeing Angel head off to slay a dragon is a much better image than revealing that the Wolfram & Hart law firm actually existed inside a snow globe that belongs to a child with autism.
Okay, I never actually watched the St. Elsewhere finale, which I just referenced. But without ever having seen the show, I’m still aware that its ending was one of the more bizarre and emotionally frustrating finales in the history of television. Of course, I’m also one of those people who feel manipulated whenever a story has woven itself into such a corner that the only escape is to chalk it up to it all being a dream. It’s already fiction, you know.
Imagine having invested a few years of your mental energy—however much of it you reserve for television dramas—in a show only to have that undercut by capricious executives and/or a creative team with only a partial understanding of postmodernism. People like to watch TV, and they come to care about the fictional characters as if they are friends. I’ve even had crushes on the local CBS affiliate’s news anchors. It hurts. We’re supposed to be invested in this junk, and it’s this investment that produces worthwhile finales.
In some ways, the nature of television shows encourages us to dislike finality. Episodes stand alone, and no matter what time period an episode of Seinfeld, say, or Law & Order is from, you can sit down and watch it without the need for each character’s back story: who’s dead, who’s sleeping with whom, who’s returned from the dead, who’s got their own spinoff, which kid’s aged four years over the summer. Only in the last few years has prime-time television adopted the format of soap operas, where entire seasons can be comprised of one overarching plot or theme. This isn’t a concept that can be traced back to any one show. Well, you could do it if you wanted to, but the point is that in this culture where our attention spans are supposed to have been so injured by MTV, video games, fast food and Ritalin, even shows like Seventh Heaven employ the same strategies as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos or The West Wing for outlining a season’s worth of programming.
But like I was saying earlier, I’m a sucker for a good ending. By definition, an ending not only marks the length of something in terms of space or time, but also provides a resolution, tying everything up in a tidy package. One oddity about television, though, is that a show will have its grand finale one week, forcing you to reflect on its significance (either personally or culturally), and then there it is again the following week, rerunning in the same timeslot until the coming fall, when it is replaced by Richard Branson eating breakfast on the moon while people who look attractive in swimwear compete for a share of his fortune.
When a series ends but is fortunate enough to be resurrected in syndication, the show then exists in this weird stasis where it never really ends. Sitcoms are good examples of this. At the conclusion of Seinfeld, the cast was locked up in jail for being horrible and trite human beings. It was an appropriate and brilliant ending to a show that had defied the conventions of typical sitcoms. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the series finale of Friends, in which the characters were either married or moving away—a pretty natural phenomenon in long-term friendships. But, as with Seinfeld, there they were again next week, yammering on about the same stupid bullshit. You can even catch them every evening at six. TV shows are a lot like zombies. Sometimes you can lop their heads off and they drop dead, other times they keep stumbling toward you with body parts falling off. Seriously, Chandler Bing wants to eat your brain. In the case of Seinfeld, though, the characters didn’t meet an ending. They were simply put away like toys, thrown in a box and stuffed under your bed. What are we supposed to take from that? Are they characters or constructs of someone’s imagination? For a show that was purportedly about nothing, Seinfeld had no interest in wasting viewers’ time by manipulating our emotions.
I’m addicted to endings largely because I like to see how it all either fits together or drifts apart. Different shows use different tactics. The most dramatic ending for a television show, at least to me, tends to involve the characters drifting apart. This is especially true in the case of Quantum Leap—with which I was enraptured as an adolescent—where at the end Sam learns that he has the choice between leaping home and leaping forever through time to solve people’s problems. With the knowledge in hand, he shares one last conversation with Al, his guide, and is then off in a flash of blue light, presumably on his way home. In the postscript, however, we learn that Sam never does return home. How’s that for drifting away%3F Perhaps the most bittersweet ending ever, though, was M*A*S*H. All of the characters, particularly Hawkeye, wanted to get out of Korea and back to their lives. In a sense, they wanted what could only happen if the show was allowed to end—to get that baby to stop crying, catch the one-armed man, escape from the Village, wait for Alex Trebek to slip on a banana peel or leap home. When the time finally came for everyone to leave Korea, there was a moment where it seemed unreal. All you can do is write “goodbye” on the ground and head off your own separate ways, I suppose.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.