A Sense of an Ending

Split/Screen
Why must all good things end?
Why must all good things end? // Creative Commons

GC: The human condition, they say, is terminal; so are most television series.

The twists and turns of network logic being what they are, it’s rare that a show gets to go out on its own terms — with dignity.

We cobble together conclusions, legacies and closure as best we can, and only “Days of Our Lives” endures.

JJ Abrams’ “Fringe,” which we’ve criticized here before for its struggles with long-term storytelling, recently enjoyed the rare opportunity to plot out a timely demise, and the sword of Damocles did the program an enormous service. With its own end in sight from the outset of its 13-episode fifth season, “Fringe” ended with remarkable poise.

My hopes are lower for “Last Resort” and “How I Met Your Mother,” two exemplars of the ways bad luck can break. “Last Resort” ends after an abortive first season that precluded much depth. “How I Met Your Mother” is slated to be stretched grotesquely thin over an unnecessary ninth season. How do — how can — shows like these do right by their fans?

SN: Some of them have the luck of a built-in ending. “How I Met Your Mother” did, once. But prolonging the wait before we meet the mother has broken its brand. The show had generated so much warmth and devotion in its audience because of the way it planted inside jokes and subplots, all of which — we were promised — would be explained later. Every time one of these devices returned, it felt like a little reward. Now it seems less and less likely that any of those clues we were given in episodes past, from the yellow umbrella to the bass guitar, meant anything at all.

But now I’m just depressing myself. Let’s talk some more about dignified deaths. “Six Feet Under,” I think, boasts one of the best series finales of all time: death was written into its DNA. In retrospect — and perhaps due to some really canny marketing on HBO’s part — it feels as though the show had, all along, been preparing its audience for its demise. Spending time with a family-run funeral home will do that to you.

The last episode did its job by tying up the loose ends and allowing the audience one last glimpse of each character they had become invested in. But the finale was so much more sweeping than that, leaving the exact paths of its characters unarticulated, but their ultimate fates absolutely certain: Everybody dies. The final shot of Claire’s green hearse brings on a tidal wave of loss and acceptance and, yes, catharsis.

“Community” did that too, in a way. While not the end of the series, the finale of the third season marked creator and visionary Dan Harmon’s departure. Its parting shot was a perfect, bittersweet salute to the Abeds in all of us: the words #sixseasonsandamovie. We got a lot less than that, but somehow we accept it.

GC: “Community” … where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods? Let’s zoom out then. Are these endings different because they’re ours? Are they meaningfully different than endings that have come before? I know “M*A*S*H” and “St. Elsewhere” ended too, and that viewers felt those endings, but I still feel the finales of our shows as a sea change.

A whole crop of epochal programs is being reaped; “Fringe” takes with it the last gasps (“Revolution” excepted) of the Abrams-inspired sci-fi cycle, and NBC’s tottering lineup of critically beloved, now-little-watched comedies is toppling. I don’t think it’s wholly myopic to see this as more than structural churn, part of the normal life cycle of the medium. I hear we’re in a Golden Age of Television; sure, but some of its paragons are going, going, gone, squeezed out by programs that everyone watches, even though — like Pauline Kael — I don’t know anyone who likes them.

Put otherwise: “Parks and Recreation” loses out to “Two and a Half Men,” and advertising dollars are snowing down on “NCIS” instead of more adventurous efforts like “Last Resort.” Our generation — that coveted demo — is retreating to Hulu and Netflix, and everybody in the tri-state area is using the same HBOGo account.

So what I’m saying is, can we keep expecting “good” television if half the audience won’t watch, and the other half would rather not pay?

SN: It’s times like these when capitalism seems particularly, peculiarly cruel, and I flee screaming and crying to the BBC, which has been putting on some shockingly great short-run shows. But while I definitely share your anxiety, I think you conveniently forget the new shows you’ve liked — say, “New Girl,” which while not of the same SNL-nurtured ilk as “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation,” has its own very strong voice. There are also any number of solid shows which are consistently good, but which have flown relatively under the radar and are just not to your particular taste — see “Parenthood” or even “Scandal.”

And even from here, it’s possible to see some rays of light coming over the horizon. It might be helpful to see the also-rans of the season — “Last Resort,” “Ben and Kate” — not just as failures, but as the flawed-but-promising sketches of new writers who will move on to bigger and better things.

Don’t get too elegiac yet, old man.

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