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The Long Arc: The Challenge of TV Series Endings

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The Long Arc: The Challenge of TV Series Endings

I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching and recapping the CW series Gossip Girl; especially early on, the show had a surprising amount of hidden depth. However, while watching the past few episodes of the series, two thoughts were on my mind. The first was that after two-and-a-half seasons, any critical insight the show had to offer and that I could glean from in-depth recapping had probably come to an end. The second thought was about the reason for the first.

The intractable problem facing Gossip Girl is the same problem that plagued showrunner Josh Schwartz’s first series, The O.C., and is the same problem that any long-running television series confronts. A show survives the dreaded culling of pilot season and makes it onto the air. From there, it finds some combination of audience penetration and critical acclaim that justifies its existence to the networks, and it gets picked up for another season…and another…and another. At this point, dozens of hours of the show have been created, with each episode using up a plot avenue and closing off potential choices for the show’s direction. Will the show embark upon radical changes which may be so disorienting to an audience already used to the show’s pattern and template that it drives them away? Or will it rehash plots and tread water, creating new narratives from flimsier and flimsier premises, with the hope that the audience doesn’t realize or care that they’ve seen this stuff before? The correct choice lies somewhere in-between alienation and stagnation, and many series founder when making that choice.

In Gossip Girl’s case, it follows the road that many soap opera-style shows choose: the regurgitation of functionally similar plots about love triangles and family betrayal, with the only differences being the character configurations in its fill-in-the-blanks template. The problem is that what makes Josh Schwartz’s shows so interesting and unique is the charisma and voice of the characters. Shuffling them through transparent plot machinations makes them more generic while revealing the clockwork behind the show’s façade. Plus, to justify these character shuffles, the writing must grow more and more outlandish to lay the foundation for the plot, which is even more alienating to the audience. It’s a shameful spiral that happens often enough that the term “jumping the shark” has been coined to describe the beginning of a show’s inexorable trend downwards.

This is a fairly common occurrence in American television because the bar for long-form storytelling is set so excruciatingly high. Avatar director James Cameron has said, “There are only five people in the world that can do what I do,” but how many people in the world have the skill and know-how to bring a long-running television series in for a satisfying conclusion? A true series finale is an event worth celebrating, because an American television show is more likely to die by untimely cancellation—just ask Joss Whedon. Cable shows like those on HBO are more likely to come to a determined end, but it’s not a guarantee: both Deadwood and Carnivale were cut short, with the latter ending on a cliffhanger. Rome was canceled before the end of its second season, but the show’s creators managed to salvage an ending by cramming three seasons’ worth of plot into the last handful of episodes. Many series endings are in Rome’s vein; they cobble something together to give some sense of closure to the narrative. Plenty of shows don’t even get the advance warning Rome did—they just end. The story comes to an abrupt and unexpected full stop.

This is exactly how The Sopranos ended—though in its case, that abrupt stop was entirely planned, which was part of its genius. Even then, viewers were divided between whether the infamous blackout was a perfect grace note for the long-running series, or if it was an unfulfilling head-scratcher of an ending. Arguments about the merits of The Sopranos ending were often heated. The same could be said for the ending of the science fiction critical darling Battlestar Galactica, which had a roller coaster of a final season; it reached a conclusion that was fitting for the material, and yet rang a little hollow in places (especially in its final coda). It’s also probably the closest we’ll get to a literal deus ex machina these days.

Regardless, viewers and critics alike feel very, very strongly about the endings to their favorite shows. It’s no surprise that we form tighter attachments to narratives and worlds in which we’ve spent dozens or even hundreds of hours, compared to a film we only experience for a few. It’s such a pervasive phenomenon that it’s been studied scientifically: television shows can generate “parasocial” attachments in their viewers, and can cause neurochemical triggers similar to those of relationships with friends and loved ones. If you’ve ever felt that pang of realization that the story you’ve been following for so long is over (something I’ve only experienced with good novels and good television), you’d agree. I’m reminded of the reason a friend of mine gave for not watching television at all: she felt that if she started watching a series, she would have to keep watching it until the bitter end, no matter how many hours it took. That’s the power of the long-form television narrative.

The power of that narrative, and the responsibility that comes along with it, must weigh heavily on Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the showrunners of ABC’s Lost. And it’s not merely because of the fraught-with-peril relationship they have with the show’s intensely vocal and organized Internet fandom, though managing the fanbase is on every TV writer’s radar nowadays. (Such a close and immediate interaction between writers and their fans might be dated back to Aaron Sorkin’s infamous breakdown—no, not when he was busted for drug possession, but in 2002 when he found himself fighting a flame war with fans on the message boards of recap site Television Without Pity.) No, the real struggle is in bringing the gargantuan plot they’ve set into motion back in for a landing that manages to give viewers a satisfying conclusion. It’s sobering to think that by series end, over 7000 pages of script will have been written for Lost; the difficulty of putting a capstone on those pages is only magnified by the nature of the show’s narrative.

Most television series can be roughly classified into either an episodic or serialized structure. In an episodic structure, each episode fits into a standard pattern or template, fulfills that template by the end of the half-hour or hour, and the next episode has a new iteration of the template to fulfill—each episode tries to be discrete and not rely on the previous episode for meaning. Serialized shows, on the other hand, maintain continuity between each episode, and plots may not be fully completed within the span of a single episode. In this case, it’s important to watch all the episodes in order to fully appreciate the story.

It’s a kludge of a classification system, though, because few shows are fully episodic; long-running shows always build some sort of continuity. At the same time, not all serialized shows are created equal; just because a show’s story is long and continuous doesn’t mean the story is actually important. For example, most soaps are heavily serialized, but their long plots can often be boiled down to “who’s slept with who” and “who’s evil and who’s good”. And while that actually could easily describe much of Lost’s long-term plot, there’s another piece there.

There is a qualitatively different mode of long-form storytelling that has often been called “novelistic.” While a serialized show may maintain continuity between its episodes’ stories, a novelistic show is all continuity. Each episode is just one chapter of a larger story—a long arc from beginning to end. In this way, each piece helps to flesh out and build a larger world, and complex themes and storylines can be developed without the need for a template. It’s not just important but necessary for a viewer to watch everything in order to build a coherent narrative. Many recent cable dramas have attempted to perfect this structure, and The Wire is generally agreed to be one of the more successful examples of novelistic storytelling. The critical dilemma of the novelistic structure, though, is how important the ending becomes. A heavily episodic series with a lackluster final episode just has one bad episode among the bunch; it’s why Seinfeld is still eminently rewatchable. However, the demands and expectations placed on the finale of a novelistic show loom large; a failure to close on the show’s promises can irrevocably taint the entire series.

Lost’s struggle comes from how they’ve occupied the entire swath of this storytelling spectrum. It’s faced the long-form series dilemma, and at the very least has made bold choices. The show’s flashback/forward/sideways template may not be inordinately complex, but each episode of the lengthy narrative has been one piece in an expansive and mind-bogglingly complex world—one that requires the viewer to approach it like a puzzle. Over the years, the puzzle element of the show has encompassed more and more of the narrative, and because of that, the show has driven some viewers to obsession while driving others away entirely. I know people who became disenchanted with Lost when it shifted from a vaguely realistic character-driven survival drama to a science fiction saga. I know people who were intrigued by the science fiction but were turned off by the transition into a fantasy epic of good versus evil. But mostly I know people who have stuck with the show through all its radical metamorphoses, soldiering on towards the end in sight, hoping against hope that the ending will be a payoff worth all the hours they’ve spent with it. That hope may or may not be fulfilled, but when thinking about television series endings, writers and critics will look to Lost as an example for years to come.

Oscar Moralde writes a column on television and the media for The Hypermodern.