TV shows don't end satisfactorily - so what? -

TV shows don’t end satisfactorily – so what?


This article, “The Cosmology of Serialized Television” by David Auerbach, is something of a curate’s egg: some good and interesting observations in the service of an overall point that seems unfairly dismissive.

The author, to his credit, has a lot of historical awareness of the types of U.S. TV storytelling, and the way other media (like comic books) have influenced TV storytelling. He places shows into three categories: “Steady-state” (where either nothing ever changes, or the changes in the show don’t have much impact on what the ending will be) “expansionary” (the endlessly expanding mythology model, where the ending will need to tie up all these loose ends) and “big crunch” (where the story of the show actually seems to be building up to an ending). These are somewhat arbitrary categories, as all such categories are. And the “Steady state” category somehow lumps in a show like The Fugitive, where there is only one possible ending, with shows where it simply doesn’t matter how the show ends, or soap operas, where there’s never really supposed to be an ending at all.

Still, it is true that different television series have different constraints on how they will end. Some shows, even serialized ones, give no sense of telling one big unbroken story, or setting up mysteries that must be solved. A soap opera, like an open-ended serialized comic book, uses serial storytelling as a mechanism for creating stories; any plot development, including death, is completely reversible, and true structural cohesion is not an option or a goal. If these stories end, it’s only because they’ve become unprofitable; we know that the ending is arbitrary. For a show like The Fugitive, essentially (like many pre-Hill Street Blues dramas) a disguised anthology series, we actually did care about how it ended, but we knew that no individual adventure would truly affect the ending.

For shows with more ambitious structures, or that aspire more to tell coherent overall stories, the ending is much harder to create, for reasons Auerbach goes into: they want to give the illusion of a coherent, thought-out structure that builds up to an ending, but the demands of commercial TV usually make that impossible. Accidents, compromises, shortened seasons, actors leaving the show, sudden cancellations and unexpected renewals; they all mean that almost any showrunner who claims to have a plan for the whole series is trying to snooker us. A lot of this, of course, was common knowledge before, and one of the issues with Auerbach’s article is that he seems to think he’s telling us things we didn’t know already. Of course these shows aren’t actually one person’s pristine vision of what the story should be – if someone wants to make that kind of story, U.S. series television is not the place to do it. The question is whether they can successfully give the illusion of holding together, which some shows do better than others.

The thing that Auerbach considers a damning revelation about television, rather than a truism, is that endings are rarely satisfying. He goes through most of the shows he deals with and demonstrates that they really can’t possibly come up with an ending that delivers on everything that has been promised throughout the series. But rather than being an indictment of television, maybe it’s an indictment of endings – it could be that they’re just not the most interesting part of a long story. Serialized television is often compared to long, loose, baggy 19th century novels, and one thing about those novels is that they usually fell apart at the end, especially the English Victorian serials. Read any big novel by Dickens or Trollope, and there is almost always a falling off toward the end – not just in terms of story interest, but even thematic interest. (Dickens’ Dombey and Son is the king of this; at some point during the serial publication of the novel he decided that the theme was “pride,” and started harping on it, even though the earlier parts of the novel had shown that the title character’s main flaw was not his personal pride, but his obsession with money and status.) By the last serialized section of these books, an extra-long instalment with mostly short chapters, we just have to sit there and get through it as all the sub-plots are wrapped up, most of them a little bit lamely. That’s just the way it is: there was too much exciting, funny or dark stuff in the book to ever be satisfactorily wrapped up by the limited number of options for an ending.

And it’s the same way with TV, I think. Endings are hard because there are very few of them available; you know the old saw about how death and marriage are really the only things that satisfy anybody – and even death doesn’t really count in any fantasy-based story. Endings for long shaggy-dog stories are really hard because there is no one final image that can sum up all the many little stories we’ve just seen. So that means judging a work by how well it wraps up can be a bad idea – or at least it’s an idea that privileges coherence over everything. It’s the same idea that used to lead to novelists like Trollope being underrated. And Trollope himself wrote an interesting thing comparing his own methods to those of novelists who really do plan everything out:

When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing which does not dove-tail with absolute accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction. The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth mile-stone. One is constrained by mysteries and hemmed in by difficulties, knowing, however, that the mysteries will be made clear, and the difficulties overcome at the end of the third volume. Such work gives me no pleasure. I am, however, quite prepared to acknowledge that the want of pleasure comes from fault of my intellect.

I don’t agree about Willkie Collins, whose novels still give pleasure today, but the point is that being able to show how everything holds together, and there are no “wasted” moments in the plot (like Breaking Bad‘s “Fly” episode) does not make the work better, necessarily.

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TV shows don’t end satisfactorily – so what?

  1. There is a

  2. There is a difference between general unsatisfactory endings, which just don’t live up to expectations (though I did not watch the shows, I think “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” fall into this realm), and shows where the finale so utterly fails to bring the desired closure that it effectively taints what came before. The best example I can think of for the latter sort is “The X-Files”—while it had long become clear that Chris Carter was just making it up as he went along (particularly frustrating when he would contradict things previously revealed), the series finale was incredibly frustrating for a whole host of reasons—using the tired trial trope (esp. after the relatively recent Seinfeld finale), bringing back the presumed-dead Cigarette Smoking Man just to “kill” him again at the end of the episode, stating that the real action (an alien invasion) would be ten years in the future, etc. The finale doesn’t reduce my enjoyment of some of the earlier episodes, which were among the best television of the 90s, but it certainly makes me think twice before watching something from the later seasons, esp. the final two mostly-Mulderless seasons.

    • The “Lost” finale was so bad I’ll never go back and watch the show again, and warn people against doing so.

      • Yeah, I would say that “mystery” shows (where the central premise is built around some bigger mystery/mythology) are disproportionately hurt by bad endings, since once you have the answers, it’s harder to look back on what came before in the same light. Back on the subject of the X-Files, I realize that the episodes I still really like are all the stand-alones, while I haven’t watched one of the “mythology” episodes in over a decade. The way things ended has no impact at all on the stand-alones, but has made the mythology eps unwatchable.

        An interesting comparison is Twin Peaks. There, you had a mystery at the centre of the show that was ultimately answered mid-run (against the creators’ wishes). But, the interesting thing is that most complaints about Twin Peaks aren’t about either the resolution to the Laura Palmer murder or even the not-entirely-satisfactory series finale, but for the episodes that came in between—without the mystery to drive the show, the writers didn’t know what to do, and they hadn’t set up the secondary mysteries enough to take over immediately.

        One final thought—I wonder if some of the great shows of the past decade haven’t benefitted immensely from being cancelled prematurely, so that they ended with not-quite-finales. Firefly is probably the best example here—”Objects in Space” works as a finale, but it also suggests the crew of Serenity will have many more exciting adventures in the future (same is true for the Serenity movie, for that matter). I could also point to a few other critically acclaimed series—Veronica Mars, Arrested Development to some degree, etc. By leaving things open just enough for a later follow-up, their finales succeeded in saying goodbye without becoming divisive.

  3. I come to a television article and am pleasantly surprised to find literary analysis.
    Trollope’s assessment of Collins is enlightening, but I think one needs to remember that Collins was kind of pioneering the mystery novel. In books such as The Moonstone, he had to have the plot planned out backward and forward, because it is the discovery of the clues along the way that keep the reader on his toes.

  4. I was an avid follower of “Lost” and saw a few potentially amazing endings they could’ve employed using the inferences of many characters.

    Instead we got a lame ending in which the last two seasons were all essentially “a dream” and in fact the characters had died a while back only to languish in some form of heavenly purgatory.

    Essentially, the entire series was destroyed by the last episode, in my humble opinion.

    Though they may not be entirely satisfactory on all points, or wrap up every last detail one may wish–ultimately endings do matter quite a bit in many ways.

    After all, I didn’t buy the complete DVD set as a result.

    • LOST spoilers ahead:

      I hate to talk of “misunderstanding” an ending as it tries too hard to put words into other people’s mouth, but this interpretation of the LOST ending is simply very different to both what the creator’s have said the ending was and, much more importantly, what we saw on screen.

      Essentially, the suggestion that the final two season were a dream of any sort isn’t true. The only dream-like part of LOST was the final season flash-sideways parallel world. Everything else happened. The implication revealed in the finale is the idea that in death people have the opportunity to form a sort of purgatory where they are able to distill what gave their life meaning and then pass on to whatever the afterlife is with those people and that full understanding. The sideways world was that “purgatory” and united the characters that became so important to each other so they could pass on together. As stated in the show, everything we saw really happened and was real, and people died where we saw them die. Some people reached that purgatory early (e.g. people who died on the island leading up to Jack at the end of the show), some after the timeline of the show (e.g. Walt, any of the survivors who got off the island) and then Hurley and Ben who died some unknown time in the future thanks to the island’s immortality.

      There’s lots I like whilst accepting there are many, many flaws to it, but your criticisms just don’t seem fair to what the show actually presented us with.