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.