Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ending (on) Television

Pop Culture Happy Hour discussed TV finales, and how it's a tricky balance to strike when ending a series (assuming the creators know it's the end, which often isn't known ahead of time), having that last episode be satisfying in the moment and also when reflecting back on it. The noted a particularly good finale was that of Six Feet Under, which I've heard about but haven't seen (I didn't have HBO at the time, and as with many shows of quality like that I've never made the time to go back and watch it—especially given that my wife has seen it all, so it's not something she'd be as interested in doing… but like we have that kind of time). However, it's probably less common for intentional series finales to be really good than for them to be disappointing, and that's probably the flaw of TV as a medium.

In general, TV is not about telling completed stories, where there's an ending; TV is about being profitable. It's not that motion pictures and plays and books (narrative media) do not seek to be profitable, but those are inherently complete before they are released/performed; they may succeed or they may flop but the investment by the producers puts together a finished product. The weekly presentation of episodes, with production stretched over months and where the progress of whether the ratings are making it profitable (in drawing advertisers) is tracked closely by the network make the driving force not completing the tale but either pulling the plug prematurely or continuing it regardless of whether there's more worthwhile tale to tell.

If art were the key rather than commerce then all TV series would have a built-in expiration, where the creators would have the story and the characters and have an endgame before even starting. There'd be no continuing merely because the network renewed the series because it drew good advertising dollars but only if there was more to achieve narratively with the characters. The goal would not be a huge paycheck but going out in a manner than brought the characters' journey to a logical and satisfying conclusion, before the quality dipped (and long before any shark could be jumped).

There'd be closure. Every series would be, in a way, a mini-series (even if that "mini" scope was five seasons).

Now, it's not that this has never happened with TV, but there's also shows that went on longer than they should have (such as the referenced Happy Days, but then if the show had not, we wouldn't have the expression "jump the shark" so from a pop culture standpoint that one needs some special dispensation). Still, given that we're in (or have come out of) a Golden Age of TV, and as broadcast networks likely will change into something different in the future, with the probable merging of TV and the internet at some point, audiences may respond to the self-contained stories, where even the popular procedurals will operate under the model of having a finite run. Or at least, those may be the exception, not the rule. Audiences growing up with the new paradigm of on-demand programming and shows going out on their terms (The Sopranos, Lost, etc.) may become what is ultimately profitable.

Or at least that's a nicer future to consider than the more probable one: Non-stop pabulum consisting of mediocre sitcoms, by-the-numbers procedurals, and deplorable reality shows whereby everyone who seeks that narcissistic attention will get their 15 minutes.

Those never go out on a high note.

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