Discovering the Art of Television’s Endings

by: Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

Doctor Carter

ER’s Dr. Carter

I used to collect final episodes of long-running sitcoms. I had MASH, of course. Also The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Barney Miller, the latter oddly enough a show I had never watched. I used these shows in classes to illustrate how time and duration operate on TV, how the funniest shows always had the most elegiac finales. Later I moved on to season finales of prime time soaps including two of the most dazzling Dynasty cliffhangers — the Moldavian massacre and the earlier one where Cecil Colby had a heart attack whilst having sex with Alexis and she slapped him and yelled ” you can’t die on me now. ” I even have a faded old VHS tape of the last-ever episode of the daytime soap Santa Barbara a program whose sudden cancellation by NBC was commemorated by a wedding and a final credit sequence in which the executive producer stamped out a cigarette on the studio floor. Final episodes and season finales always seemed to me to epitomize the virtues of television narrative. While watching the May 2005 season finales and final episodes of my regular shows, I found myself thinking about the aesthetics of this peculiarly televisual narrative ritual.

I dimly remember from my literary education that there used to be a well-known work of literary criticism called The Sense of an Ending. Of course since television dramatic narrative derives from serialized novels, one would think this subject had already been covered — say, by Aristotle. Yet we’ve learned from studying soap operas that Aristotle would not have approved of them. They lack that sense of an ending that leads to a final truth and knowledge.

The exception to this rule is when a series reaches a significant moment of closure. This occured twice this May amongst my sample, when Judging Amy aired what a few days later was deemed its final episode and when Dr. Carter had his final moments in the season finale of ER. For me the end of a long-running show or the departure of an original character is where the duration of a series really pays off. I didn’t feel disappointed as Amy had an apotheosis and decided to run for the Senate in a conclusion worthy of Young Mr. Lincoln. Or when Dr. Carter read a letter he had written to himself at the beginning of his career when he and I had looked so much younger and hadn’t suffered any losses. In 1998, I attended a conference in Tel Aviv that dealt with the topic of “long form drama,” a designation I still believe has some merit, but one that does not distinguish between ER and Shoah. It does not quite account for the sprawling, season to season, messy quality of television series narrative.

As we all know, one of the reasons long form drama is so hard to teach is that it lacks a representative unit that can be studied in a class. Even if class time permitted the viewing of say, a 13-episode season of an HBO drama, the viewing experience would be very different from one of watching it over the period of several months. We all know how frustrating it can be to select a “great” episode, perhaps one that moved us intensely as regular viewers of the program, and watch it fizzle in class. That’s why the more Aristotelian, linear episodes of a show tend to win Emmies and tend to teach well, like the “Subway” episode of Homicide or the” Love’s Labor Lost” episode of ER, both Emmy winners and both abandoning paradigmatic structure for a taut linear narrative ending in death. Even an isolated episode that blew us away, like the “Employee of the Month” episode of The Sopranos cannot be understood apart from the two years of serialized therapy that preceded it. Martha Nochimson notes this in her online article, “Tony’s Options: The Sopranos and the Televisuality of the Gangster Genre”. She points to a difference between the televisual and the cinematic , a difference that makes some of our “personal best” moments of television difficult to convey to others. We are unable to reproduce the experience of them, even when it’s perfectly possible to view a show all the way through on DVD.

We don’t really have a critical vocabulary to describe the thick interweaving of story arcs into a season-long narrative span of TV drama. Consequently, it’s difficult to express the peculiar artistry that goes into a really satisfying season finale. I’ve always felt that musical analogies would work better than cinematic ones — terms like crescendo, contrapuntal and rhythm seem to me to get closer to what I want to say about season narratives than do terms like “cross cutting” or “paradigmatic.” Whereas semiotic narrative theory has developed terminology to describe the structure of a work of narrative, it does not go very far towards conveying the experience of it, or , dare I say, the art of it.

I label the type of television that has always excelled at season finales “the melodramatic serial” as opposed to the more common dramatic form of “quality drama.”[1] Although in the 1980s this form proliferated on primetime, it has become increasingly rare. Only Melrose Place in the 1990s was able to duplicate the experience of the season finale. But now we have Desperate Housewives, a new contender for serialized melodramatic status.

Desperate Housewives

The cast of Desperate Housewives

Everyone seems to agree that this show has the most outrageous plotting since Melrose Place. And yet the season finale played it down, referencing the old Dynasty finales but going for a quieter less hysterical effect without so much of that rhythmic building to a climax. The husband’s heart attack took us all the way back to Cecil Colby, but the flashback structure and revelations about the past had a hint of closure. In fact there was a high ratio of closure-to-cliffhanger relative to the conventions of the melodramatic serial.

This contrasts with my last-year favorite season finale, the 13th episode of Huff on Showtime, a series that was promoted in TV Guide as “a little bit Six Feet Under, a little bit thirtysomething,”and thus a perfect candidate for quality drama status. Every story arc was brought to a sucker-punch climax. The line “you fucked my mother” — and the fact that Huff’s best friend actually did fuck his mother — topped the best of the eighties melodramatic serials. Maybe that’s why I’m still fascinated by some of the more traditional aspects of television aesthetics. Just when you have your genres set up, somebody strikes them down.

[1] In my article “The lack of influence of thirtysomething” in the just-published book, Contemporary Television Series Michael Hammond (ed.), LUCY MAZDON (ed.) 0748619011, EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, July 2005, 224pp.

Image Credits:
1. ER’s Dr. Carter
2. The cast of Desperate Housewives

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