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May 02, 2004

  • To Be Continued…
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    As a devoted TV watcher, May is probably my favourite time of the year. May Sweeps is like Christmas, my birthday and a couple of non-sectarian holidays all rolled into one. And there’s one reason for that: the season finale.

    Back in the old days, one season of a show would end in May and pick up in September without any illusion that there was a summer break. Sure, there may be a different Darrin on Bewitched, or Happy Days might have a new cast member or two, but that’s just cosmetic. There was nothing in the actual ongoing storyline that was shaken up.

    All that changed on March 21, 1980. In an episode of Dallas entitled “A House Divided”, oil baron J.R. Ewing put the screws to, or screwed, just about every character in the series. Then, in the final seconds of the episode, someone came into J.R.‘s office and shot him.

    The season premiere—which didn’t air till November due to an actor’s strike—was a huge TV event. Speculation about the gunsel had dominated the tabloids, daily newspaper entertainment sections and quality magazines during those eight months. Everyone had a theory as to who among the sprawling cast tried to whack everyone’s favourite villain. The producers mercilessly teased as they stretched out the mystery for four episodes before revealing that J.R.‘s mistress fired the gun.

    The tradition of the “season finale” was born. People tuned in at the end of the season to see how they would outdo last season’s stunt (a dead body was found in the pool at Southfork, in case you were wondering). And other series started using the tactic of a cliffhanger to end the current season. And television in May has not been the same since.

    Season finales are one of the best magic tricks going in television. They seem to threaten, even promise, so much—but, more often than not, it’s just smoke and mirrors.

    The season finale is all about a threat to destablize the world within a television series. Something happens to completely upset the familiar course of events we’re used to. J.R. is shot; Picard is taken over by the Borg; Rachel and Ross drunkenly get married in Las Vegas. A big shake-up to the series is threatened…

    ...and, inevitably, does not happen.

    You see, ultimately, people who watch a TV series want the familiar course of events. Any TV series has a natural comfort zone where viewers find themselves while watching. You can shake that up a little, but rather like mixing oil and vinegar, everything has to eventually settle where it should. Season finales might promise to dismantle everything but in fact the status quo eventually returns. J.R. is alive and his killer is found;  Picard is rescued from the Borg; the union of Rachel and Ross is annulled. Everything goes back to the start, more or less intact.

    The great thing about season finales is not what they threaten to have happen. No, after twenty-plus years, I just don’t believe what is threatened is going to have any lasting effect. No, what I love about season finales are two things. First of all, the “Holy crap!” factor: the excitement that the cliffhanger threat offers. Secondly there’s a puzzle to contemplate all summer: how are they going to get everything—back to start—, so to speak?

    You can appreciate both of these things even if you’re the most jaded of viewers. Here’s some of examples from over the years—some of them are pretty textbook. Others actually defy the odds.

    Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990)
    The threat:
    The Borg are back. Commander Riker is being encouraged to leave the Enterprise while being supplanted by a hot young commander. Captain Picard has been absorbed into the Borg collective, and Riker orders Worf to fire a weapon to destroy the Borg ship…
    Holy crap! Factor: 10 out of 10; Will Picard be destroyed? Would Riker take over the show? How the hell do they stop the deadliest villains in Star Trek? It’s a shame every subsequent season of Star Trek has blunted the impact of this—in the days before the proliferation of the Internet, there was a genuine feeling that all bets were off and anything could happen. Of course…
    Time to get back to start: 1 episode (2 to deal with some of the emotional fallout). Picard is rescued and they use him to figure out how to disable the Borg ship. Riker stays on Enterprise and the young commander is shipped off to quadrants unknown. It’s all resolved neatly by the end of the season premiere, though Picard gets to have a good cry when he visits his family the next episode.

    The West Wing (2003)
    The threat:
    President Bartlet’s daughter Zoey has been kidnapped. Bartlet enacts the twenty-fifth amendment of the constitution and, with no Vice President, the next in line of succession, the Republican Speaker of the House is sworn in as the new President of the United States.
    Holy crap! Factor: 8 out of 10; you know that Bartlet’s only temporary suspended his office, so he’ll be back. But the possibility of The West Wing‘s cozy environment being run by John Goodman as a southern Republican, even for a little while, throws everything off kilter. Plus, there’s the question of what happens if Zoey ends up dead?
    Time to get back to start: 2 episodes. After much sturm and drang and saber-rattling they just sort of find Zoey with little explanation or fanfare. John Goodman only gets about two good moments the entire time…but then perhaps the biggest unresolved cliffhanger was that Aaron Sorkin wasn’t around to write the conclusion to what he set up.

    St. Elsewhere (1987)
    The threat:
    St. Eligius hospital is being closed and is to be demolished. In spite of the best efforts of the doctors, who stage a protest on the steps of the hospital only to be arrested, the demolition proceeds on schedule. But elderly cancer-sufferer Dr. Auschlander had a collapse earlier on and was inadvertently left in the hospital. He tries to get out just as the wrecking ball comes down on the front entrance…
    Holy crap! Factor: 9 out of 10; rumour has it the makers of the series believed this to be their swansong, so they wrote it in the most final way possible, only to have to write everything back to start when NBC decided to renew it.
    Time to get back to start: Two minutes into the season opener. The season premiere starts some six months later, with St. Eligius’s demolition prevented when an HMO bought the hospital. We don’t see any of the actual resolution. Very neatly done, though a bit of a cop-out.

    Twin Peaks (1990)
    The threat:
    Pretty much every major character faces a cliffhanger of some kind: there are characters trapped in the lumber mill, which has been torched; someone is framed for cocaine possession; another has attempted suicide; another is undercover in a Canadian brothel only to discover her father will be her first client—all these things reach a fever pitch when Special Agent Dale Cooper is shot. And we’re no closer to finding the killer of Laura Palmer…
    Holy crap! Factor: 10 out of 10. The only thing that has topped it was the following season’s finale…that was never resolved because ABC cancelled Twin Peaks.
    Time to get back to start: Between 1 and 17 episodes depending on the particular plot thread. While some things were resolved right away (like Cooper’s survival), the fate of some characters weren’t revealed until several episodes later. Laura’s killer was discovered nine episodes in, while probably the last mystery of the finale—“who shot Cooper”—was revealed 17 episodes into the second season.

    Others may have their favourites, from the death of Buffy at the end of season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Nick and Burton Fallin’s brutal beating of a motorist at the end of the last season of The Guardian, to Kramer’s departure from New York on Seinfeld to portray Murphy Brown’s secretary in LA. With all of them it was only a matter of time before they went back to start. The fun was in figuring out how long it would be.

    Some of the brave ones never go back to start and just progress onwards. That really only happens rarely. Chicago Hope ended its penultimate season by firing most of the staff of the titular hospital; the following season, they hired new characters.  It might have been considered a brave move, if it didn’t kill the series once and for all.

    Then there are the ones that outright cheat. The second season of Millennium ended with an apocalyptic plague wiping out humanity, starting with the wife played by Megan Gallagher. When the next season begins, the series starts a whole new chapter. Except that it looks like no one really died from the apocalyptic plague at all, except the wife. Ooops. And, of course, one need only look at the deceased Bobby Ewing’s reappearance in the shower at the end of Dallas‘s ninth season—when season ten began it was revealed his death and past 26-or-so episodes were just a dream. Ooops.

    Whatever the case, if you should see President Bartlet launch nukes at the end of this month on whatever fictional Arab country The West Wing is using this year, or watch Grissom get blown up at a crime scene in CSI, or witness Will having a one-night stand with Grace, don’t worry about it. Everything will be fine in the fall; sit back and enjoy watching the process of how the producers get the characters and situations to where we like having them…back to start; back in our comfort zone.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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