Moving Pictures
Mar 12, 2009, 05:15AM

How Not to Fail a TV Show

Five easy steps for avoiding a last-episode debacle.

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You may not know we lost an important show this past week: The L Word. The series was among the most inconsistent on television. Each season would have a new focus and tone; characters would completely change personalities; wardrobes would magically improve. Still, it was a landmark, well-acted show that served us well.

But now its fan base is all shook up over the series finale. The final season was a "whodunit" mystery that in the end did not answer its original query, "Who killed Jenny?" Me: I say it's pretty clear the lesbian movie star did it, but whatever. People want closure.

But do we really? Sometimes, closure is boring; sometimes we desperately need it. Who cares who killed Jenny? We all wanted her dead.

Here’s my five-step guide to ending a successful series. With popular shows ER and Scrubs ending this year, and several others either on the chopping block (Ugly Betty) or abruptly cut off and expected to air final episodes (Pushing Daisies, maybe Lipstick Jungle), the networks need my advice. Desperately.

1. Stay away from non-narrative montages
: The L Word did this and it was lame. They showed all the characters walking across the Los Angeles skyline like divas on a catwalk, set to show's rock-and-roll theme song. What? Mortal enemies were smiling at each other. People who'd just broken up were holding hands. It made no sense. Lipstick Jungle's abrupt, alleged series finale tacked on a two-minute "best of" montage. How patronizing. Just end the damn thing.

2. Bring back old characters: Everyone says this is cheesy, but admit it, you love it. The much-derided Seinfeld finale did this well. I know, don't hang me; I actually liked the Seinfeld finale. For shows with lots of small, recurring characters, it allows us to reminisce, if done smartly and with finesse.

3. Don't get Ross and Rachel back together: Try not to pair two star-crossed lovers in the end if it's what viewers are expecting. The Friends finale was boring as hell. Ross and Rachel get together? Get out! Sex and the City's finale did this, but did it well: there was no guarantee Carrie would end up with Big—HBO had shot two other endings, presumably one in which she's single. Plus, they shot it well: Carrie walked alone in the final shot, the implication being that she's still an independent woman. Closure, in this case, was skillfully accomplished. Ross and Rachel: closure to please the crowd.

4. Be boring, if you must
: I'm not a Sopranos fan (I never caught up), but it seemed to me that, for such a dramatic show, a dull ending was thoroughly appropriate. Complicated shows sometimes need ambivalent endings. Often doing the right thing means giving fans what they don't want. This only works for high-concept or artful TV shows. ER, this is not for you.

5. Go out for coffee: The best endings are often the most intimate and simple. Here again, Seinfeld got it right: the last shot of the four friends talking about nonsense in a jail cell was fitting and charming. Ditto for Will & Grace, in which Will and Grace reconcile after years of estrangement by going out for coffee. Heaven.

Perhaps there are no rules for a series finale. Maybe the best rule is for the fans: expect nothing. If it's good, you won't expect it. If it's bad, you were prepared.

  • Come on. The Seinfeld finale was dreadful. But I'm with you on most of your other rules. I think a sense of life going on without everything having been resolved is usually the best way to end. If you know me, you'll be unsurprised that I hold up The West Wing, Buffy and The Wire as great examples of this. Leave me alone, Kaufmann.

  • The Buffy Finale? Honestly!? Jesus Christ, Poland. That show took a serious nose dive in the last 2 seasons. What the fuck man. BTW -- I always preferred Julia Louis-Dreyfus' suggestion that the 4 of them should just drive off a cliff.

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  • "Seinfeld" was one of the very worst cultural lowlights of the 90s, probably even worse than "Friends" or "90210" because it received such unwarranted critical acclaim. Aymar, man, you watch a lot of really dreadful tv. "Man Men" is a good show, as is "Criminal Minds," and "The Wire" was great, but I can't think of much else.

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  • Hahaha. I know it's a typo, but I'd be kind of interested to see "Man Men". And yeah, the 4 of them driving off a cliff in Seinfeld, or Newman wasting all of them with an Uzi, would have been far better.

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  • "Man Men - From the makers of Police Cops!"

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  • The West Wing and The Wire will forever be awesome.

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  • I do watch a lot of TV, so mixed in all will be some bad TV, but I did love The Wire and watched the whole series in about a week -- it is a crime it never won an Emmy. TV gets a bad rap in general though, not everything has to be as skillfully written as The West Wing, sometimes good acting is all you need, which you don't find out until you watch the shows, even the "bad" ones.

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  • "The West Wing," while not nearly as bad as some of the shows mentioned—Buffy!—was skillful Democratic propaganda, with Martin Sheen channeling JFK for the about the 718th time in his film/tube career.

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  • Skillful centrist/triangulation propaganda, you mean. The show take exceeding pains to keep excess liberalism out of its plots (well, most of the time...), especially with the death penalty, drugs and appointments. Wow. I really effin' love the West Wing.

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  • Look, I watched a lot of the "West Wing," and Martin Sheen's character, while not as liberal/left-wing as Obama, was a gussied-up Bill Clinton, a man who actually had scruples and wasn't an utter narcissist. But most of the staffers in the show were out and out liberals. Which is fine, it's tv, but don't kid yourself about centrism.

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  • Of course there were a lot of liberal staffers and liberal sentiment and hyperbole. The point, Spartan, is that the "gussied-up Bill Clinton" (perfect description) was the centrist factor, and at the end of the day (er, episode) the policy outcomes tilted vastly toward the center, with some liberal victories in there for good let-loving measure. You can certainly take away from the show a sense of how hard partisanship (with WW it's liberalism) is tempered by political reality.

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  • The Battlestar Galactica Finale followed some of these rules. It gave closure and such, and had some ambivalence built in. Which was good and bad, since the audience had lots of big questions (like we do for LOST). It would have been nice if they had followed Rule 2 (bring back old characters).

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