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Knowing How to Quit: Why Do TV Shows Find it So Hard to End?

Outrageous Fortune’s James Griffin is one of the few New Zealanders who’ve known he was scripting a series’ final episode. José Barbosa talks with him about the different ways, many of them terrible, TV shows have bowed out.

The writer Alan Moore (most widely know as the guy who, along with artist David Lloyd, gave Anonymous the idea to appropriate those Guy Fawkes masks) once argued that there was one crucial element common to all our best myths and legends. What makes them great, opined Moore, is they recognise the passing of time.

In other words, the best legends always end the story: Ragnarok, the end of the universe, is hanging over all the Norse myths; the folk tales around Davy Crockett end when he’s killed at the Alamo and the Māori bad-ass Māui dies when his body is snapped in two while stuck in the vagina of a huge goddess – which, incidentally, is eerily close to Julie Christie’s dispute process.

The point is that power can be granted to a story if it has its conclusion baked into its DNA. For the most part scripted TV is conceived as something that will go on forever. The Simpsons have mercilessly lampooned this time and time again: that relentless resetting of the status quo at the end of an episode. Even if the world has been turned upside down within that half hour, future installments will hold no reference to what has gone before: “We’ll never speak of it again.”

This is why final episodes of TV shows, particularly shows made in the 20th century,  tend to be so weird: they headbutt the natural order. They would also pop up out of nowhere and as a young fella doping myself daily with American sitcoms, this would do my poor little pre-internet head in. Not knowing the end was coming proved immensely traumatic.

The worst case was Charles In Charge. The show was a Scott Baio vehicle, with the former Happy Days actor playing a college student forced to babysit the children of a upper-middle class white family in exchange for for room and board.

The last episode saw Charles accepted into Harvard and thus finally freed from servitude. But it ends with the cast bursting into tears like they’ve just been told a family member got knifed. At this point members of the crew, which seem to mainly consist of short men sporting beards that don’t match their hair, walked onto the set and start hugging everyone.

All of this was extremely upsetting at the time. The show then cuts to a scene where Scott Baio wakes up playing himself, and the rest of the cast appear as demonic mind-sprites that will haunt him for the rest of his days. This, I decided, was completely f**ked.

Other examples litter the decades like confusing notes written to no one in particular. In Quantum Leap the time travelling Scott Bakula meets God who turns out to be the bartender in a mining town, confusingly populated by all the actors who played supporting roles in the preceding seasons. Bakula then disappears into the black void of time. An on-screen title explains that no one ever saw him again.

That’s probably enough to prompt an all day session of staring out the window while considering the absence of meaning in a universe defined by causal determinism, but for true bleakness we need to turn to the final episode of Alf.

For the previous four seasons the “wise cracking alien lives in secret with awkward American family” sitcom had trucked along with much obvious hilarity, but it came to a halt with the last episode. Airing in 1990, the show concluded with Alf being surrounded in the dark by the US Army, his foster family looking on helplessly, while that little red head kid that was always in Alf’s grill starts screaming.

And that was it. The show was cancelled after that episode and it took five years before before someone could be bothered enough to finish the story with a genuinely rubbish TV movie.

That brings us to what it’s like to write the concluding chapter of a show. Writers, let alone anyone working on a TV show, aren’t often armed with the luxury of knowing the episode they’re creating will be the final of a show. There may be a whiff of it in the air, but cancellation is often a post-broadcast affair.

New Zealand TV writer James Griffin has created or co-created at least seven shows for television and been involved with more that have run for multiple seasons, yet there’s been only one time in all his career he’s known that the season he’s working on will be the last: Outrageous Fortune.

“It was a huge luxury” he says, “and we didn’t feel the pressure to create a huge earth shattering event to get everyone out. But what we did want was to say a fond farewell to the characters. For me the last episode was more like an affectionate post-script. We sent a message that somewhere out there in a fictional world these characters will live on and while they may have grown and learned a few things but they’ll probably make a whole new set of mistakes.”

It was different sixpack of Woodies with his next series The Almighty Johnsons (created with Rachel Lang). The show about a family descended from Norse gods with crap superpowers lasted three seasons, and according to James things were much less clear about the conclusion to the show. “No one ever said that was the final episode, but we kind of knew: the writing was on the wall. So we made it the final episode, but with a loophole just in case if, for some miraculous reason, it wasn’t.”

The premise of the show is thus: a 21 year old finds out he is the reincarnation of the Norse god Odin and is told by his brothers, who are also watered down godly vessels, that he needs to find the reincarnation of Odin’s wife, Frigg. If he can’t find her disaster will reign.

I’d always assumed that the show’s overriding quest was, like the myths it was based on, the ultimate end goal of the series. It’s a  similar tactic to Battlestar Galactica where the main story line of finding Earth through the power of Bob Dylan could truck alongside what ever other stories happened on the way. However, James says the quest to find Frigg was never meant to last the whole series.

“You always create these things with the hope they’ll last five or six seasons or until the audience gets sick of it. Unless you’re very clever, or you’re lying, you can never build in an arc that goes that far. With the quest on Almighty Johnsons you at some point have to solve that quest and give them a new one or people get bored. Three seasons felt like a good time to end that.”

According to James the feedback he’s still getting about the show indicate that Almighty Johnson fans felt the same way. Some of them like the ending so much they even ask that they don’t make any more, lest the conclusion be ruined.

Ending it all isn’t as easy as it sounds. For James getting every character’s storyline to a place where the final denouement could happen was difficult task, mainly because there were so many characters to service. He says a final episode has to fit the characters and the audience’s expectations to a certain extent. He cites the True Blood finale as an example of something that went off the rails.

“I just hated that. They’d set up this web of romances for Sookie and they really couldn’t answer any of them. When she was lying around sobbing in Bill’s entrails in the last episode I just thought: ‘this is not what I want to see’.”

It’s been suggested that a great final episode ensures all the characters get what they deserve. In that respect James reckons the Breaking Bad finale did the trick. “Walter had to die and I was glad Jesse got away.”

Strangely though he liked the ending to The Sopranos. The immensely influential show finished its last episode on a hard cut from Tony Soprano in a diner looking up at the sound of a door opening, to a black screen with no sound. After ten seconds the credits start rolling… silently.

People went nuts over that ending because no one had any clue what had happened. At the time I couldn’t control myself from shouting “you prick!” at the screen. James, though, loved it. “It goes back to what was laid down earlier in the series about when death comes, you never see it coming. You’re just sitting in a restaurant and bang! I like not knowing what happened.”

For my money (which is $2.50) you can’t pass the conclusion of the original The Office series for satisfaction. David Brent finds a back bone and finally vanquishes an office prick, Dawn and Tim get together aided by a paint-by-numbers set and there’s even a genuinely profound  statement made about the nature of work and friendship.

Like a lot of people who watched that show I experienced many feelings which I honored by purchasing a DVD box set, making Ricky Gervais a very rich man.

However it ends and how you feel about the way it ended can be a messy, complicated affair for everyone involved. I’m still getting over the way Deadwood disappeared into a ravine. As I do in most crises, domestic or otherwise, I turn to the words of Canadian rapper and R&B artist Drake for solace: “I may regret the way we ended, but I will never regret what we had.”

That’s real talk.

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