WHY DO AUDIENCES HATE TV FINALES?
I’m just going to come right out and say it: TV series finales usually fail to satisfy fans and viewers.
More often than not, fans end up walking away from the finale disappointed or angry at what they had just seen.
Even worse, this seems to be a problem that affects only the most popular, the longest running, and most iconic shows.
You might think this a trivial observation, given how rarely – if ever – one will sit through the finale of a show that they truly love, but it is a real concern for me.
I’ve been watching desert island castaway show Lost since its debut in late 2004.
I’m the guy who knows all the characters and how they’re connected. I’m the guy who knows why there was a polar bear on the island. I’m the guy who blogs about each episode as it happens. I’m the guy who has ‘Lost finale’ written on his wall calendar.
And as the show counts down to its grand finale – to be screened here in New Zealand in mid-June – I’m also the guy who has a nagging feeling that he is going to be disappointed.
Lost is one of televisions most popular shows, with around 10 million viewers each week in the US alone and countless millions online and around the world. It managed to draw twice that audience at its peak in 2005, and its final episode, simply titled “The End”, is expected to be one of the most viewed series finales of all time.
The show is often hailed as a creative success for creating a fictional world where every detail matters, and for embracing storylines that carry on for not just multiple episodes, but multiple years. The final season of Lost, currently airing around the globe, is drawing the highest critical acclaim the show has ever received.
The problem is that – historically – when shows end during a peak in creativity and popularity, the chance that its audience will be disappointed by the end seems to go up considerably.
There are a number of examples that back this up…Fans of Denzel Washington’s 80s serial St Elsewhere criticised its infamous finale, where nearly 23 million US viewers found out the events told during the shows’ run were actually the daydreams of an autistic child staring into a snow globe, for allowing its producers to escape creating a more satisfying ending.
In the 2009 finale of hit sci-fi remake Battlestar Galactica the producers managed to rile up its 3 million US viewers (a record high for the show) by presenting a preachy finale that avoided resolving the core conflict the show had focused on during its entire run and made one Blend Magazine contributor write an article titled “Why The Battlestar Galactica Finale Is A Huge Cop Out And It Doesn’t Matter”.
Finales in which core characters simply say goodbye or part ways simultaneously – such as Cheers and Friends – are often criticised because the actions seem out-of-character, the events leading up to the end are often a little too convenient, and the final scenes can seem oddly self-serving, like we’re watching the actors say goodbye instead of the characters.
Some shows even inspire pure vitriol from their viewers: the finales of Seinfeld and The X Files have both been heavily criticised for pointless, nonsensical storylines that are simply unsatisfying to viewers.
However, in 2007 HBO aired the finale of The Sopranos, which might be the most talked about series finale ever.
Allow me to set the scene: James Gandolfini’s troubled mobster Tony Soprano, having earlier learned he was targeted for a hit, enters a diner, sits alone at a booth and selects Journey’s classic song “Don’t Stop Believin’” on a jukebox, before being joined by wife Carmela and son AJ, all while being watched by a man sitting at the counter.
Shortly after this, the man at the counter heads to the toilets and we see Tony’s daughter Meadow parking a car outside. She crosses the road and enters the diner. Tony Soprano looks up at the door for a brief second.
The action on-screen suddenly cuts to black. A few seconds later the credits silently roll.
So sudden was the ending that fans of the show initially feared that their TV reception had disappeared or that their video recorders had stopped recording at the worst possible moment. Stations reported that they received complaints from angry viewers who thought they had screwed up. The shows’ fans were immediately disappointed, and found their way to public internet message boards and discussion forums to express their anger and lament the shows final scene.
In hindsight we can see that the writers and the audience had different ideas for how it should end: audiences felt that Soprano should die on-screen, giving them closure on the series, while creator Chase felt that wasn’t necessary to telling his story, and even that audiences didn’t deserve to see that.
“[The audience] had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted ‘justice.’ They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly,” Sopranos creator David Chase said later, in an interview with Brett Martin for The Sopranos: The Complete Book. “The pathetic thing—to me—was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”
So, the question we have to ask ourselves is: why are audiences so often disappointed by season finales?
My first thought was that the answer might be somehow linked to auteur theory – a French idea from the 1950s that basically stated any work of film would invariably reflect or express the directors’ own philosophy on life, thoughts on love, or personal worldview.
In the case of shows like The Sopranos or Lost, I wondered if this theory could extend to creators, writers or producers, and if perhaps the problem was that one or two head honchos were expressing their own ideas on ‘the end’, and it was in fact them – rather than the shows or characters themselves – that we were disagreeing with.
To find out more I approached Gavin Strawhan, one of the creators and producers of locally made shows Go Girls, Mercy Peak and the upcoming mystery drama This Is Not My Life, who explained that this probably isn’t the case.
“TV requires a lot of money and other people’s hard work, so I don’t know if it’s fair to be too indulgent,” Strawhan says when asked about David Chase’s comments about The Sopranos’ audience. “Story telling is, by definition, for an audience, but that doesn’t mean the story tellers aren’t being visionary or writing what is entertaining and important to them. So I guess I’m saying it’s about a balance.”
“In fact, I think a lot of the craft of television writing boils down to giving the audience what they want – but not how they expected it.”
So if auteur theory doesn’t explain things, what does? I asked Strawhan if maybe disappointment is unavoidable, since audiences have come to know and love the characters and simply don’t want them to go.
“I just think it’s inevitable,” Strawhan says. “If they love a show, they won’t want it to end.”
“Maybe it’s just a case of there being too many expectations that can’t all be met,” he continues. “Writing endings is hard enough in a film. By the time a series has been going for a while, there are often so many characters with so much baggage, it’s kind of daunting. Wrapping up often feels naff.”
I ask what part audience response might play in deciding how to wrap things up.
“We write stories that interest us [as writers], and they kind of take on a life of their own, through the characters, which in turn spring from the premise,” Strawhan replies. “But at the same time, when it comes to HOW we tell the story, we’re thinking of the audience and how they’ll feel about our story and characters.”
“That’s the point of stories – how do they make the audience feel? You can’t anticipate every point of view, neither would you want to.”
For executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the creative force behind Lost, the problem of ‘the end’ is arguably more complicated than it would be for a great many other shows.
While the two have always maintained their show is all about the characters, Lost is also infamous for its mythology – that is, the elements of the show that are explained by the supernatural (déjà vu, synchronicity and coincidence) or are science fiction story devices (time travel and paradox).
“Our focus has always been on the characters and we spend 80% or 90% of the time talking [in the writer's room] about characters and 10% talking about mythology,” says Cuse, talking in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January. “So our main concern is to have satisfying resolutions to the characters. We can’t answer every last question about the show. If we did that, the show would be so pedantic that it would be uninteresting.”
The problem is that viewers want the mythology wrapped up as much as, if not more than, they want the character resolutions Cuse mentions, to see if it’s what they expected. Lindelof tries to explain that this is going to be unachievable, due to the wide variety of viewer theories.
“How can you wrap it up not just for the characters but wrapping up a very intricate mythology which will essentially tell people their theories are wrong?” Lindelof asked rhetorically, in the Wall Street Journal interview. “People don’t want to hear that. We resigned that we won’t satisfy everybody so it became about satisfying ourselves.”
In a Wired.com interview with the producers in April, Lindelof again commented on the end.
“As much confidence as we have in the story we’re telling, we are also comfortable saying, ‘But what do we know?’” he explained. “This is our best version of the story of Lost, and it’s the definitive one. The worst thing we could ever do is not end it.”
As a fan of Lost, I don’t feel at all relieved.
But at the same time I do understand.
The problem with audiences being disappointed in TV finales isn’t linked to auteur theory, as I earlier thought; one guy isn’t making things up and demanding that we respect that and either like it or lump it.
The truth is quite the opposite: creators, writers and producers – as Gavin Strawhan pointed out – are just trying to remain focused on the premise and characters they’ve created and come up with an ending that resolves the story and satisfies themselves as writers, and the audience, in equal measures.
Perhaps the most accurate explanation is the simplest: audiences just don’t want the characters and stories they’ve grown to love to go away.
Perhaps what seems like anger or disappointment or complaint is actually misplaced sadness.
Whether Lost ends with the Smoke Monster being sucked into the trap of one of the Ghostbusters, or if Jack, Kate and Sawyer get a Three’s Company style spinoff, or if we find out the island only existed in the mind of that kid from the end of St Elsewhere, it really doesn’t matter.
Whether I’m happy or sad, disappointed or satisfied, it really doesn’t matter. The show will still be over.
Of course, there’s always re-runs …