Tuesday, May 23, 2006

the season finale as art

With the end of May comes the end of the television season, the summer ahead a wasteland of reruns and trashy made-for-TV filler and the occasional new series launched only so it can fail. I'm starting to get dangerously close to Food Network overexposure, so maybe it's a good thing that I take a break from TV for awhile. I just can't kill my TV or believe that the revolution will not be televised or whatever, so I hold onto it to watch the news in the morning before I go to work. I miss my Mornings on 2, but Lori Stokes on Channel 7 serves my groggy wake-up time just fine.

Last night came the finales of the fifth season of "24" and the series finale of "Alias" at the end of it's fifth season. Both were two hour events, and it was too bad they were staggered over each other. Both shows have traditionally loved to end their seasons with big bangs and cliffhangers and all that jazz, all with the hopes people will talk about it over the watercooler for four months until they return in the fall. I think it's too bad that all serial shows seem to be stuck with the expectation of ending with shocks and season-spanning cliffhangers.... you can trace this disease back to Patient Zero, the Who-Shot-JR episode of "Dallas" from once upon a time in 1981. I would argue that the impact of the cliffhanger depends on whether or not it comes as a surprise; I think serial television drama is doomed to have an audience always expecting a cliffhanger, and thus the bar gets set higher and higher and demands can never be met. I won't be surprised if a backlash comes from tomorrow night's season finale of "Lost", because the audience is expecting (and to some extent demanding) their shocking how-could-they-do-that cliffhanger, and no matter what they come up with (anywhere on the shock-value scale) some viewers will be let down. You can't please everybody, though, and it's not in a show's best interest to try to. People will keep watching from now to next season anyway.

Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times (hey, last summer I drove her from the Long Island/Islip airport to Southampton.... long story) wrote an interesting article about the art of the season/series finale. I think it's too bad that finales only set themselves up for disappointment, and she makes a good argument about that. I believe that sometimes the best twists or most compelling episodes of television, if written just right, come in the middle of the season.... never the end, never the beginning. The season finale always seems to promise resolution but ends up asking more (and sometimes different) questions, and that's what hooks the audience. A serial television show cannot sustain itself on the same storyline conceit season after season, because the story must develop and evolve away from the inciting incident. Just look at soap operas.... they succeed because the drama is always running high and the story is constantly changing and the characters are constantly involved in different affairs (romantic and otherwise).

The ads ABC is running for "Lost" promise answers to the questions we've been asking all season, or something even more dramatic and tabloid-sounding. The problem: "Lost" is a series based on questions, and everytime something is almost answered, more questions arise in the resolution's wake. I'm afraid "Lost" will suffer a traumatic flame-out when it's ready to end because the questions are by far much more interesting than the answers.... Disappointment lurks around every corner; the audience keeps coming back every week because they are tantalized by the grand mystery, not the answer.

Take a look at "Twin Peaks", a series based on the question "Who killed Laura Palmer?" It's clear that the creators (David Lynch and Mark Frost) wanted the show to gently shake this question off and become about the characters in the town of Twin Peaks and their stories; Lynch has stated that if he had his way the question of Laura Palmer's killer would never be answered. The audience demanded the answer, though.... and once they got it (in perhaps the best episode of television ever filmed) they fled. Why? Because their question was answered. Simple as that.

A series based on questions like "Lost" must give answers (but can you imagine if the writers consciously didn't? Now that would be crazy). The writers know, though, that what keeps the audience coming back is the very mystery; they can't lose this. The very concept of the show has an invisible ticking clock resting on its shoulders, though.... the inital story-based conceit is permanently ingrained to whatever story evolves down the line. These people are stuck on an island; their lives have inexplicably intertwined before they even met.... so, WHY? This mystery of theirs will get old sooner or later. This doesn't mean that they can't have great stories along the way, but the writers will need to know to throw away the milk before it goes rancid.

This, interestingly, is an argument for the popularity of episodic television drama like "CSI" and "Without A Trace" and the continuous and seemingly never ending sequence of "Law and Order" spin-offs: there is no long-running mystery and there is no long-term investment. The stories that episodic dramas tell do not span outside their single episodes; the answers are promised and revealed week after week. This format can be extended just fine into the two-parter (with a juicy cliffhanger at the end of Part One; for an example, see almost every season finale of "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), because the tension is amped up, and the answers nonetheless are still promised and delivered.

Now the specifics: "24"'s finale wanted so badly to shock that the "shock" was not really shocking. In fact, they played it like the audience forgot that Jack pissed off the Chinese government in Season 4 and was wanted by them. Now that Jack is in the cargo hold of some freighter bound for Shanghai (not a pleasure cruise), the questions remain high for the next season of "24". I'd be hopeful.... except that every other time the show has left its season with a cliffhanger, the following season seems to be like a strange series reboot. More often than not, the high drama of the cliffhanger never gets a payoff and remains secondary or sometimes practically forgotten; the everyday pedantics of the show require more action than story (at least how they've played it off as of late), and that's too bad. I just hope that the writers and producers of "24" know that they would have a really incredible show if they just sat down and made a plan for it instead of writing by the seat of their pants (like they have mentioned they do in past interviews). This season finale promises big questions about Jack's fate with the Chinese, but I wouldn't be surprised if we start up Season 6 with all that explained away off-camera.

"Alias"'s series finale was a nice swan song, bringing back characters of old and doing a nice bow-tying intercutting flashback wrap-up from before the action of Season 1 ever began. This show was so good in its first two seasons, but then completely lost control in Season 3 and never could get the reins back. It fell prey to sloppy writing and confusion of its own storyline, and bungled it even more come Season 4 in a strange evolutionary retreat. All that flip-flopping concerning Sloane (he's a bad guy, no, wait, he's a good guy, but wait, is he good? No, he's bad), the gaping missed opportunity with Vaughn's wife Lauren, and the contrived inclusion of Syndey's long-lost sister.... all too much. So, by the time we reach the great answers of Rambaldi in this series finale at the end of Season 5, I'm not so sure I care anymore. That said: Jennifer Garner is still on fire, and has quite a career in front of her. Lena Olin is perhaps the hottest woman in film or TV over 50. I'm glad that they remembered that Sydney's mom is bad to the bone.... it would have been a bit unsatisfying to see the Mom become some kind of good guy. Besides, the show has always been at its best when Lena Olin was there to play the Mom (and I think the writers know that), so it's only fitting that she and Sydney get to duke it out before series' end.

So, after "Lost" is over tomorrow night, the television-free summer awaits me. We'll just see how long I manage that.


Josh Kellogg said...

as I read the beginning and you spoke of cliffhanging endings, I couldn't help but think of the series/season ending of Twin Peaks. That was a cliffhanger; I was certainly not expecting that to happen. And then you mentioned the episode when they resolve Who Shot Laura Palmer, another great one.

Writeprocrastinator said...

Try taping or TIVOing "Top Chef" when they show a marathon, that will solve some of your summer blahs.

The finale is the hardest thing to do, whether it be for the season or for the series. Somebody's always going to feel ripped off and a shark or two will have to be jumped, to keep the network suits happy.

Rarely is that balance accomplished and is the one assignment that if I were forced to write for TV, I would decline each and every time.

is that so wrong? said...

Josh -- You know, in the first season finale of "Twin Peaks", almost every storyline ended in a cliffhanger so that absolutley nothing would be resolved. The rumor is that the producers were trying to extort a second season from ABC, as at that point the show was contracted as a mini-series only. By the time the series finale came at the end of the second season, they went even farther to leave things unresolved, but knew they wouldn't be returning.... which in a way is even more poignant for the show. Of course, you've probably heard me say this before ad nauseum; I gotta be careful or else I will talk too much about that show....

WP -- I've managed to miss the "Top Chef" train, but have seen its name come across my digital cable now and then; perhaps it will provide the necessary reprieve from the Food Network while still giving me the fix? Also: Hey, if you get tapped to write the regular TV episode, send that finale assignment my way!

Anonymous said...

Hottest woman on TV over 50? What about Lesley???


is that so wrong? said...

Dude, good point. How about then "hottest woman over 50 who isn't a television news reporter"?

Writeprocrastinator said...

"perhaps it will provide the necessary reprieve from the Food Network while still giving me the fix?"

Hey, it's five times better than the Food Network's Next Star. Think of a version of "Survivor" that's tuned to and smartened up for foodies, while it's not as obnoxious as other reality shows. My only reservation is the editing, which in some episodes is ADD-addled. They won't hold stay on anything that isn't a reaction or dialogue shot for more than three seconds.

"Also: Hey, if you get tapped to write the regular TV episode, send that finale assignment my way!"

You've got it. If I do TV, it's because I couldn't find any other work or I need to keep my WGA benefits up (crossing fingers).

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the series that get sloppy over time are because they open up the doors to accepting freelance writers? the original core group of writers get spread thin, move on to other projects etc, so us newbies just don't gel