Earlier this week, the Central Broadcasting Station’s long-running multi-cam sitcom How I Met Your Mother came to an end. Like many long-running shows, it received obituaries from a multitude of entertainment and pop-culture outlets, and most of those pieces’ sole purpose was to tell the reader if the finale
worked made them happy. If it was worth 9 (NINE!) years of tuning in.
I’ve seen maybe a week’s worth of HIMYM so I’m not here to weigh in on the show…though, in the spirit of the Internet, maybe I should just go ahead and pontificate on that of which I know nothing…but I digress.
Anyway, the reactions to the How I Met…finale were passionate and enthusiastic (either for or against), and it was fun to watch a lot of people expend so much energy on a show for which I, personally, have zero feelings toward. It’s sort of like going to a friend’s family Thanksgiving: you don’t know why Aunt Lisa isn’t talking to Grandma Joan any more, but at a certain point, you care less about the turkey and more about the tension in the room and who’s going to be the first to get drunk and spill secrets and it’s all so awesome because it has no bearing on your life except, my God, Aunt Lisa throws Manhattans back like a champ and maybe when the dust settles she’ll teach you to go and do likewise.
Which all got me thinking about why we care so much about fake people who live inside a box. From M*A*S*H* to Cheers to LOST to The Sopranos to Cosby, a large chunk of the American cultural construct relies–and has relied, for over half a century–on a collective agreement that every fall (and now “mid-season,” aka January) we will all buy into a world that is not our own. And I think we do this because stories, regardless of the medium, have a way of becoming our families of choice, rather than our families of origin. (Anyone who has ever called home and been informed by a parental figure that “24 is on. Call back tomorrow” followed by a curt click knows what I’m talking about.)
Stories have always provided mankind a way to escape into a place and a tribe that is more in line with what they would have chosen for themselves, had it been an option at birth. This is one of the many reasons that stories, in general, matter.
But back to this particular character of finales…
Finales, more than pilots, more than post-Super Bowl spots, more than “The One Where We Find Out If They Were On a Break,” seem to seal a show’s fate. Despite my profound appreciation for showrunners like Damon Lindelof, I can’t imagine recommending LOST, for example, without adding a caveat of “You will probably be disappointed” and that disappointment is based, by and large, on the final episode (and to a larger extent, the last season’s arc). The way the story ended didn’t ring true to so many of the themes and ideas that the series spent so long asking us to care about.
I think Margaret Lyons over at Vulture put it best:
“[It’s] one thing when a show makes character choices or pacing decisions [we] don’t care for….It’s another thing, though, when a show makes a choice [we] don’t respect.”
Finales by their very nature tell us what we were supposed to respect the most about a show. Finales are pilots come to fruition. Whereas pilots ask us to make a deposit on our time, finales tell us what our accrued interest was.
If you’re a showrunner, I don’t think it’s reasonable or even possible to know what your story is going to look like when all is said and done (unless you’re Shonda Rhimes); the very nature of storytelling demands flexibility and nuance. But it also demands fidelity to the questions and ideas you originally set out to explore. “Never sacrifice character for a joke,” is an oft-quoted comedy maxim, but I think “never sacrifice character” is an even better rule and a sure-ish route to guaranteeing that stories remain worth our time, and accomplish what they set out to do.
So let’s have it, TV fans. What series finales have you most appreciated, and why? Which series have disappointed you, and which series have surprised you?