Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ending It – 10 Great (But Mostly Not So Great) Dramatic Series Endings

I haven't seen the series finale of The Sopranos that everyone and their half-sister is going on about. I don't subscribe to the premium cable service that it was on here in Canada (because I don't have to in order to get what I want – thank you Shaw Cable). However I've seen it recapped, with varying degrees of analysis to the point where I feel like I've seen it – only better because I didn't have to watch the unimportant bits because the recappers left out the stuff that they didn't think was important. And since they all seemed to ignore the same stuff I don't have to worry about some seemingly insignificant detail in the first fifteen minutes that would have a huge impact in the last fifteen.

And of course there was the analysis. That was a lot more divided. The last minutes of the episode were either brilliant...or lame. It's all because we didn't get closure...or don't believe that we got closure. The sudden going to black had people calling their cable companies complaining that their cable went out just before the crucial moment of the series where we find out the final fate of Tony Soprano. Except of course that this was exactly what David Chase planned – probably right down to the phone calls to the cable company. We don't know what's going to happen to Tony, whether he's at the end of his life or somewhere in the irredeemable middle, or maybe even starting a new life with the burdens of his past life lifted from him (yeah right). If you want an explanation of the final sudden going to black say that the mysterious character or characters weren't there to whack Tony Soprano in front of his family, he/they were there to whack us. We (the audience) are dead and can no longer view or influence the lives of Tony Carmella, AJ, Meadow, or Janice. That's about as good an explanation as any.

Drama series have difficulty coming up with endings. With comedies it's easy – the people move away (or the ones we care about move away) and we don't move with them. Think of all the sitcoms that have been brought to a close in just that way. M*A*S*H, Home Improvement, The Nanny, and Friends are only a few of them. Even Seinfeld ended that way when you think about it for a few seconds – the difference being that they move away to the Paris Hilton Housing development (aka jail), and thankfully we don't go with them.

Ah but dramas don't have it so easy. At least they don't now that they've become more continuity intense. Dramas – and comedies for that matter – didn't used to need a series finale if they survived long enough to go out on their own terms. Sometimes we got some degree of closure from a reunion movie – one particularly bad one I remember was for Emergency. It was really a "clip" show but we saw Captains (!) Gage and De Soto getting together to talk about the good times they had a paramedic at old Station 52. Of course this was undercut when they decided to do a couple of movies after that with Gage and De Soto back as paramedics. Still for the most part we don't get closure. For all we really know, officers Reed and Malloy are still driving Adam-12 around the streets of LA – or more likely took their retirements at the appropriate time and get together to go fishing from time to time (that by the way is a salute to Martin Milner who for many years did a syndicated radio show on fishing). Still as time has gone by we have increasingly seen shows that needed to give us closure. So here are some memorable series finales, mostly in chronological order. The only condition on this list is that I had to see it (which lets out Melrose Place and however they managed to end Dynasty among a lot of others).

Hawaii Five-0: I'm sure that wiser people of my acquaintance (Toby or Ivan) will be able to correct me but this is the first series that I can remember with a series finale that was designed as such (Davey Crockett doesn't count – it was in effect a mini-series). By 1980 Hawaii Five-0 was wheezing
towards cancellation and everybody knew it. The show had one bit of extended continuity related to it – Steve McGarrett's archnemesis Wo Fat (played by Kigh Diegh) who had made his debut in the show's pilot. While McGarrett inevitably thwarted Wo's devious plots he never brought him to justice. The character had essentially been retired following Nixon's visit to China – he hadn't been seen since 1976 which was only the third story he'd appeared in since 1972 – but he was brought back in 1980 so that McGarrett could catch him and throw him in jail for espionage. The last scene however had Wo Fat smiling as he tried to pick the lock of the jail cell.

2. St. Elsewhere: You think that The Sopranos was frustrating? Remember the ending of St. Elsewherethat was frustrating. The producers gave us closure. Boomer, Fiscus and most of the interns have left the hospital (Elliot Axelrod had died the episode before), Mark Craig is moving to Cleveland having reconciled with his wife, Donald Westphal has returned to the hospital which has now been sold back to the city of Boston, and Auschlander dies, not of the cancer that had been a part of his life for as long as we knew him but of a stroke. And then, then the revealed that the whole thing had been the imaginings of the autistic Tommy Westphal whose father wasn't a doctor but a construction worker and whose grandfather was an alive Auschlander. Talk about an FU ending.

3. Hill Street Blues: By contrast with its sister series, Hill Street Blues series finale was a pretty conventional one. There has to be a reason for Norman Buntz to leave The Hill for Dennis Franz's previously announced spin-off series with Peter Jurasik as Sid. There has to be some doubt about what's going to happen to Furillo and Davenport, and there has to be some doubt about the future of the station and therefore the characters that we've come to know. They set this up with a fire at the station (threat to the future of the characters as a group together), while the future of Furillo is pretty clear when he rejects an opportunity to run for Mayor (he probably remembered what being Mayor did to Ozzie Cleveland) leaving the path open for Chief Daniels. As for Buntz, well there is something satisfying about him socking Daniels in the jaw in front of everyone (all of whom wanted to do the same thing) and none of them "seeing" it.

4. Dallas: Let's admit the fact that by the end of the series Dallas was thoroughly over the top and had been for a long time. The ending therefore was totally insane – JR does It's A Wonderful Life in a peculiarly JR manner. Without JR, Ewing Oil is bankrupt, Southfork is tract housing, Sue Ellen is a successful soap opera star, while Bobby is a cheap hustler with back alimony and debts casino owner Carter MacKay. And Cliff Barnes is President of the United States. JR, who is already on a major downer after everything has fallen to pieces and these images of an alternate time line aren't exactly comforting. The "visions" are courtesy of "Adam" (beautifully played by Joel Grey) but unlike "Clarence" in It's A Wonderful Life, Adam's boss likes the evil JR: Adam's boss is Satan. The episode ends with Bobby returning to Southfork and hearing a gunshot from JR's room. Of course from the eventual reunion movie we know that JR shot the mirror that "Adam" appeared to him in (a side effect of a lot of bourbon) but did get him to change his way...a bit.

5. Magnum P.I.: It's fairly well known that Magnum P.I. actually had two different finales. The Season 7 episode "Limbo" in which Magnum is shot by mobsters and put into a coma where he spends time with all of the members of the cast was supposed to the finale – Magnum was supposed to die at the end – but fan support was such that the show was brought back for an abbreviated twelve episode season eight. The actual finale is more satisfying for fans. Paying a visit to his family in Virginia Magnum is offered a chance to re-enter the Navy, this time in a cleaner branch than his Special Forces work. He solves one last case and is reunited with the daughter that he had long thought dead. T.C. is reunited with his ex-wife, Rick gets married and Higgins finally confirms Magnum's theory that he is Robin Masters – which Magnum immediately decides is a lie. The series ends with Magnum – in his dress uniform – turning of the TV; our TV.

6. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: My favourite Star Trek of all, but oh that finale was jam packed with resolution and done in a way that seemed rushed and padded at the same time. The Cardassian military rebels against the Dominion, the war ends, Sisko has a final confrontation with Gul Dukat who by now has become a servant of the Pah Wraiths, Sisko becomes one with the Bajoran Prophets (his mother was one of course), most of the crew leave the station except for Bashir and Ezri (who are seen in bed), Kira and Jake, and (deep breath) there's still time for a song from Vic Fontaine (James Darrin).

7. NYPD Blue: The biggest problem that I had with this episode was the same problem that I had with most of the show's final season – the elimination of Andy's personal life as a focus for the series. Apparently this was a result of disputes that the producers had with Charlotte Ross who played Andy's third wife Connie McDowell but I have to say that it hurt the episode that there was not even an acknowledgement that Andy had a home to go to and three kids, the completion of the character's journey from a divorced alcoholic racist when the program began. Being the boss and having a family was the culmination of his success story, and in my not so humble opinion it all needed to be put together. Don't get me wrong the finale worked, with the squad running a high profile case and Sipowicz finally getting a taste of what the other squad commanders had to deal with from above (his immediate predecessor Lieutenant Bale tells him that the three things he has to worry about are those above him, those below him and having to live with himself). The final scene had a bit of a "Good night John-boy" feel as the members of the squad came in to let them know they were going but if you are going to go that route there should at least be an acknowledgement that Andy has some place to go too.

8. JAG: The problem with the JAG finale is that for the most part it wasn't intended as a finale. The original plan seems to have been to write David James Elliott's character, Harmon Rabb, off the show – his contract had not been renewed – and shift most of the action to a posting in San Diego where Catherine Bell's character Sarah MacKenzie would be in charge (at least for a year, until her contract ran out). So Harm was promoted to Captain and put in charge of a JAG office in London while Mac was assigned to San Diego. However CBS cancelled the show twenty-five days before the season finale. Changes, that seem fairly evident viewed today, were made in the script. Harm proposed marriage to Mac with one or the other resigning their commission while the other stayed in the military. Who would resign would be decided by flipping Bud Roberts's JAG "challenge coin". We'll never know exactly who resigned (each actor says their character won) because the final scene freezes with the coin at the apex of the toss, positioned so we can read the face of the coin, which says "JAG 1995–2005", which of course are the dates of the show.

9. The West Wing: In my opinion one of the truly great series finales. Based on the way that NBC scheduled the show it was apparent to just about everyone that the seventh season would be the last even before the announcement of the show's cancellation and the death of John Spencer soon afterwards. And, given that most of the seventh season was given over to the election, the end of the Bartlett presidency and the beginning of the Santos administration the appropriate ending point for the series is Inauguration Day where the changing of the guard is finalized. The transition is symbolized perfectly when, as the actual inauguration ceremony is taking place the Oval Office of Josiah Bartlett is packed into storage boxes and the possession of Matt Santos replace them, so that by the time that Josh, Donna, Anna Beth and Sam arrive in the lobby there is no indication – even a photo – remaining of President Bartlett. The transition is complete and when CJ encounters a man and his daughter on the street after exiting the White House she can truthfully say that she doesn't work at the White House. And yet the characters have a future as we're reminded when, on the plane back to New Hampshire, Abby asks what Jed is thinking about. He responds by saying "Tomorrow" the last word of the series.

10. Angel: I know this one is out of order but it does have a certain style to it. In fact it is almost like the last scenes of the original Godfather where Michael Corleone launches a surgical strike to take out all of the Family's enemies in one sudden stroke. The characters prepare, each in their own personal way for the final battle and then each member of the Circle of The Black Thorn in a battle that is successful but not without casualties – Wesley dead, Gunn apparently dying, and a demon army – with a dragon – coming to overwhelm Angel, Spike, Iyllyria and Gunn. Perhaps the most chilling scene is Lorne, the gentle singing demon putting a bullet through Lindsay's head in true hit man fashion. All of which ties us back to The Sopranos.

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