As a writer, I think I’ll always be haunted by a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and Damned”: “I can imagine a man knowing too much for his talent to express.” Or feeling too much. Case in point: my feelings regarding the “Mad Men” series finale which aired last night. It was as the rest of the series was. Enigmatic, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining. People of a certain age will agree, I think, that there is incredible poignancy in this show’s depiction of the 1960’s. People can see themselves in this show, they can see their lives and the lives of their parents. There are people that can recall this era and so therefore the show may seem to them like a photo album, memories. This, of course, can only add to the significance of the finale. Example: Sally is becoming an adult, having to deal with her mother’s impending death. This feels like watching your mother be born. You’re seeing where you parents came from, getting a perspective on what the world was like right before you were born. That’s heavy. Make no mistake: the appeal of “Mad Men” lies not only in the 1960’s as a backdrop. The series has consistently exhibited such staggering quality of story and performance that it belongs on a VERY short list of the greatest dramas of all-time. Indeed, when it comes to critical acclaim only “The West Wing” can compare. Both shows, keep in mind, won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama in each of their first four years. I really don’t know what other shows to add to the conversation if you’re talking universal appeal and cultural significance: perhaps “NYPD Blue” or “Breaking Bad”. “The Sopranos” I thought was incredibly made but when discussing that show’s place in television history there’s always an asterisk: it’s easier to make compelling drama when you can regularly delve into R-rated territory. The enormity of “Mad Men” lies in it’s depiction of an entire era. Every life of every character on the show adds up to represent American society. History. “Mad Men” is a prologue and an origin story for 21st century society.
Series finales are huge, actually. There is such built-in emotion. You’ve spent, sometimes, years with these people. The better shows draw you in and you begin to find yourself connecting with the cast. To say good-bye to them can be legitimately difficult.
It’s hard to believe but at one time television networks did not see the appeal in there being a definite end to a series. Perhaps the very first show to mark the end of it’s run was the sitcom closest to this writer’s heart: “Leave It to Beaver”. Jerry Mathers had portrayed Beaver Cleaver for six seasons when he announced he’d like to end his run to attend high school under more normal circumstances. So during the last season, the writers were able to present stories dealing with Beaver preparing to attend high school and also his brother, Wally, getting ready to leave home and attend college. If you have kids of your own, watching the last season can be an emotional experience. The series finale uses a technique that is now considered passé but one that was unique at the time: the flashback episode. It works in this case. “Family Scrapbook” takes us back through the years and reminds you how you’ve watched these kids grow up. This ‘reality of life’-type ending – kids going off to high school and college – makes for emotional viewing.
A few years later, the writers of “The Fugitive” created perhaps the first truly significant series finale. As anyone who is familiar with this iconic show knows, the series centered around wrongly-convicted Richard Kimball – played non-smilingly by David Janssen – and his cross-country search for the one-armed man he saw leaving the scene of his wife’s murder. In the two-part finale – which I found on VHS at a garage sale – Kimball finds and confronts the one-armed man. Truly riveting viewing and drives home the point that seeing the conclusion of a story you’ve been watching for years can be heavy – like finishing a month-long read of a 1000-page novel.
My first memory of watching a series finale is kneeling in front of the TV crying as Joanie and Chachi got married at the end of “Happy Days”. I had regularly watched the show and loved it. I’m a little embarrassed to say so now, though. This show and another of my faves – “The Dukes of Hazzard” – are good examples of shows you loved as a kid but you realize later are lame. (“The A-Team”?) Anyways, “Happy Days” was smart enough to end with a big crowd-pleasing event. And in the ‘business’ end of things they succeeded – and failed. It was a coup of sorts getting Ron Howard to return as Richie. Howard had become a director of note by the time “Happy Days” wrapped but to his and the show’s credit he showed up for his sister’s wedding – as a real-life brother would do. Where they failed was in the disowning of Chuck. In the first nine episodes of the show the Cunninghams had three children, the oldest being hoop-shooting Chuck. By the series finale Chuck was persona non-grata so much so that Mr. C makes a speech mentioning how now BOTH his kids are married. Well, we don’t watch TV for realism anyways.
Another of my favourite shows ended poorly – on the ‘business’ end if not story-wise. In the final episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210” Donna and David get married – which makes perfect sense. The bad part though is in this show about the transplanted Walsh family trying to adjust to life in Beverly Hills, by this point there are no Walshes on the show and none of them show up for this wedding which is basically the culmination of a lot of years of ALL their lives. Sure Gabrielle Carteris shows up as Andrea – I’m sure she was available. But no Walshes? The show had dropped the ball in the realism department earlier with the “wedding” of Brandon and Kelly. Brandon’s twin sister – played by Shannen Doherty whom the producers hated and would never have invited back on the show – doesn’t show up for the wedding of her brother and best friend? And then their union – which makes perfect sense – doesn’t even happen?! But I digress.
We now come to the mother of all finales and a major television event in it’s day. The final episode of M*A*S*H couldn’t help but be emotional. Here you have an extreme rarity: a successful show based on a movie (and a novel before that), a show that continued to thrive despite many cast changes and a show that was based on an actual historical event – the Korean War – that has built-in emotional impact. Not only is this 11-year series coming to an end but the war is over and the characters are all going home. Nothing could be more bittersweet – the horror of war ending, but also these close friends having to go their separate ways. This results in an extremely emotional viewing experience.
Quickly: inventive and endlessly watchable is the ending of “Newhart”. The last scene starts in a darkened bedroom. Bedside lamps are turned on to reveal Newhart in his previous show’s incarnation as psychologist Bob Hartley. We’re back on “the Bob Newhart Show” and a great cheer goes up when the studio audience sees him in bed next to his wife from that show, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Bob tells her he’s had the strangest dream: he was running a Vermont inn, the premise of his follow-up show, “Newhart”. This is exceedingly clever and good comedy.
Tom Selleck wanted out of “Magnum, P.I.” so they killed him off; which in itself would have been a hugely dramatic and courageous ending. But then Selleck signed up for one more season so they brought him back to life and the last season saw a recurring story involving Magnum’s ex-wife and daughter wrapped up. The closing credits of the finale feature scenes from the series’ run and the final image is of Magnum/Selleck looking at the camera, saying ‘goodnight’ and using a remote to shut things down.
Another of my all-time favourites, “Moonlighting”, regularly broke the fourth wall confirming to the viewer that this was indeed a show you were watching. What was the story line when the show got cancelled? The show got cancelled. David and Maddie spent the final episode running around the Paramount lot looking for the show’s producers and vowing to finally get married like the viewers always wanted. Too late. Goodnight. “The Sopranos”? It was an interesting technique to unexpectedly cut to black but people want more closure than that. It’s interesting to note the technique but there’s little emotional impact to an ending like that. “Seinfeld”? It bugged me for two reasons: one, it celebrated the apathy of the characters which, while in keeping with the run of the series, made note of the show’s inability to be pleasant or heartfelt, things I think you want in a finale. And two, while the finale was airing Frank Sinatra was dying. The next morning the news was full of Frank’s death and the last “Seinfeld”. A depressing connection for me.
A quick note about binge watching. I’ve never done it but I have to think that watching 4 or 5 years worth of a show in a week can lessen the emotional impact of the final episodes simply because of the lack of time spent with the show. I think it can only get really heavy when you’ve spent years watching a show.
Obviously, finales are about saying goodbye to things you’ve loved: stories (“The West Wing”), people (“Will & Grace”) or even a setting (“Cheers”). To goodbyes we can all relate. We all have left high school or college, changed jobs, sold our homes and moved: these are all ‘the end of an era’. These are emotions we’re all familiar with and that we can all relate to when we see them happening to others and that’s what makes this significant. We all have “moved on” from something. We’ve all lived through “the end” of something. When you see your TV ‘friends’ going through the same stuff you can understand and it’s then that you realize how invested you are. Even knowing the “Mad Men” finale was coming had me clenched. This is heavy stuff. But it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop watching.