A Problem with Series Finales

The Office Finale

In case you somehow missed it, The Office aired its series finale last week. Now, I’m on the record with my problems with that show, and fans seemed to like the finale a lot, so I won’t rain on their parade with my criticisms of it. But it brought to mind a problem I have with series finales in general: It really bothers me when characters in TV finales act like they know they’re in a TV finale.

This is a very common problem, especially with comedies. Plot-driven shows can spend their finales concluding whatever series-long arcs it has been developing: (Spoilers) The Sopranos settled Tony’s war with New York, Battlestar Galactica found “Earth,” Lost explained the Island (kind of), etc. But shows that are more character-driven end up filling the time with a lot of “finale talk.”

What is “finale talk”? Well, in last week’s The Office finale, which took place a year after the airing of the documentary-within-the-show, the cast members sneak away from a party with the entire documentary crew to spend some time in the office. At one point a character wistfully says, “When are we all going to be here, together again?”

Of course, this makes no fucking sense. These characters all work together. They spend 40 hours together, in that exact office, plus the absurd amounts of their personal lives they spent together on the show.* This line only makes sense for the audience, who knows that this is a finale and this will indeed be the last scene with these characters. This is what I mean by “finale talk”: dialogue that only makes sense if characters somehow know they are on a fictional series, and that it’s ending.

*Not to mention the fact that the character who says this, Angela, is someone who, throughout the nine years of the show, has shown nothing but disdain and contempt for the majority of her coworkers. But that speaks to The Office’s haphazard and contradictory attempts at characterization, which I said I wasn’t going to mention…

This is not a problem unique to The Office. Friday Night Lights suffered from too many “summing up our relationship” talks in its finale; The O.C.’s finale felt like a rushed attempt toward a predetermined coda*; the entire one-hour finale of Boy Meets World is really just one long reminiscence among people who have no reason to believe they won’t talk again tomorrow, etc.

*Although that coda was great.

The problem is that it’s hard for a TV series to convey a realistic sense of finality if it doesn’t have some grand plot to resolve. In real life people rarely sit around eulogizing their relationships, because people rarely know in advance when relationships or phases of their lives will end. But without acknowledging the ending somehow, viewers would almost certainly be disappointed by the lack of closure. It’s hard to come up with finales that handled this well—Freaks and Geeks comes to mind as a show that was able to provide a sense of closure without abandoning its usual style, but that show didn’t end on its own terms.

It does seem like I am in the minority. As I said, fans seemed to like The Office finale, and they certainly prefer sentimental finales to finales that blatantly mess with the show’s formula or insult the audience. This seems like it should be a false dilemma, but it’s the rare show that has solved it.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on May 27, 2013 at 1:14 AM

    I am in total agreement with you, John, about the “finality syndrome” in TV series. I’ve always winced at the need to neatly wrap up the lives of all the characters in a show and the existing dynamics between them. You mention “The Sopranos” and how the New York scenario was settled, however the final scene of the show left people in the dark, literally. There was a lot of angst amongst the masses over the lack of closure in those last moments. I thought it was perfect. It was real life.There was no real ending. Now, David Chase, the creator of the show, has confirmed that we witnessed Tony’s demise. That ruined things for me. I wanted the lack of resolve, the incomplete gestalt, the confusion that made it more authentic. So we witnessed Tony’s death and the death of the show; the “finality syndrome” at its most extreme. David Chase should have been wacked before he sang like a canary.

    Reply

  2. […] rush into bed (literally) with him. In general, “Development Arrested” suffers from the same forced finality that plagues a lot of finales. It’s still funny—it just feels a little […]

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  3. […] It took me a long time to warm up to 30 Rock, and there were parts of it that never did click, but its final season brought out the best in it. The penultimate episode even drew laughs from characters like Kenneth and Jenna, who ranged from tired to unbearable for most of the series. But the best bits of this episode, as usual, came from Jack (“Man, women who try to do things sure do get killed a lot…”) and Liz (“Treme gets GOOD if you stick with it.”). Plus, it felt like a fitting lead up to a finale without suffering too much from finale syndrome. […]

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  4. […] finales, especially for quote-unquote comedies, are really difficult, for the reasons John S laid out a year ago post-The Office. I mean, let’s face it: Endings in any fictional work are hard and typically forced, because […]

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