Saturday, June 02, 2007

Take a bow

The approaching finale of "The Sopranos" has me thinking about what can make a series finale memorable, and what can make them fail. Pulling off a great series ending seems like one of the most daunting tasks in television. Expectations among loyal fans tend to be so high that final episodes are bound to disappoint at least some people, and I'm sure "The Sopranos", a show that seems to cry out for some final, awful reckoning, will be no exception.

A bad finale can taint a series' entire legacy, which is what happened with "St. Elsewhere", in which, in the final moments of the episode, it was revealed that the series' events all took place in the mind of an autistic boy, previously portrayed as the son of one of the doctors. The hospital was nothing more than a miniature inside a snow globe. It left the show's fans feeling cheated, as though they'd invested their time in the show all those years for nothing. Of course, one of the greatest endings in television history played on the same theme. The ending of "Newhart" showed Bob Newhart waking up from a dream, next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife on the previous decade's "The Bob Newhart Show".

The mistake that the writers of "St. Elsewhere" made was in underestimating the emotional investment that viewers had made in the show. "Newhart" had more latitude because it was a comedy (and its ending was much more clever) but the creators of a comedy can also misjudge the connection its audience has to the characters. Witness "Seinfeld", which ended with what many critics believe was a jab at the audience for even bothering to care about the show's four unlovable characters. Viewers will decide on their own what they care about, thank you very much.

To me, though, the great sin of the "Seinfeld" ending was that it was lazy. Come on, a clip show? Even "Family Ties", which loved the flashback episode more than any other show I can think of, didn't allow itself this indulgence for its finale. "Seinfeld" could have learned something from "Family Ties", an otherwise forgettable series. It's been years since I've seen it, but I recall that the "Family Ties" finale was a lot like any other episode of the show: gentle humor with a measure of family conflict thrown in.

"Seinfeld"'s meager effort aside, there is virtue in not trying too hard to make a finale spectacular. Some of the best finales have tied up a few loose ends while leaving the audience with the impression that life in the show's fictional universe will pretty much go on as it always has. That's what made the finale of "NYPD Blue" effective: It demonstrated that the transformation of Andy Sipowicz was complete, and led viewers to believe that the next day would be like any other for the detectives of the 15th squad. That's also why I so loved the "Cheers" finale. When Sam closed up the bar in the episode's final moments, it was easy to picture him opening it up again the next day. The finale also stayed true to the spirit of the show, which would have been violated had Sam and Diane, for example, decided to get married, rather than come to their senses at the last moment.

Of course, some shows seem to demand a final resolution. "M*A*S*H" simply couldn't have ended with the Korean War still going on. Sure, the real war lasted only three years, not 11 like the show, but even knowing this viewers desperately wanted these people to go back home to their families. I enjoyed the last "M*A*S*H", though it was often overwrought, particularly the stuff about Hawkeye going bonkers. "M*A*S*H*" had evolved into an entirely different show than when it started, and the finale was one of the best of the latter episodes. It also left us with one of television's most iconic scenes, when Hawkeye, leaving the camp in a helicopter, saw that B.J. had used rocks to form the word "goodbye", which he had been unable to say.

Crafting an ending for "The Sopranos" may have been particularly difficult--though David Chase has said he's always known how the series was going to end--because the show has defied the conventional narrative of television drama, in which conflicts are resolved by the end of each episode or shortly thereafter. "The Sopranos" has never been afraid to leave questions unanswered, but its audience has always had reason to hope that the big ones would get addressed sooner or later.

No more. Absent a movie, which seems unlikely, the June 10 finale will be the last time we'll see Tony and his whole rotten family. As with all the shows that came before it, "The Sopranos" has but one chance to end well.



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