The hardest thing, a lot of the time, is not to know where to start but knowing where to end. Big entrances are relatively easy to pull off, but big exits? Leaving your audience wanting more? That’s hard. After all, openings have a natural structure to them, you introduce your protagonist, introduce the situation they find themselves in, their antagonist, their allies, the time and place and throw in a little drama. Effectively you’re setting out the stall, showing people your wares and, provided you have a good grasp of your story it’ll go well.
Sometimes, if you’re very lucky or very, very good, then your opening is exceptional. The first episode of The West Wing, for example, is a spectacular piece of drama for three reasons. Firstly, the essence of the show is contained in it’s opening ten minute swoop through the lives of the White House senior staff, the graceful, almost balletic way that Leo Mcgarry coasts through his arrival at work and the way his massively intelligent, utterly broken colleagues all answer their call to arms. This is the show, the movement, the dialogue, the big ideas and bigger personalities and the way they dance around one another.
Secondly, the cast is beyond exceptional. There’s not a single bum note in the entire hour from the principle players, everyone from Jon Spencer’s charming, fiercely intelligent Leo to Richard Schiff’s quietly seething Toby Ziegler and Bradley Whitford’s utterly confident, utterly arrogant, utterly broken Josh Lyman are pitch perfect. Even the guest stars work supremely well and by the time you get to the final scene, the President gently taking his staff to task and turning to face the affairs of state it’s somewhere between cheerfully triumphant and deeply moving.
The final and most important reason though is that every element of the series is in play from the start, some more than were initially apparent. For all Aaron Sorkin’s statements that the series was never intended to be centered around the President and Josh Lyman it’s next to impossible to impossible to look at the first episode and not see seven years of Martin Sheen as the most intelligent politician the world has never had, not see seven years of Josh slowly becoming the man he thinks he is instead of the man he is. An opening episode is a series in microcosm, a snapshot of the story as much as the gateway into it.
But what about the ending? Having taken the toys out of the box, how do you put them back in? To continue to use the West Wing as an example, the final episode, ‘Tomorow’ continues to split opinion, as do all the post-Sorkin years. There’s no big moment of triumph, even in the inauguration, and as a result of that and the sense of the chairs being put on the tables and the lights turned out, a lot of people find it unsatisfying. But in many ways it’s the perfect ending to the series, mirroring the personal crises of the first episode and bringing them into land. The affairs of state are bigger than everyone, even Bartlet and as the new administration gears up, as characters move on to higher positions or leave the White House, that’s communicated with elegance and pragmatism. In the beginning, Bartlet appears quoting the 10 Commandments and at the end he leaves thinking about the future he’s earned, the chance to not be the President, but to be Jed Bartlet.
But ‘Tomorrow’ continues to be the exception that proves the rule. The Star Trek franchise is particularly bad at final episodes with Voyager‘s ending laden down with a lumpen Borg plot and Enterprise‘s a simultaneous slap in the face to fans of the show and the larger franchise. Even Buffy, cult favourite as it is, is regarded by many, including show creator Joss Whedon, as having reached it’s logical end with the close of it’s fifth year, a full two seasons before it actually finished. More recently, Lost, widely pilloried for treading water for much of it’s third year was allowed to set an end date and almost straight away became much more focussed, much more coherent. An end is a start as the Editors might put it
Sometimes though, endings arrive a little sooner than expected. A few years ago, Alias was one of Marvel Comics’ critical darlings. Written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Gaydos it was the story of a third-rate ex-Avenger who was reduced to acting as a private eye, working on the streets as her former colleagues soared overhead. It wasn’t a perfect title but it was consistently smart, funny, dark and marked the start of the company’s drift towards the very contemporary, politically charged work that’s the mainstay of the Marvel Universe today.
Then, one day, it ended.
Bendis freely admits it was the last thing he was expecting, but one day he got to the end of an issue script and realized it was the final issue. He’d finished the story and once you write those last two words, two words that have more weight and gravity to any others, there’s no going back.
Bendis, and his boss, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada played it absolutely straight, cancelling the title and spinning Jessica, the main character off into a new series, The Pulse and later appearances in the Avengers family of titles. The story had ended, there was no sense in stringing it out and they acted accordingly,
That’s an awareness, not just of text but of consequence that’s surprisingly rare in both TV and comics. Sometimes you have to know when to get off the stage and sometimes that decision is made for you.
Grey’s Anatomy, for example, finished at the end of the fourth season and so far, no one on either side of the camera appears to have noticed.
The final two hours of Grey’s Anatomy‘s fourth season, ‘Freedom’ are an unusual combination of the spectacularly goofy and some of the most needlepoint perfect character work in the last five years. Mixed in around Derek and Meredith’s clinical trial and the desperately complicated, intricate attempts of the entire surgical staff to extricate a teenager from a block of concrete are quiet but definitive endings to every single character’s plot line. Each relationship, each character beat is moved to a point where if the ending is not on screen, it’s certainly within sight. George finally expresses his frustration and stands up for himself, Yang regains her confidence in the operating theatre and Meredith not only finally realizes her mother wasn’t suicidal but is given a chance to finally be with Derek and grabs it with both hands. This level of resolution is everywhere, as Mark breaks up with Callie voluntarily so she can pursue a relationship with Hahn, the Chief finally asks for and is given forgiveness by his wife and in the closing moments, Izzy is given Denny’s Memorial Clinic by Bailey. The show even ends with Bailey, literally, turning the lights off and going home. It’s a genuinely beautiful montage, each character moving onto new things as, underneath it all Bryn Christopher sings ‘The Quest’ like he’s just been released from prison. As final scenes go, it’s right up there with the final swoop through Cicely in Northern Exposure, the final moments of The Peacekeeper Wars, the wonderful and very odd final scenes of Due South. This is a series that’s done and it makes sure everyone looks good on the way out of the door.
But it didn’t end there, and that’s the problem. The fifth season has seen TR Knight, who plays George, asked to be released from his contract, Katherine Heigl finding herself in the middle of a plot that appears to involve Izzy having a relationship with Denny, her dead boyfriend who is haunting the hospital and Brooke Smith dropped overnight for, it would appear, being too good at playing Hahn, the lesbian character in a lesbian relationship she was hired to play. The fifth season is indisputably in trouble and it’s difficult not to look at the perfect tie off to the show that season four offered as one of the reasons why.
In the end, it comes down to expectation. Mulder and Scully have a potential romance and the series soars, Mulder and Scully become a couple and the series collapses. The mystery of who will destroy New York powers one of the best opening seasons in history whilst the disaster being averted puts Heroes into a flat spin it may not recover from. The story has to please it’s viewers and it’s creators and in the revenue driven world of network TV that’s very nearly impossible. Get it right and you’ll be given your time on the spotlight, get it too right and you might not be allowed to leave again.
There are exceptions to this of course, with Bill Lawrence, creator and producer of Scrubs for example. Lawrence, along with series star Zach Braff, is off at the end of this season but is quite open about how happy he would be for the show to continue without the pair of them. His justification is simple; if the show’s on the air then a couple of hundred people are employed. If it isn’t, they’re not.
There’s no easy answer here, no magic bullet to keep networks, producers, writers, actors and fans happy. Some will want the show to last forever, others will want to wrap it up at set points and someone’s certain to go home unhappy. The best that can be hoped for is that a series aims higher than it can reach, that in the end it knows when to leave the stage as much as when to arrive.