Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Season Finales Aren't What They're Cracked Up to Be

*Warning: Spoilers ahead from a variety of recent season finales*

I've come to the conclusion that, for the most part, season finales are serious let-downs. They almost never live up to the hype. And how can they, really? We viewers want drama, humor, the occasional sweet moment and cliffhangers . . . but not emotionally brutal cliffhangers that can sometimes appear out of left field. The networks just want one thing: Monster ratings, and they don't care how they happen. This means there's tremendous pressure to amp up the drama and conflict, even if they don't make sense as far as where the show has been throughout the season because without ratings there will be no show. This annually leaves us viewers with TV season finales that largely leave us disappointed and, sometimes irritated particularly if a naked, ratings-chasing maneuver is employed.

Take Lost's shocking season three cliffhanger finale. Now that was one hell of a finale. A beloved character, Charlie Pace sacrificed his own life in order to save his friends and, after three seasons of character flash-backs, Lost engaged in several flash-forwards, depicting Jack Shepherd in a future point in time longing to return to the island while, in the current time period, Jack was singularly determined to get everyone off of it. It was the gold standard of finales. A major character died in it -- doing something he thought would save the woman he loved -- but his death was beautifully and touching done. It was tough to watch Charlie drown, but it made sense for the larger story at the same time that it made viewers sad.

Compare that to Grey's Anatomy recent, fifth season finale, where it was left uncertain as to whether two of the show's original characters will live or die when season six begins. One character, Izzie Stevens, had been battling cancer, so if she had died it would've been understandable and, given the previous three-hankie episode where she was married, poetic and tragic. But instead, the show had Izzie AND George O'Malley facing death, as O'Malley was hit by a bus and potentially fatally injured. Tacky. Grey's fourth season finale ended on a much better, more uplifting note, with Meredith Grey committing to Derek Shepherd by making a "house" of candles on the plot of land Derek had picked out for their future home, even as O'Malley learned he'd failed his intern exam.

Grey's season finale notwithstanding, the rest of this year's season enders were all over the map as far as quality goes.

Lost's season ender was good, but I thought it opened up too many different and confusing themes. Whereas the season three flash-forward finale blew my mind, this season's ending frustrated me because I was (and still am) having trouble reconciling the religious imagery and overtones with the sci-fi time travel angle, plus I feel deceived about the whole John Locke-is-really-dead twist.

The 24 finale -- which had many gripping moments this season, loved President Taylor, Renee Walker and even by-the-books Larry Moss, liked the debate over the use of torture, adored the new Washington locale -- was a classic case of too much build up. The show seemed to sputter to a lackluster conclusion, particularly when there's not much drama in the Jack Bauer's-gonna-die question because we already know that Bauer lives because Kiefer Sutherland has signed on to take his 24-hour odyssey to New York City next season, provided his parole officer lets him out of LA. Kim Bauer sitting next to her father's hospital bed, coupled with the ambiguity of the resolution with the sinister Alan Wilson -- who apparently was behind all manner of badness for several seasons, including the plot against President David Palmer -- didn't hold a candle to previously powerful season finales like the death of Teri Bauer in season one, the apparent poisoning of President David Palmer in season two and Bauer being shipped off to China in the fabulous season five.

The finale for House, however, was a nice departure from the pressure to be overly, out-of-one's-depth dramatic with the last show of the season. The tone of the final 2008-09 episode was well balanced all the way through to its "what the?" ending where we learned that Greg House didn't actually have relations with Lisa Cuddy and that his hallucinations had become so severe that he checked himself into a psychiatric facility.

Friday Night Lights capped a poignant season with an episode that jumped a few months into the future and unceremoniously had Eric Taylor dumped as the Dillon Panthers' coach and instead, assigned to run the football program for a new high school whose most talented players had already been poached by Dillon. There were way too many holes and unexplained questions as to how or why the town that had been behind Taylor -- who led his team to the State Championship that season -- would so easily fire him. I'm sure next season will be just as good as previous ones, but the finale felt abrupt.

The Office ended quietly with an insane Dunder Mifflin company picnic -- and the delightfully awful Michael Scott/Holly skit where they inadvertently informed an entire branch that it was being shuttered -- where the closest thing to a cliffhanger was Pam's visit to the ER. Viewers were led to jump to the conclusion that Pam is pregnant, but that's just an inference without overt confirmation.

Contrast the low-keyed Office finale with the over-the-top Private Practice finale, where there was an accidental embryo switch leaving two women pregnant with the other's baby, the ob/gyn for a patient with a high risk pregnancy was caught making eyes at the patient's husband in front of said patient, and a pregnant shrink (who refused to figure out which of her two lovers is the father of her baby) was rendered paralyzed by a shot administered by a patient who plans to cut the therapist's baby out of her belly. This wasn't a series of episodes. These events didn't unfold over a period of weeks. It was in one finale. And it was all too much.

I'm convinced that the ratings pressure is the biggest culprit for the zany finales and the reason why viewers inevitably feel disappointed by the aggressively-promoted season finales, many of which fail to justify the hype because either they're artificially crammed with manufactured drama or because the writers have things happen that they normally wouldn't.

What recent season finales did you like? Which ones let you down?

Image credit: Fox.


becky @ misspriss said...

The Private Practice finale freaked me out. It was so creepy, and bothered me for a couple of days afterward.

Meredith said...

I agree. It wasn't a good episode to watch right before going to bed.

becky @ misspriss said...

You're not jokin'.

Haven't made up my mind about Grey's. I only started watching this season, so I don't have the history of the characters that everyone else does.