Monday, May 24, 2010

Television Series Finales (or) You Can't Make Everyone Happy

Last night the series finale (fittingly entitled "The End") of Lost aired in the United States. The finale gave ABC its best ratings outside of the Oscars in two and a half years. An average of 13.5 million viewers watched the finale, earning it a 5.8 rating and a 14 share. So phenomenal was ratings for Lost last night that it buried its competition on the other major networks. The series finale's were double that of second place NBC and third place Fox, and three times that of fourth place CBS. Thus far "The End" is easily  the highest rated season finale for 2009/2010, easily beating the second highest finale, that of Grey's Anatomy.

While the series finale of Lost received solid ratings, it is another question as to whether viewers were satisfied with the series conclusion. Critics seem to be divided on the episode. Robert Bianco of USA Today (whom I have to admit is right, for once) gave  "The End" a four star review. James Poniewozik of Time (a critic I trust a bit more) called "The End" a "....moving, soulful finale." Mike Hale of The New York Times said the finale felt like "...a bit of a cop out." Mary McNamara of The Los Angeles Times only gave the finale one star in her review. Going by blogs and social media sites, viewers also seem divided on the finale (for the record, I loved it). Of course, even if the majority of viewers had hated "The End," it would not be the first time a series finale would be so despised.

Indeed, the whole idea of a television series having a definite conclusion was not even very old when a particular series ended in such a way that brought howls of protests from viewers. Although I may be wrong,  I think the first series to have a definite conclusion, at least in the United States, was The Fugitive. The series finale of The Fugitive, airing on August 22, 1967 and August 29, 1967, received incredible ratings and received rave reviews from critics and viewers alike. This would not be the case a few months later when another legendary series came to its end in the United Kingdom. The Prisoner featured Patrick McGoohan as Number Six, a secret agent captured and imprisoned in a mysterious place called The Village, where they try to find out why he resigned and what information he knew. The series did very well in the ratings and viewers well expected a finale in which Number Six would have a showdown with a Dr. No style villain who would be Number One in The Village. That is not what they saw.

Instead, the final episode of "Fall Out" which aired on Feburary 1, 1968, on ITV  owed more to Antonin Artaud than Ian Fleming. Not only was the finale definitely not a  Bondian showdown with a diabolical mastermind, but it was an exercise at times in surrealism that created more questions than it answered. Among other things , "Fall Out" had the original Number Two from the first episode (Leo McKern) resurrected,  Number Two (Leo McKern) and Number 48 (Alex Kanner) placed on trial, Number Six finally meeting Number One (who turns out to be, well, himself), Number Six feeing Number Two and Number 48, and Number Six finally leaving The Village. "Fall Out" was hardly the straight forward ending that many viewers had wanted, and the final third of the episode in particular was ambiguous and open to a number of interpretations.

To say "Fall Out" created controversy would be to put it mildly. Almost as soon as the episode went off the air, ITV was besieged by viewers who were either outraged or baffled by what they had seen. Viewers demanding an explanation for "Fall Out" even hounded Patrick McGoohan at his home to the point that he had to go into hiding for a time.

As strange as the series finale of The Prisoner was, it may well have been surpassed by the final episode of Twin Peaks. Created by director David Lynch, Twin Peaks had been an outright phenomenon when it debuted, garnering huge ratings and a good deal of media coverage. Unfortunately, it suffered a precipitous drop in ratings in its second season, in part because ABC moved it around the schedule. For the series finale, David Lynch returned to direct, which turned out to be as mystifying as any of his movies, if not more so. The final episode, "Beyond Life and Death," had protagonist Special Agent Dale Cooper enter the mysterious Black Lodge which seems to defy both space and time. Cooper encounters doppelgängers of the dead, bargains for the life of  Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) with his own soul,  faces his own doppelgänger, and becomes part of the eternal struggle between good and evil. Not only were many viewers mystified by "Beyond Life and Death," but many were disappointed by the episode. Perhaps the only reason the season finale to Twin Peaks did not generate a good deal of controversy is that by then only the most loyal viewers were watching. Indedd, it only finished third in the ratings against reruns on both CBS and NBC.

Compared to the series finales of The Prisoner and Twin Peaks, the series finale of The Sopranos, "Made in America (aired June 10, 2007),"  was much more straight forward. Indeed, it can not be said that it was the bulk of the episode which upset viewers, so much as it was the way the episode ended. Much of the episode dealt with the fallout from the war between the New Jersey based DiMeo family (led by Tony Soprano) and the New York based Lupertazzi family. In the final moments of the episode Tony Soprano (James Gandofini) gathered with his family for dinner in a restaurant. While there, a man continuously stares at Tony, until at last the man goes to the restroom. It is  as Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) enters the restaurant and joins the family and Tony looks up that the screen abruptly turns to black. While the majority of critics gave the episode positive reviews and even praised the ending, the reaction of fans was decidedly mixed. Many fans loved the endings, feeling it fitted the shows. Many other fans thought the ending was both abrupt and unsatisfying. Either way, the last few minutes of "Made in America" were endlessly debated and analysed.

Looking back at some of the more unusual series finales, it is only to be expected that the finale of Lost would receive mixed reactions from critics and fans alike. In fact, when compared to the finales of The Prisoner and Twin Peaks in some respects reaction to the finale of Lost has been fairly positive. At the very least Jerry Lieber, J. J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof have not had to go into hiding. At least not yet.


KC said...

I was so disappointed when I saw the last episode of the Prisoner. I watched it two times in order to try to get a handle on it--but I never fully understood what was happening. There must have been something to it though, because I know I'd watch it again. Heck, I'd probably watch the entire series again.

Toby O'B said...

Good comparisons and the type of trivia that helps put them all in perspective. Great read, Merc....