Friday, February 12, 2010

On Endings

As an audience, we usually know what to expect from the ending of a movie, or even a television show. We can pretty much predict the conclusions of most of the pertinent plot lines, even if we're not quite sure how we're going to get there. Bad endings tag off on a "To Be Continued" or leave themselves ridiculously open-ended in hopes of sequels. Better endings might incorporate an unexpected plot point that takes the traditional happy ending to something more bittersweet. The best endings throw in a twist that you never saw coming, even though all the information was there.

The last is my favorite kind of ending. And sadly, that's the ending becoming less and less frequent in this age of formulated screenplays, where stories are coldly calculated to appeal to the greatest number of people. This week, during a discussion about science-fiction, I showed my American Cinema class the iconic ending to The Planet of the Apes, and I was surprised how many of these college-aged kids were completely unfamiliar with it. It's not that they disliked the ending, but, as one student eloquently pointed out, "They don't make 'em like that anymore, ya know?"

He's right. M. Night Shyamalan aside, it's rare that a movie will risk any sort of unsettling, or narratively ambiguous ending anymore. If they do, it's in the subpar style of Paranormal Activity, aiming for immediate shock value over lasting emotional effect. The most iconic film endings - from Gone With The Wind to Chinatown, A Clockwork Orange to Doctor Strangelove, Thelma and Louise to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - providing a satisfying close to the story while still refusing to provide pat, easy solutions to the characters' problems. Nowadays, we take classic stories like I Am Legend and transform the ending to a diluted shoot-em-up to fulfill the supposed expectations of the audience.

Television shows are often better at sticking the unexpected ending. Whereas movies need to attract a good reputation to draw audiences into the theaters, TV programs have nothing to lose if they offer the audience a big fat enigma in the series finale. What's the worst that could happen - they lose viewers? Televised finales come in two archetypes. In the first (the M*A*S*H archetype), the finale consists of a suitably emotional hour-long goodbye to all the characters and memories. The second (the St. Elsewhere archetype) throws a big monkey wrench at the viewer. This is the kind of ending that you'll be talking about at the proverbial water cooler the next day.

The most memorable finale of the second variety in recent years was The Sopranos. The show, originally groundbreaking, had found itself fading into irrelevancy by its final season. The controversial ending, however, demonstrated that it still had a few tricks left. A lot of people hated it at the time (myself included), but I have to admit that, with the passage of time, such a conclusion was a ballsy but ultimately successful endeavor, and one that will go down in the annals of popular culture. It was unexpected, certainly, but it still fit in with the tone of the show. Love it or hate it, everyone who watched the Sopranos was talking about it the next day (or, if you were like me, calling my parents to make sure my cable hadn't gone out). This was an example of a good ending that saved the reputation of a dwindling show.

However, the pendulum swings both ways. Remember the last episode of Seinfeld? America had a strange sort of fondness for such a cynical and unsentimental program, and the country came together when the final episode of the final season was to air in May of 1998. Parties were held, Junior Mints and Pez dispensers were selling in record numbers, and everyone was prepared to say a hearty goodbye to the best sitcom of the nineties. I was only twelve years old, but I remember my parents letting me stay up late to witness what was sure to be a significant moment in American broadcasting history.

Unfortunately for the 76.3 million homes that tuned in, the finale kind of sucked. Rife with convoluted references to previous episodes, and standing partially a big middle finger to the audience who had applauded the Seinfeld gang's cruel antics over the past nine seasons, it stands out as one of the worst episodes of an otherwise great show.

Looking back, I'm not sure what audiences were expecting. A tear-jerking farewell? A Serling-esque plot twist? The brutal death of George at the hands of a bezerk Kramer? Whatever we were looking for, Seinfeld ultimately failed to deliver, and the reputation of the show dipped as a result.

Which brings us to the entire reason I started writing this article - Lost.

In case you haven't heard, Lost is currently in the midst of airing it's final season. This is a program that has been about strange riddles and mysterious phenomena since Day 1. With most of the major mysteries still unsolved, fans and critics alike are awaiting the finale with bated breath, curious to see if the show can deliver on the narrative promises made six seasons ago.

I have mixed feelings about Lost as an entity - it's a daring and ambitious piece of television, but one that has often fallen prey to needlessly convoluted, unfocused narratives. I don't think it will ever join The West Wing and The Wire in my pantheon of "great" television shows, but it's still one of the most creative and original things I've ever seen. But I'm awaiting the ending to cast final judgment. If the finale gives us a "Holy-shit-so-that's-what-it-was-all-about" moment, I'll consider myself satisfied.

I know, I know, it's supposed to be about the journey, not the destination. That's certainly true for most things that I watch. But the inherent danger in shows like Lost is that it can't help but be anything but the destination. Despite the producers' half-hearted attempts to convince us that "it's a show about characters", the entire franchise has been built on the foundation of mystery, and if that is improperly resolved, the whole structure is going to collapse. The show has rightly been compared to Twin Peaks and The X-Files, two other programs whose dense underlying mythologies meant that audiences were ultimately going to leave feeling unfulfilled.

But Lost has a chance to prove itself worthy of the of the arcane secrets its woven over the past six years, and possibly take the ranks in the panoply of "Great American Endings", to be talked about as a legendary finale for decades to come. I'm not asking for an ending that explains everything, or even makes sense, but something unique and fitting for such a show. Lost has the creativity to provide something iconic, something memorable, something that might leave the audience temporarily unsatisfied, but will eventually be recognized as a original and appropriate conclusion.

Or it could crash and burn and deliver something immensely unsatisfying. I'm hoping for the former, of course, but expecting the latter.

Cause they just don't make 'em like that anymore, you know?