I don’t watch too much TV, but I’ve been tuning in recently to see how various shows wrap up this season. I even recorded the series finale of Smallville, which I hadn’t watched in years.
Warning: potential spoilers follow for Smallville, House, Castle, Star Trek: TNG, Trek Classic, Buffy, and Doctor Who…
Finales bug me. Not all of them, but the ones that call attention to themselves, that break your suspension of disbelief and remind you, “Oh right, this is the season finale.” The finale of House did that. They escalated the character’s already over-the-top behavior until I rolled my eyes and gave up. In trying to turn it up to eleven, they reached a point where I just didn’t care.
Contrast that to classic Star Trek. Unlike a lot of shows today, every episode was self-contained, and I couldn’t have told you what shows marked the end of a season.
It’s not that big season finales can’t be done well. If you’re working with season-long plotlines, it makes sense to build to an end-of-season climax. Buffy vs. various big bads, for example. In season one, while each episode stood on its own, they also led toward the big confrontation with The Master.
Or look at the third season of the new Doctor Who, which leads episode-by-episode toward … well, the big confrontation with The Master. (That guy gets around.)
Those finales worked for me because the structure felt natural, and because the viewer is more deeply invested in the conflict. But sometimes season-long arcs backfire. Smallville tended to build up to big confrontations they couldn’t pull off. In the series finale, I loved seeing the costume and the seven-years-later ending and hearing the John Williams score, but the big confrontation with Darkseid was the most rushed, boring thing I’ve seen in ages.
I thought the finale of Castle mostly worked. We went back to the long-term plot with Beckett’s mother, and the storyline with Captain Montgomery was a good twist. But then we had to end with Beckett getting shot, a tacked-on cliffhanger to make people tune in next season.
Yawn. If the show isn’t renewed, all you’ve done is piss off lots of people. (Alien Nation and V come to mind as shows that ended on season cliffhangers.) Otherwise, we know perfectly well that Beckett will recover, and you’re just yanking our chains. It’s a tactic to manipulate the audience, one that calls attention to itself, thus snapping me out of the story.
Star Trek: The Next Generation did the cliffhanger thing. The most famous example is probably The Best of Both Worlds, when we ended the season with Captain Picard’s assimilation by the Borg. Yet that worked for me, partly because it didn’t feel forced, and partly because it was just a damn good story.
I get that you want to end the season on a memorable note to make sure people tune in next fall so your ratings don’t fall off. Just don’t be so blatant with the manipulation.
Doctor Who includes tacked-on bits in the season finales, whether it’s a bride materializing for no particular reason or the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS, but I like those. They feel less like I’m being manipulated and more like a way to show the Doctor getting back to “normal,” which for him means bizarre and random things happening. It’s not a hook so much as a denouement.
From a writing perspective, I think it comes down to not letting the audience see behind the curtain. Fiction manipulates the readers/viewers, but when you’re clumsy and obvious with that manipulation, you fail. And a lot of shows get pretty clumsy, especially at the end of the season.
What do you think? What works for you and what kicks you out of the story?