In Which Rick Castle Writes about Clark Kent Flying the TARDIS over a Shark
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?
May 24, 2011 @ 9:53 am
I haven’t seem many series lately, but with Buffy I noticed that those involving one Big Bad were more interesting to me than mass battles. More focused tension, as opposed to lots of chaos and different threads.
May 24, 2011 @ 10:03 am
Jim, I completely agree with you on Castle. That last episode was a fantastic season finale… up until the point where they shot Beckett. I mean, really? That whole episode was memorable enough to make me tune in next season. I know you’re not going to kill off Beckett or Castle EVER because the show RIDES on them being alive. It wouldn’t work without either of them or even just one of them.
Beckett should have said her heartfelt goodbyes and then they should have rolled credits. DONE.
The reason it worked better with Picard becoming a Borg, I believe, is because the show did not hinge on Picard being a part of it. He was a main character, of course, but its not like the story was all about him. There was a level of believability that they just might have written him out of the show. There was that chance and it put you on edge.
May 24, 2011 @ 10:26 am
I liked Castle’s season finale, though if you watch procedurals, you knew Montgomery was the third cop 10 minutes into the episode. How he went out was satisfying (though you have to wonder, if Beckett had gone and hid in the shadows, she could have saved his life since he killed almost everyone there with his first volley).
What gets me is the Bewitched rule. Montgomery was a perfect character for their captain. Now they’re going to replace him with a not-Montgomery. Someone that probably doesn’t like Castle and tries to keep him away so they can have another season opener of “can they be together?” which didn’t even work well in the second season much less the fourth.
Shooting Beckett when the show has already been picked up for another season is a not-cliffhanger. If the series had been ending, I think that would have been the second most awesomest way to go out (the first being Castle being shot as he pushes her out of the way, which I would have done in this instance either way). As it is, we know she’ll be back next season. Yet we are not the average TV viewer, as can be shown in the fourth season opener of NCIS that had HUGE numbers because people wanted to see if Mark Harmon’s character was coming back. And given that Mark Harmon is the mass that gives that show its gravity, there was no way he wasn’t coming back. But they tuned in regardless.
This season has had a few slip-ups where Castle is a better cop than the actual cops. His “think outside the box” attitude always gave him a pass to come up with the left field idea that proves to be true, but there were certain instances where something the police should have done, Castle did first and that rubbed me wrong. Given that he’s a civilian playing in a dangerous world, I think him getting shot would have been a better conclusion. Such an outcome would certainly be an eventuality coming to fruition.
Jim C. Hines
May 24, 2011 @ 10:28 am
I think it’s easier to follow and connect with the individual characters as opposed to the huge battle (such as the season seven finale)…
Jim C. Hines
May 24, 2011 @ 10:30 am
I’m similarly apprehensive about the replacement captain. The characters are probably Castle’s strongest point, so I’m willing to wait and see what happens, but still…
And like you, I’ve gotten a bit tired of Castle so often being a better cop than the real cops.
May 24, 2011 @ 10:46 am
The schtick worked well at the beginning. Unrestrained by the requirements of law or the burden of facts, Castle could throw out what worked best as a literary device. There was humor in the fact that sometimes he was right. But sometimes he was wrong, and that element seems to be fading away.
I don’t mind he tries more seriously. I think it’s growth for his character. He cares for Beckett and a way he can express that without expressing that is being a better cop, because then they are partners on the job if not partners in their real life. I think it’s subtle and awesome. But there are key moments during this last season (the first that comes to mind is disarming a dirty bomb) where I think a civilian would have been panic-stricken and a trained professionally would have acted, yet the reverse ended up being true. And that bugged me.
So far, they have not treated any of the detectives as incompetent and that’s been really important to me. I love Captain Mal, but if a writer had come on and taught these professionals how to do their jobs, I wouldn’t have watched the show for three episodes much less three seasons.
May 24, 2011 @ 11:02 am
You’re only up to S3 of Doctor Who? Oh, it gets better…
The season finales often felt forced for me while Russell Davies was writing them (through S4). It seemed like Davies was more interested in “Ooooh, I bet I can top last time by doing THIS!” than in plot. S5, with Moffat at the helm, is much much tighter writing with the season’s major arc, IMHO. (And the ways the season arc is tied to more than just a single season is well done as well.) I’ll be interested in seeing if you agree.
Also, if you didn’t know, the suddenly showing up bride and Titanic are actually lead-ins for the holiday specials, so they’re not quite as random as they seem.
Jim C. Hines
May 24, 2011 @ 11:06 am
We caught the bride episode, and just watched the Titanic one a few weeks ago. We’ve gotten through some of Season 4. (That was my graduation gift to my wife. Okay, to my wife and also to me…)
May 24, 2011 @ 5:32 pm
I agree with you completely on House. I’ve stopped watching him all together this season, and I don’t even miss it. His character was interesting in the beginning of the series, now he is just frustrating. Anyways, I know you haven’t watched it, but Farscape has the best season finale cliffhangers you could ever ask for. Weird/Crazy stuff happens to John in every episode, but the finales give you the question of weather he will make it out of it or not. Anyone who remembers John, ship-less, in orbit around a flaming planet that he just blew up will agree with me. Now, I’m biased since I LOVE that show, but I really do think it is a fantastic piece of writing and acting that is greatly unappreciated by the world at large. And it is a real shame that it was cancelled (as so many great shows are) before the story could be finished in the way the writers originally intended.
May 24, 2011 @ 7:48 pm
Shows that know their run is up and have time to plan for it work better. Battlestar Galactica worked well. They chose to end it after season 4 (they could of drug it out longer) and wrote the story arc and it worked. Some show outlive their course, should of thrown up the white flag years ago, and have to force an ending.
The thing i hate about cliffhangers is what if the show gets canceled (Sarah Conner Chronicles anyone…). That was a let down and the last series i invested any time watching. Two seasons down the drain and BAM it ends in a cliffhanger. But cliffhangers did work on Star Trek TNG, probably because the rating were high enough it ensured a new season.
Books are also that way. I made it through “Once A Princess”, i think i would have been annoyed if the second book was not out when i finished it. Unlike other books with cliffhangers it just ended (i also had trouble with the POV changing from first person to third person.
Of course some books go on forever…..”Dark Tower”…..King is not on my top list i like to read, but nevertheless what a way to end an epic…….
May 25, 2011 @ 7:31 am
I’m not a huge fan of cliffhangers. The finale of HOUSE REALLY bugged me. I think that in pushing the envelope, things just went too far. I hated the finale of BONES for the most part. I don’t like how the handled things in regard to the relationship between Booth and Brennan.
But they (mostly FOX) keep canceling shows I love (Lie to Me, Human Target). There’s no closure, anymore. You don’t get a resolution. I dislike that, but that’s a totally different point than the one you’re making.
I agree with you about CASTLE. For the most part, it worked. And then they shot Beckett, which ticked me off. Did we really NEED that? No. The finale was already good enough on its own. So, they just did it so Castle would say “I love you” creating tension for next season. I did love the twist with the Captain, though. I’m curious as to how/who they’ll replace him with. That’ll be interesting.
May 27, 2011 @ 9:50 am
What takes me out of the story is the recent explosion of what the industry calls custom integration or custom programming. That’s where they blatantly stop the plot so that a character can call out a Subway Sandwich (Chuck) or discuss the features of their new Toyata Prius (Bones). That drives me batty!!! Of course that may be because my job is to do the same thing for several cable networks and we work really hard not to be so in your face. You can get the same or better value for the advertiser just by showing the logo or the character using the product without calling it out by name or shoehorning it into a plot. For a prime example check Youtube for Cheerios + Soap Opera.
May 28, 2011 @ 2:00 pm
I was not happy with the Castle finale at all. I don’t care about her getting shot at the very end — they’re always shooting or otherwise endangering their main characters and it is part of the continuing storyline against their Big Bad. It was the stuff with Montgomery that was annoying. It’s the old, let’s take one of our really good regular characters and completely change him suddenly and kill or get rid of him to show that no one is safe crap they do now. Bones did it with the nerdy Zach and I almost stopped watching the show. And here we had a strong, African-American character in Castle and now he’s gone for no good reason except that they thought it would boost ratings further. The episode was very well acted, great lines, and actual progress on the stupid will they won’t they romance line, but at the end of it, much as I love Nathan Fillion, I’d pretty much decided to stop watching the show. I may change my mind — I did with Bones, who then for this year’s ending, killed off another terrific side character, sigh — but I’ve got a lot of shows, so I may just wish Fillion well. I’m not too happy with Supernatural at the moment either for the same reason, although their character transition was at least well founded — but annoying. And after yet more main character carnage on Vampire Diaries, my daughter has decided to stop watching that one too because it’s no fun. It’s not that tragedies are bad things in shows. It’s not that you can’t kill off characters, even major ones, especially when the characters have violent lives like The Wire, etc. But flip a switch character changes that boot characters off a show are just stunts and for me, boring storytelling that loses my investment.
May 29, 2011 @ 12:28 am
The cliffhanger for shows…. Hate it most times. Why? cause even tho you are told the series is picked up for another season it all hinges on ratings. Then you are left to wonder if it will get canceled mid-season if the numbers go down. Perfect example of a show being canceled after the cliffhanger ending is Carnivale on HBO. 2 seasons in, and then nothing! Speaking of Castle and Nathan Fillion, Firefly was canceled early too. Now on to theories for the Castle ending and new season, hubby and I think Beckett may fake her death and go underground so she can search for the as-yet-unknown kingpin that is ordering the killings. Farfetched? Maybe so but then so is the idea that a writer would be following a NYC detective around solving murders…. All that being said, I love watching Castle because all the characters and actors are enjoyable. Now just get the love connection going already!
May 30, 2011 @ 10:15 pm
I’ve been a fan of Castle from the beginning, but I really hated the season finale. It felt sloppy and thrown together. Especially the ending. Yes Kate getting shot was a dumb, non-cliffhanger, but the scene in the hanger with Montgomery was just dumb. First of all, I didn’t buy Castle carrying Kate out of the hanger against her will in the first place. The show has shown she can take care of herself in a fight, but Castle can just pick her up and go? Then they just huddle against the car until everything is wrapped up? The worst part was when they heard that final shot and both go running back in like they know it’s all over. How did they know Montgomery wasn’t dead and all of the killers were waiting in there? Ugh. And in the beginning of the series, they at least tried to keep the illusion that Castle wasn’t a cop, now he roams freely through every crime scene, sits in on every interrogation, and is even one of the first through the door on important (and dangerous) raids. Come on!
Jim C. Hines
May 31, 2011 @ 7:55 am
The Castle-is-a-better-cop-than-the-cops thing has been bugging me too, along with the more and more blatant violations of what I’m assuming would be police procedure…