In a 1988 Sight And Sound interview, Patricia Highsmith talks about film adaptations of her novels, from Strangers On A Train (1950) to The American Friend (1977)
Posted April 22, 2010
I have a theory that television shows get a lot of practice in the cliff-hanger, in hooking the viewer to come back next week, but almost zero experience in creating satisfying endings. Structurally, commercially, the need for such a thing just doesn’t compute. A few genre shows in the throes of concluding long-term stories right now are like a ready-made lab to test this theory.
Lost finishes in May, Supernatural finishes its (possibly final) fifth season in May as well, and Dollhouse’s last episode aired in January earlier this year. I’ll talk about these three shows specifically. Two other recent finishes worth mentioning: Battlestar Galactica (infamously bad –
I’m afraid I have to agree with Abigail Nussbaum on this one) and
Avatar: The Last Airbender (best ending of any show evar!).
Dollhouse just completed its run. The show never really picked up any
kind of momentum, since it had almost nothing in the way of:
- a protagonist
- a sustainable premise
- that “hey, you should watch this show” factor
It was actually a show I had given up on, a few times anyway, but
then I burned through Season 2 for the series finale. I never really saw an
episode that I could point to later and say, “That was a Dollhouse
episode.” I admire Whedon and co. for trying but it really felt like the whole enterprise could have been better represented by, say, a chilling short story. Maybe a novel. I’m not saying
that TV should never go the depressing route, but there has to be a
reason to come back every week. Again, I’m agreeing with Nussbaum. The ending went out of its way to provide closure, but there was not much in the way of a show behind it to make me care. That makes Dollhouse the opposite case of most shows; ordinarily, there’s too much accumulated baggage for the ending to fit together properly, and it’s also hard to say goodbye to beloved characters.
Supernatural is in a strange situation right now. I came to the show near
the end of Season 4 since I had heard some buzz that an interesting
large-scale storyline was taking the place of what had earlier been
mainly an episodic monster-of-the-week/urban-legend style show. While the creators of the show have promised to wrap up the “our heroes vs. Lucifer in a genuine apocalypse” story at
the end of Season 5 (the current season), the cast is signed up for a
subsequent season. Outstaying your welcome perhaps? Don’t know what they’re going to follow that one up with!
I must say, though, that the current build-up to the ending is pretty good! That’s always the deceptive thing: the build-up in a show like this can be terribly exciting and tense, but will the payoff be there? In the case of Supernatural, all the pieces are in place, and emotionally and narratively speaking, I’m convinced. Will the brothers Winchester defeat Lucifer himself? It’s not looking good for our heroes so far, so I’m onboard and ready for action. Maybe the final confrontation will be spectacular and satisfying, but fans are just guessing based on what we’ve seen already. And that stuff, lots of monster-of-the-week and/or emotional cliffhangers, may or may not have any predictive power for the level of satisfyingness of the conclusion of a seasons-long storyline.
Lost is the biggie here. Weirdly, I’m not all that excited about the
concluding season. Since I wrote about Lost twice for Strange Horizons
(Seasons 1-4 and
then Season 5), I
seem to have lost my enthusiasm for the show’s modus operandi.
(In one of those coincidences, Mark Pellegrino plays the most pivotal character on both Supernatural and Lost!)
It is true that the show is something interesting: a mainstream show
that is really heavily into serialized weirdness. For example, my local
paper mentions Lost every week in the two or three shows highlighted for
Tuesday night, but is massively sarcastic and dismissive about it. Apparently no one can follow the twists and turns of the show and it sucks rocks, but millions are still watching it.
Lost has always been the poster boy for vast amounts of “mystery” and very little in the way of resolution. That’s kind of jaded me to the show’s methods, as mentioned. I’m still watching, but I’m not sure how much I’m caring. I’m not looking for all of the answers, per se. More that my time hasn’t been wasted. Paradoxically, I like most of the bits and pieces, which add up to random and vivid nonsense. Lost has provided me with many hours of entertaining TV, which fulfills a pretty basic promise to the viewers. The implicit promise to make sense of everything is a tantalizing one, but I’m not sure they can fulfill it.
We’ll know soon enough! Lost only has a few episodes to go before its series finale, while Supernatural is in the same stage (at least with regard to the current storyline). And when it comes down to it, I actually have more faith that Supernatural will have a better ending compared to Lost. There’s an interesting parallel with Battlestar Galactica and Avatar: The Last Airbender, the two shows I mentioned earlier. BSG was the show based on mysteries and plans, revealed to be a giant sham at its conclusion, where Avatar built towards a giant confrontation, and pulled it off. Maybe the comparison will not hold – indeed, I hope it doesn’t.
This month we’re mixing it up at the Gutter
with each editor writing
about something outside their usual domain. This week James Schellenberg
writes about television. He can normally be found here.