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September opens television’s season of new beginnings, with every shiny billboard and promo spot promising fresh hope. Fall, though, also brings cool winds, turning leaves and thoughts of mortality—and in TV terms, nothing says mortality quite like a show finale.
Long celebrated by viewers and the industry alike, the ritual of the high-profile series send-off is reaching a new level of intensity as original scripted fare proliferates and tribes of obsessive fans take the watercooler online. NBC kicked off the farewell tour in January and again in May as 30 Rock and The Office signed off after seven and nine seasons, respectively. A&E’s Intervention exited in July after 13 seasons; and USA’s Burn Notice bowed out after seven seasons on Sept. 12.
The roster of the departed adds Dexter, capping its eight-season run on Sept. 22; Breaking Bad, whose fifth and final season wraps on Sept. 29; and Eastbound and Down, which is done this fall after season four. On tap for 2014 are already bruited-about finales for Mad Men (a split-run that will see the final episodes held over until spring 2015); How I Met Your Mother and True Blood. FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia flirted with ending it all, but in August, series creators declared that notion a “misquote,” adding that there was no end in the immediate offing.
Ratings surges for Breaking Bad and Dexter show the short-term upside for networks, but insiders who have been through it say the task of successfully executing a finale is daunting. Clearly, no current show can approach the spectacle of the final M*A*S*H, which reigned for 27 years as the most-watched program in history with an estimated 125 million viewers, or subsequent good-byes to Seinfeld, Cheers, Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond. Desperate Housewives, which concluded after its eighth season in May 2012, typifies the trend. Its first-season finale drew a massive audience of more than 30 million viewers; eight years later, the series finale was seen by 11.1 million. (ABC’s other mid-2000s mainstay, Lost, trended similarly.)
Lots at Stake in Last Stand
Along with the new normal of audience fragmentation, there is more long-term value at stake for shows in their home stretches. They are trying to stick their landings in a raucous environment of re-cappers, bloggers and social media saturation, with perception constantly shifting. Disruptions to long-established syndication models means that final seasons, once considered mere victory laps for shows whose futures were largely secure, can affect the show’s reputation in fast-evolving on-demand aftermarkets.
“When I started in this business and broadcast was still dominant, shows just ended. The rule was that you never want to tie loose ends up, because your syndication deal was set,” says Gary Levine, executive VP of original programming at Showtime. “The Sam and Diane, will-they-or-won’t-they question, you never resolve that because you want that question to survive past the point of originals.” In the current environment, he continues, “There is such a unique bond that forms between the audience and the show and when it’s ending, the demands are frightening. The fans feel an ownership. A book is finite and a movie is 90 minutes— but a TV show is like a relationship and you’re determining how it’s supposed to end. It’s really hard to meet those expectations because they’re so varied.”
The auteur-driven past decade or so, as singular visions of flawed protagonists have elbowed more traditional fare out of the spotlight, has put new pressure on show endings. An iconoclastic series can’t settle for a stock conclusion—though that makes for a lot of sleepless nights.
“The chickens are coming home to roost, and there are definitely increased expectations around the endings of shows,” says Kevin Beggs, chairman of Lionsgate’s TV group, which has backed the likes of Weeds, Mad Men, Nashville and Orange Is the New Black. “It’s like a marriage coming to an end, or a long experience like high school or college. If you have a bad graduation party, or it rains on graduation day, it really can put a damper on things. The anticipation is a huge burden.”
Adds a veteran of the executive and talent agency ranks: “When a show goes off the air, fans are going to be very emotional about it. They are almost conditioned to be upset by the last episode, because it means something they are really attached to is going away.”
No conversation on the topic of finales can be complete without a nod to HBO’s The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. The latter gets a lot of votes as a top finale from a purely creative standpoint, but the former was a bona fide cultural moment. The range of reactions was even more striking than its audience of 11.9 million viewers. The freeze-frame of Tony Soprano, the then-novel Journey soundtrack interrupted mid-note, glancing up at…who? His daughter Meadow? His maker? Just some guy in a Member’s Only jacket? With that followed by 10 long seconds of black screen, it divided the viewers into camps pro, con and confounded. Even so, the debate seemed only to cement the show’s legacy—and back-end fortunes.
The Beginning of the End
Deciding when to call it quits is a uniquely delicate process. Numbers tend to dictate the decision— not only ratings and ancillary revenue, but rising costs for talent and production, though creative reasons do occasionally prevail.
As befits the current age of the auteur series, there is usually a carefully honed characterization of the harmonious moment that led to the final curtain. Sopranos creator David Chase had publicly threatened to quit after season four amid a series of contract disputes and bouts of creative exhaustion. Still, Chase has described a remarkably matter-of-fact process in which former HBO chief Chris Albrecht suggested writing toward an ending two years out. Matthew Weiner has told the press since nearly the start of Mad Men that he knows what the final shot of the series will be. With his directing debut recently premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and other potential projects awaiting, he and AMC have painted a picture of a creator at peace in the woodshed.
“The public picture is that Matt and (Breaking Bad creator-EP) Vince Gilligan just think this is enough and the story’s been told. I don’t know that it’s necessarily the whole truth. People are making calculations about what they want to do with their lives, so there are a lot of factors,” says Richard Dubin, an Emmy-nominated writer-producer (Frank’s Place, Roc) who is now a professor at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. “Networks and producers can’t say to the public, ‘We crunched the numbers and we’re going to make eight more and then we’re out of here.’ You need a public narrative.”
Beggs of Lionsgate recalls a touch-and-go process with Weeds creator Jenji Kohan (whose Orange Is the New Black recently premiered on Netflix). “There was a lot of conversation around the basic question, ‘Should we end this thing now?’” Beggs says. “Jenji had mixed feelings about it, as did we as the studio behind the show, but [Showtime Entertainment president] David Nevins and Showtime wanted to go out on a high note. She really rose to the occasion, and we were able to bring it together.”
Levine says with Weeds and Dexter and other series he has launched and wound down at Showtime, he has seen an evolution of thinking across the industry. “The ethos of television generally is, you don’t go out when you’re still growing,” he says. “But part of quality television is that it’s not driven by commerce, it’s driven by creative sparks. You don’t want to go past the sweet spot.”
Broadcast networks, for so many decades the home of meaningful finales, have a different set of considerations from cable when it comes to lining up final episodes of a long-running favorite. CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler calls the distinction “a little bit of an old question,” but she says preparations for the How I Met Your Mother finale offer an indication of a broadcast network’s finale approach.
The 22-episode, September-to-May runway for season nine (twice as long as most cable denouements) and the deep institutional knowledge about the show has made it critical for CBS to have a fully developed plan. Over the summer, key executives from several CBS departments, from production to research to promotion, met with cocreators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas to map out the full season in every way.
(The full-steam-ahead mode marks a shift from the uncertain end of 2012, when casting deal discussions clouded the show’s future.)
Unlike other comedy finales like the absurdist Seinfeld or the romance-laced Cheers or Friends, HIMYM has a whodunit element built into its DNA. Solving the mystery posed by its very title offers CBS abundant opportunities to drive tune-in steadily until the climax, as it already has started doing by introducing the titular mother (played by Cristin Miloti) in the final seconds of season eight. Building up to the big reveal in the coming season figures to give Miloti, a Tony winner for the Broadway musical Once, ample screen time.
“We now have a road map for where it’s going through the final episode, and it was important before the season for all of us to strategize,” Tassler says. “Wherever a show exists [on broadcast or cable], we have a responsibility to bid farewell to that show in a style that is worthy of its performance over the years. It’s a jewel in our crown, and we have a responsibility to see that it sparkles for the duration of the year.”
Finding a Segue
From the earliest days of TV, the industry has avoided any sense of the inevitable. Law & Order simply recast key roles, refreshed the cast with readily available New York-based talent and kept its selfcontained episodic factory pumping along (to say nothing of Twilight Zone-worthy costar switch-ups on the likes of Bewitched and Roseanne). Characters existed in a kind of suspended animation, one that was born equally of super-serving a passive audience of couch potatoes and a business model that rewarded longevity and consistency.
“When there were just three or four networks, it was easier to throw money at something and tarnish their brands a little by jumping the shark,” one prominent agent says. “With these shows, each year they’re on the air is a major decision. After 66 episodes, they don’t want to keep paying the casts more and spend more on marketing. Bubble shows like Friday Night Lights or The Killing will find other platforms.”
One tried-and-true tactic since The Danny Thomas Show begat The Andy Griffith Show has been the spinoff. AMC just announced a deal with Sony for a prequel spinoff of Breaking Bad that could allow certain Bad characters to find a new life—whether they end up dying or not. Most details are still under wraps, but the long-rumored news was made official as the original show neared the finish line, prompting another round of headlines to help boost ratings.
Sometimes, shows can fade out and still return, as The Killing did (though AMC recently re-canceled it). And there are occasionally movie-worthy properties. Sex and the City was, along with The Sopranos, the show that defined HBO in the 1990s and early 2000s. Sex and the City’s finale drew 10.6 million viewers, but two feature films that followed grossed more than $700 million combined for HBO parent Warner Bros. HBO’s Entourage is ticketed for similar big-screen treatment, though it’s now delayed due to cast salary negotiations. With increasing crossover between the film and TV worlds, other series are also likely to make the leap.
When One Thing Leads to Another
For many networks, a well-handled exit can give a needed boost to a developing show. Case in point is USA Network’s Burn Notice, which is handing the baton to Graceland, which was recently brought back for a second season and has benefited from the former’s steady drawing power.
“We’ve been very explicit about saying, ‘If you like Burn Notice, watch Graceland,’” says Chris McCumber, president of USA Network. “To launch and grow a new show as you end another is one of the crucial parts of our business. We would have paired them both anyway. In this case, we have a wonderful opportunity. One show sunsets and another one is born.”
No matter the decision-making that leads to the end, the finality of a show reaching its fade-out is often an occasion for emotional extremes, both inside and outside the business.
“There’s something to be said about blueprints. And there’s something to be said about the football analogy of calling an audible,” Beggs says. In the case of Mad Men, “Matt has a vision and a sense of where he is going. Our role is just to let the magic flow. There is a reason why I am on this side of the desk and he’s on that side.”
In truth, though, winding things down is inescapably a torment, as the best story ideas get taken in the initial season and the prospect of either becoming redundant or fatally esoteric looms ever larger. Breaking Bad creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan has owned up to the difficulty of the experience from the beginning.
“I was really nervous about coming up to the end of this thing for a year straight. Hell, for six years straight,” Gilligan said at the show’s final TCA panel in late July. “Everything has to come to an end….So with that in mind, you know, how do you satisfy everybody?”
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