Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Writing that very tricky series finale

DOWNTON ABBEY ended recently.  THE GOOD WIFE bids a final adieu this Sunday (I'm already crying).   One of the toughest assignments a writer will ever have is crafting a series finale. 

They're much harder to write because the expectations are so much higher.

Some producers make it even harder on themselves by sprinkling in all these mysterious story turns with the promise they'll all be explained at the end.  When they're not (because there are just too damn many of them) their fans are let down.  Such was LOST and X-FILES (although X-FILES keeps coming back... and disappointing more). 

Audiences want to feel confident that their beloved characters get a nice sendoff.  They've almost become friends of the family.

Plus, in sitcoms, the convention is there never really is an ending.  Whatever the conclusion of a normal episode, there is the understanding that the saga will continue next week. Now, all of a sudden, it all comes to an end. How do you wrap that up to the fans’ satisfaction, your satisfaction as the creator, and have the ending not be so definitive that it hurts the syndication run. Remember, if your show is that successful, it should be around for years in reruns.

You'll have a larger audience that night so you need to be at your absolute best.  Best jokes, cleverest story turns.  You're really in the limelight. 

There is also an added pressure that sometimes now occurs. The networks try to get as much mileage from your finale as they can (i.e. sell as many spots for high fees) and often they will now ask for supersize episodes. And in a few cases (e.g. CHEERS, FRASIER, MASH, SEINFELD) that can mean as long as two-hours or even more. Your show has a rhythm for 30 minutes and now you have to expand it times four. The weight of that generally pulls down the show. That’s how I felt, quite honestly, about the last MASH. It was waaaaaay too long. Extra length didn’t help the SEINFELD swan song either.

My favorite final episodes were THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART,and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. All three were standard half hours.


Now if you ask me my favorite last show EVER, it would be a radio show and it absolutely broke every rule imaginable. Lohman & Barkley were a morning team on KFWB, Los Angeles in the ‘60s. They were extremely funny. Lohman did a great number of voices and their show was populated with many hilarious recurring characters. KFWB changed formats to all-news and everyone was let go. On Lohman & Barkley’s last show they systematically killed each of their characters, offing them in the most gruesome ways. Now THAT’S a final show. (Of course six months later they resurfaced on KFI and all their characters magically returned to life.  Not easy to do once you've been -- for example -- buried alive. )

53 comments:

Craig Gustafson said...

This is a final episode that I remember over 40 years later.

Ad man Dick Orkin hosted Saturday night movies on Channel 7 in Chicago in the early 1970s - "Ramonde LaRue's Saturday Night Movie Palace." Orkin played LaRue, a cheesy movie impressario. He was a satire of cheesy hosts, in a deliberately irritating Andy Kaufman fashion, but few got the joke and just found him irritating, so he was soon cancelled. It didn't help that in the pre-"Saturday Night Live" days, nobody was staying home to watch TV at 10:30 on a Saturday night.

For his last show, LaRue began introducing "Cheaper by the Dozen" when moving men entered, informed him that this was his last show and began dismantling the prop-heavy set. With each commercial break, there were fewer props and furniture, until the closing found Orkin standing forlornly in a dark, completely bare television studio. He sniffled about how nobody wanted real "entertrainment" anymore and trudged sadly off through several spotlights, a la Jimmy Durante.

Rock Golf said...

Minor correction: The last episode of Newhart wasn't quite regular-sized. They were given a whole extra 6 minutes. Unheard of at the time.

It was time well-spent.

Stephen Marks said...

So Ken mentions MTM show series finale, is that where having a finale started? Before that shows like Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle, Beaver, Dick Van Dyke, Brady, Gilligan, Dragnet, Star Trek, Adam-12, just ended, right? You couldn't tell the last show from the first, just another regular episode. The worst finale might be Dallas with that whole Joel Grey what if JR had never been born stuff, horrible. Classic case of overthinking it.

Mike Botula said...

The final weeks of the old KFWB, Channel 98 were the greatest period in LA radio history, and I was one of the guys who replaced them when KFWB went all news in 1968. I still feel guilty!

Ryan said...

Great piece. Just wondering what you thought of The Soprano's finale? Arguably one of the finest shows ever produced.

Johnny Walker said...

There was an episode of Comedy Bang Bang where one of the guests was confronted about his character (while in character) and then systematically killed off all his characters, one by one. It was so unexpected and utterly brilliant.

VP81955 said...

Which reminds me...I saw an Emmy consideration billboard at Fairfax and Beverly referring to "The Good Wife" as "one of the best shows ever." If I were a sitcom writer, I'd be POed my genre never gets that sort of a push. Apparently not important enough, I guess.

Stoney said...

Allright Ken; let's say your phone rings. You open it and see that it's James Brooks calling. "Hi Jim" "Hi Ken; we've decided it's time to end THE SIMPSONS and we need you to write a finale for us." Well?

blinky said...

Without a doubt the worst last episode ever, by a million miles, was Dexter. Superman serial killer becomes a lumberjack. Seriously... a lumberjack.

Good ending: Justified and The Wire.

Diogo Casquilho said...

I don't know if this is appropriate here, but I was curious if you remember any other series where a rift between actors caused said rift to be noticeable in the development of the show. Now, actors not getting along is nothing new, but usually people are professional enough either to not let it be apparent on screen, or usually the lower actor on the casting call quits or is fired. Good Wife is the first instance I can remember where it directly affected ongoing storylines, maintaining a very thin semblance of the friendship the characters had together, through phone conversations only for over 2 years. Very odd. Beyond even the mere gossip of what went on, the fact that people sustained it for so long.

Carol said...

Friday question: What is your opinion about the shake up on Castle, with the letting go of Stana? And if you know anyone in that writing room can you please ask them to give 'Caskett' a happy ending?

Max Clarke said...

The way Lohman & Barkley ended their show is similar to an episode of Frasier, when he and Niles were in a radio show drama about murder at an inn. Everything went wrong with the Frasier-directed live show, "Nightmare Inn," so they had to kill off the characters. Niles killed five or six of them.


Tudor Queen said...

I love reading about the process involved in a series finale, so thank you for that (and I agree wholeheartedly with your selection of the three best comedy finales).

I am, however, one of that minority that absolutely loved the "Lost" finale. All right, it didn't answer every question (though the last few episodes answered an awful lot of them), but it did, IMVHO, provide satisfying resolutions to most of the character arcs, and then brought it all together with a resonance and emotional weight that, to me, was far more satisfying. It's no coincidence that the last half of the last season was when I finally started to like the character of Jack Shepherd.

Tammy said...

When I watched the series finale of Justified a while ago, I realized it's been ages since I've seen a series finale - I usually quit after a few seasons, when quality starts to decline. (By the way, Ken, you mentioned you've quit the Americans, but you should reconsider - they're having a really strong season.)

I liked that Larry David got a chance to give Seinfeld a better send-off with the reunion arc on Curb. Hats off to him (and the actors, who slipped right back into their roles), it really felt like a regular episode.

CarolMR said...

I don't know if it's true, but I have read that Bob Newhart's wife thought of the idea of "Newhart" being a dream and having his first TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette, appear in the finale.

cd1515 said...

the Larry Sanders finale, like almost all its episodes, was a classic.

Todd Everett said...

How do you wrap that up to the fans’ satisfaction, your satisfaction as the creator, and have the ending not be so definitive that it hurts the syndication run.

Like, for instance, don't kill off one of the sitcom's title characters?

Anonymous said...

Granted, not a sitcom, but the Six Feet Under finale was remarkable. Was the only episode of that show that I ever watched and it was superb.

Rich Shealer said...

@blinky - The Wire finale was extremely heartfelt. Thinking of it now pulls at the heartstrings because you actually cared about some of the characters.

Quantum Leap's last episode "Mirror Image" was modified as they didn't know they weren't getting renewed when it was shot. It was setting up for some drastic changes in the coming season. The final two minutes brought me to tears the first time and later as I ate lunch in a local bar when it was shown as an afternoon rerun. Not to give too much away, it involved changing the life of one of the recurring characters.

It is generally considered terrible, but I liked it, For some reason Netflix does not have this particular episode.

Rich Shealer said...

As Anonymous said Six Feet under played it smart and was satisfactory. I also liked the Breaking Bad finale. Even the title "Felina" was great.

Craig Ferguson ended his talk show with Bob Newhart in attendance as Secretariat and called back to the classic ending of Newhart the series.

Daniel AH said...

In Drama, The Shield, for my money, had the best finale ever. Dexter and Breaking Bad were bad and disappointing, respectively

Jahn Ghalt said...

Lohman & Barkley - look at those mugs!

Good Thing they were Radio Jocks!

Jahn Ghalt said...

Perhaps for many of the reasons Ken stated, the brilliant Matthew Weiner tied up loose ends on Mad Men over the last three or four episodes. He was always very sure-handed with the "boring" slow rollout.

SharoneRosen said...

I think one of the most controversial was St Elsewhere! The whole thing was in the mind of the severely autistic son. It was a shocker, for sure, and really pissed off a lot of people. I thought it was kind of brilliant.

All time haves, though, have to me MTM, Newhart and, in spite of the fact that it went on for days, MASH. The view of the ground after final lift off still makes me misty.

tb said...

The final 'King of the Hill' was a beautiful case of less is more. Just a regular episode, but at the end, the camera lingers and slowly rises on the backyard BBQ and you realize this is it, all the characters are there, you're getting your last look at Arlen, Texas.

Gary said...

Some TV series of the past did do finale episodes, but they were much more subtle and weren't promoted by the networks as anything special.

In the last episode of Leave it to Beaver, Ward and June are looking through an old photo album of the boys, which leads nicely into various clips from early episodes. It ends with the parents remarking on how grown up the boys are now, then a quick cut to the boys acting very childish playing with a windup toy. A very satisfying wrap-up.

The last episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show has Rob finally finishing the book about his life. Laura begins reading it and again this leads to flashbacks of past scenes. At the end we learn that Alan Brady will buy Rob's book and base a new TV series on it. Of course this was how the DVD Show actually began, as Carl Reiner based it on his own life.

And for the last episode of The Odd Couple, Felix finally convinces Gloria to take him back. At that point the writers weren't sure if the show was being renewed or not. If it had been, then Gloria would have to throw Felix out again. (We knew that was going to happen anyway, right?)

Earl Boebert said...

The TV movie that was the de facto finale of "Homicide: Life on the Streets" was (IMHO) spookily brilliant.

Kosmo13 said...

>>Before that shows like Andy Griffith, Gomer Pyle, Beaver, Dick Van Dyke, Brady, Gilligan, Dragnet, Star Trek, Adam-12, just ended, >>

The Dick Van Dyke Show did have a final episode that wrapped up one ongoing storyline: Alan Brady buys the rights to Rob Petrie's autobiography and decides to turn it into a TV series. The "Hank" sitcom in the 60's also had a finale episode.

I liked it better when series weren't obligated to do a finale show episode and I preferred it when TV series just ended with an ordinary episode.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Another vote for LARRY SANDERS. And THE WIRE. And BREAKING BAD.

Johnny Walker said...

A lot of great endings being listed, but nobody has mentioned BLACKADDER yet.

gottacook said...

Regarding the Homicide finale: I'm glad the folks behind the series had the chance to do it - it was shot in fall '99, some 6 months after the end of the series proper, and aired in Feb 2000, I think. But once it was decided that each cast member who'd ever been listed in the opening credits during 1993-99 had to be given something to do, that imposed a kind of constraint that might have been better avoided - although the last scene (featuring the several deceased characters) was a good way to end.

LouOCNY said...

Adam-12 had a finale - it aired on COZI today!

Andrew said...

I think the last 3 episodes of Breaking Bad should be treated as a finale. The actual, final episode was excellent, but taken as a whole those 3 episodes are mind-blowing.

My other favorite finale was the original Law and Order, when all of the remaining characters were blown up in a courthouse explosion.

Concerning comedy finales:
1) Seinfeld was awful, largely because the expectations were so high. I'm not sure any show could have lived up to the hype. They should have ended with the previous clip show, which was surprisingly moving ("I Hope You Had the Time of Your Life").
2) Newhart was brilliant, but the show itself had seemed kind of stagnant for awhile. So it was a marvelous capstone to a good but not great show.
3) Cheers is complete perfection. It just seemed right in every way. Sam's last line, then adjusting the Geronimo picture in memory of Coach, then walking into the back hallway - it couldn't have been better.
4) Having said all that, Frasier was actually the finale that caused me to laugh the most. The moment when Niles comes out of the vet's office feeding milk to a monkey, and they all think it's his son, caused me to convulse.
5) Mash was great too, but it doesn't really count as a comedy finale. I cried while watching it as a teenager. The "Goodbye" written in stones was a beautiful and poignant farewell.
6) While I realize it has now become the show that shall not be named... the fact is that The Cosby Show had an effective finale. Just a normal show, and then Cliff and Clara dance off the stage. Too bad it will never have the same impact again.

Loosehead said...

+1 for the Blackadder series 4 finale. Very powerful and moving, and a fitting ending for the characters.

Anonymous said...

An obscure game show in the 70s -- Rhyme and Reason -- saw its set slowly destroyed by the celebrity panel as the final show progressed.

sam said...

Hi Ken, I grew up in Maine, so I never heard Lohman & Barkley on the radio. But, the name rings a bell. Could they have hosted a game show or something on a network back then? Thanks for doing the blog.

sam said...

Hi Ken, I grew up in Maine, so I never heard Lohman & Barkley on the radio. But the names ring a bell. Could they have hosted a network game show or something similar back then? Thanks for doing the blog.

BA said...

DEAD LIKE ME had a poignant finale as if the writers realized the show was going to be cancelled. What happened to Ellen Muth by the way?

Andy Rose said...

When Gary Burbank decided to move on from WAKY in Louisville, the station decided to keep it quiet until the final program. It ended with a War of the Worlds-style sketch in which Gary mentions between songs that some listener has been calling and harassing him. At the end of the hour, you hear the "listener" arrive and shoot Gary live on the air. As he is supposedly dying, Gary bequeaths his show to the DJ who is replacing him.

Here's a scoped aircheck. The relevant part starts 1:30 in.

http://www.79waky.com/audio/WAKYGaryBurbankLastHour.mp3

Duck, Keith Charles, duck! said...

the Six Feet Under finale was remarkable. Was the only episode of that show that I ever watched and it was superb.


That seems insane to me. "I caught the last five minutes of Citizen Kane on TBS last night, and now I get what all the fuss is about."

Tudor Queen said...

Me again. As long as drama's been brought into the discussion, my favorite dramatic season finales are

"Six Feet Under" - Amazing, perfect for the series and deeply emotionally satisfying. It also has a couple of unexpected moments of dark comedy (Billy talking Brenda to death)

"Boardwalk Empire" - Charlie Luciano, leading the New Mafia, forms the Commission while Nucky Thompson, the oldtime political glad hander, sees his tragic past, the one thing for which he could never fully atone, rise up to bring him down just as he's about to break free.

"The Wire" - Jimmy McNulty was my favorite character, so giving him the last spoken line ("Let's go home") and a not entirely unhappy ending (he and Beadie seem to reconcile) was pretty satisfying. The final montage shows, once again, that although some stories have hopeful or happy endings (Bubbles being invited up from the basement to eat with his sister's family, Rhonda becoming a judge) life in Baltimore is probably not going to get much better.

"Breaking Bad" - Walt makes some amends, frees his remaining family as well as he can, metes out some heavy duty justice, saves Jesse's life (not for the first time) and dies with the true love of his life. A merciless, bone-honest ending.

The miniseries "Shogun" and "Lonesome Dove" satisfy the viewer while honoring the wonderful novels from which they were adapted.

Endings with which I have a Love/Hate Relationship

"St. Elsewhere" - Most of it was excellent - the Craig's reconciliation, Westphall's return, Griffin's claim that his AIDS was cured through a miracle. Morrison's return to Seattle to join his family rather than a dreary affair with Hard Luck Novino, and Auschlander's inevitable death (Luther's cry of "Somebody help Dr. Auschlander" still reverberates in my mind). But I really hated the 'It's all an elaborate fantasy in an autistic child's mind" tag scene. Hated it.

"Quantum Leap" - Beautifully acted by everyone, and Sam's act of true friendship for Al is never going to fail to move me. But the very end was so devastating that I'll probably never be able to watch the episode again. (BTW, I have a theory as to why, despite Bartender Al's reassurance that he could stop leaping any time, he never was able to go home).



Klee said...

I hated the last one of ELR, too predictable and a few laughs. Best finales, MTM, Newhart, Cheers. Seinfeld was another super disappointing one, few laughs and felt forced like Raymond's finale.

Rashad Khan said...

Here is my issue with the final episode of "Mary Tyler Moore": How does a woman who's "gonna make it after all" wind up getting fired from her job? How is that making it after all? How is that making it AT all?

Werner Hamhogg said...

Other shows with excellent finales that I don't think I saw mentioned: "The Colbert Report"; "Friday Night Lights"; and "The Office" (UK version).

Thomas Mossman said...

The Andy Griffith Show had an ending (which also was setting up Mayberry RFD), as did Adam-12, which put a button on Jim Reed, from rookie probationary officer to decorated veteran. Dragnet and Star Trek had regular episodes for finales, definitely.

JED said...

Does anyone remember the final episode of the old TV series Bus Stop? That was 1962 so I saw it when I was 11 years old and have never seen it again. I remember it being like an episode of The Twilight Zone as opposed to the earlier shows in the series which were just episodes about people's lives that passed through the bus station. I remember being scared and not able to sleep after seeing it.

Andrew said...

I never realized until now that Cheers and Breaking Bad have very similar finales.

Both end with the main character alone, having said goodbye to his friends.

Sam has freed Diane, and Walt has freed Jesse.

In both shows, the main character stays with his true love. Sam caresses the bar, and Walt caresses the meth lab.

Both characters die at the end (although for Sam it's off-screen).

Weird.

rap said...

Phil Hendrie killed off all his characters when he left WIOD in Miami to go to KFI in Los Angeles ... where they were resurrected.

The TV Guy said...

I thought the final episode of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was superb, and among the all time best sitcom finales. Creator Phil Rosenthal was adamant to CBS that he would not expand it beyond 30 mins, and that standard episode still captured all of the jokes and themes that led to the show's title and popularity. Also admirably, it exploit the popularity to throw in any major life events that would have been very easy/tempting to do (i.e. finally make Amy and Robert pregnant). Absolute kudos to the writers of RAYMOND for that finish.

Mark P. said...

Frasier's finale did a good job at tying up loose ends without seeming too rushed.

But finales try to cram way too much in. After stretching a weekend's worth of events into most of a season, HIMYM jumped to warp as they tried to fit years of significant events into the finale. But I admired the fact the producers planned how the series would end back in season two and stuck to it.

Maybe I'm a nitpicking geek, but the finales of Fringe and Eureka were unsatisfying because they tied up only the loose ends created during their final seasons. Those seasons took place in alternate realities, and the finales didn't address what happened to the original characters we spent most of the series with.

D. McEwan said...

How vividly I remember Lohman & Barkley killing off their characters that day. It was a Saturday morning, and I had to take my SAT exam that morning. The show ended at 9:55, my exam was at 10 AM, so I sat in the car in the parking lot listening until the last moment, then slammed it off, jumped out of the car and sprinted for the test room.

I remember Leonard Leonard, their obese food critic, going on a hunger strike to protest KFWB going all news, and dying of starvation after 45 minutes. It was an incredible show. Some years later, at KFI, I got to do some writing for Lohman & Barkley. I miss those guys. They were damned funny.

mike said...

I always thought it was a shame that All In the Family didn't get a proper finale. They should have ended with the episode in which Mike & Gloria leave for California: they're gone, Edith is in the kitchen, and Archie is overwhelmed and starts to sob; Edith sees/hears him and doesn't want to embarrass him so she makes a production out of bringing him a beer, and he says, 'All right, Edith, leave it there.' Fade out.
That would have been perfect but it kept running for a while and eventually morphed into Archie Bunker's Place.

Unknown said...

Anyone reading this blog work for METV or TVLand? I think it would be a great couple of weeks of "Firsts and Lasts" Have an hour each day where they show the first episode of a series, followed by the last. See how people changed, kids grew, color added.
I think it would be great.