Friday, 16 April 2010

The Art of the Season Finale

With the endorphins still flowing from Mad Men’s fantastic and unexpectedly upbeat series three finale, I've got to thinking: just what makes a great season closer?

The concept of a grand finale at the end of each series was introduced largely via American television as a last-ditch-pitch to the networks to pick up their show for another year, and by now it’s an institution. We tune into the last episode of a series expecting it to top everything that has gone before, hoping to be left OMGing in shock or buying out Tesco’s stock of Kleenex.

But, essentially, season finales can be broken down into seven camps:

The Triumphant Hurrah
This is what Mad Men pulled off so impressively. It’s the moment when, no matter what else has gone on in the series or how miserable everyone’s lives are, everything falls into place. The moment of victory, where everyone gets what they deserve, even if only for a little while. The classic feel-good ending.
Examples: Queer As Folk, Only Fools and Horses’ “This time next year we’ll be billionaires!” sunset ending (and I’m sure I’m not alone in choosing to remember that as the last ever episode…)

The Cliffhanger
The beloved ending of choice for most American shows. Twin Peaks set the standard way back when its series one finale left no fewer than five characters in mortal peril.
Examples: Battlestar Galactica (especially the glorious season one shocker), Desperate Housewives, in which you can actually place bets on which housewife will end up in danger, and of course Lost, which is turning the ridiculous cliffhanger into something of an art form.

The Weepy
The one that leaves you inconsolable for at least ten minutes after the credits roll, and yet strangely satisfied. Six Feet Under managed the impressive feat of making the viewer weep openly for the last three hours of season five.
Examples: Grey’s Anatomy loves a good weepy.

The Surreal
This one is usually a bit of a divider, with message boards being split right down the middle between fans who loved it and fans who think it’s the worst. Ending. Ever. So: where did you stand on Sam Tyler leaping from the roof at the end of Life on Mars?
Examples: The Sopranos, Skins (they’re getting quite adept and not ending where you expect them to).

The Show Must Go On
This is where things end on a (usually upbeat) Life Goes On ending. Doctor Who is of course the king of this ending. Lose one guy, get another. And the fans, fickle as we are, move on with the show.
Examples: So-called ‘precinct’ shows – ones set in hospitals, police stations, etc – necessarily end on this note. A copper might be killed on duty, but the police force carries on as normal. Of course, The Wire puts its own spin on this…

The Happily Ever After
Most commonly seen in period dramas, as the hero and heroine ride off in a carriage to start their married life, sharing a chaste kiss. This is also where you can expect a romantic comedy to wind up.
Examples: Any Jane Austen adaptation ever committed to the small screen, which, yes, includes the underrated Lost in Austen.

The Sitcom Finale
This is a beast all of its own, which somehow has to tick all of the above boxes without actually changing anything. All the characters need to wind up exactly where they started. The Simpsons has been managing it for 20 years.
Examples: Friends, Gavin and Stacey, Peep Show.

Of course, some manage to subvert your expectations. Mad Men delivered a light-hearted caper when you were expecting a domestic drama. ER’s last ever episode came dangerously close to a self-indulgent weepy before veering off at the last second into Show Must Go On territory. And where the hell does Misfits’ oddball ending fit?

So what are your favourite endings? Any categories I’ve forgotten? What about the Crushing Disappointment? Of the Should Have Been the Finale?

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