Those series finales aren't going to write themselves
Posted January 16, 2013
You write a book. Beginning. Middle. End. You write a play or movie. Beginning. Middle. End. You write a TV show. Beginning. Middle. End?
It's the unique challenge of the television writer: How do you shape your story when you don't know how long it will last - and, particularly, when it will end?
It helps if you have advance notice. This season, producers of a number of long-running series - including AMC's Breaking Bad, CW's Gossip Girl, Fox's Fringe and NBC comedies 30 Rock and The Office - knew going in it would be their last, allowing them to craft a conclusion. A decision to end ABC's Private Practice came in October; Tuesday's series finale (10 ET/PT) will feature a wedding for its main character, Addison (Kate Walsh).
A specific end date is "a wonderful bit of knowledge,"says Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, which comes back for its final bow this summer. "(It) makes your job so much easier, because you can measure how much you want to portion out with each episode. Knowing what to parcel out is key to telling a good story."
Producers of 30 Rock, an Emmy winner with waning audience numbers, wanted to go out on their own terms.
"There have been lots of times where we asked the network to please let us know whenever they know. Fortunately, it came to be ultimately a mutual thing. It feels like the right time to be ending creatively, but we wanted to have the chance to write the ending." says Robert Carlock, executive producer of Rock, which ends its 13-episode final season Jan. 31 (8 ET/PT). "There was no guarantee of that ever, but it makes a big difference creatively and in terms of how you wrap up a job emotionally, too."
As if there weren't enough pressure in trying to end a series on a satisfactory note, writers know the finale often plays an outsized role in a show's legacy. Fans still debate the endings of such classic shows as Lost, St. Elsewhere and The Sopranos.
An end date gives writers a chance to finish the way they want, and they should make the most of the opportunity, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof says. "If you go big, if you take a bold risk in your finale, even if it fails completely and totally, you will be remembered. ... There's no such thing as a bad finale if that finale is remembered."
A fixed date is especially important for a highly serialized show, such as Fringe, which ends with a two-hour goodbye Friday (8 ET/PT), or one with a series-long mystery, such as Gossip Girl, which identified its title blogger in a big December revelation. Writers of CBS' How I Met Your Mother, which in eight seasons has yet to reveal the mother, are expected to have one more season to come to a conclusion, although the deal is not final.
Other comedies, such as Rock and Office, have an interest in a satisfying ending for characters who've become TV fixtures over the years. "There's a nice sense of closure to be had in seeing where these people's lives go," says Carlock, who watched the finales of such shows as Friends, Cheers and Frasier to prepare for Rock's goodbye.
Networks, too, want to avoid disappointing viewers who can feel abandoned if a favorite show gets pulled without resolution. If viewers know an ending is coming, it can sustain their commitment as well.
"It feels only right for everyone involved to give people an opportunity to bring (a show) to a close in a thoughtful way that will satisfy people who have been so invested," NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke says.
Fox gave the final 13 episodes to Fringe, a series with a small but devout following, in part to demonstrate its commitment to a genre in which the cancellation of earlier shows, such as Firefly, angered fans.
"This was the chance for us to show the olive branch to fans of science fiction and say, 'We're going to treat this show with respect,' "
The closing of 'The Office'
Enough advance notice allowed The Office to plan its entire final season, rather than having to jam big twists and revelations into its last episode. Early in the season, "We initiated all the things that are going to pay off in the last episodes," executive producer Greg Daniels says.
Among other things, viewers also find out about the long-running documentary that has been at the core of the show's structure, says Daniels, who has had an ending in mind since early on. The Jan. 24 episode will be "a game-changer," building momentum as the show moves toward its spring conclusion.
"There is a big, serialized nature to the show, so hopefully people won't just tune in for the finale," he says. "This whole thing we're planning on doing (is) very much not like what the show has been before."
Producers of Desperate Housewives, which ended after eight seasons last May, approached ABC at the end of the seventh. . "We said to them, we'd be happy to go one more year or two more years, but we just wanted to know before the season begins. (We) didn't want to get a call in January saying, 'Wrap it up. You're done,' " executive producer Bob Daily says. The one-season decision allowed producers to include a murder-trial arc creator Marc Cherry had long envisioned.
Things truly opened up for endings in 2007, when Lost's producers announced the series would conclude after six seasons, an unprecedented three-year advance notice. Although a show that popular generally would keep running as long as people were watching, executive producers Lindelof and Carlton Cuse worried that the storytelling would become repetitive.
"Damon and I felt really strongly that Lost was a story (that) needed to end," Cuse says. "We looked at other shows, like The X-Files, a show we both loved, that's sort of a cautionary tale in that it ran too long. If it had ended after five seasons, I think its legacy would be even greater. We felt like we had all these people invested in our show, and we felt they were getting increasingly nervous that their investment was not going to end well."
The Lost experience has influenced discussions since, Lindelof says. "What the conversation is turning into now is a slightly larger one that's not just about ending on your own terms, but how many episodes or seasons can a premise maintain?"
Often, writers have to plan without knowing. TNT's Leverage, whose cancellation was announced after the Season 5 finale was filmed, used a long-held series-ending plot in that Christmas Day episode, just in case the show wasn't going to return. "What we didn't want to have happen," executive producer Dean Devlin says, "is have the show just vanish."
Other times, last-minute changes stitch together a suitable ending when a network decides not to move forward with a series. For ABC's Last Resort, a freshman drama that will conclude after 13 episodes on Jan. 24, writers were working on 14th and 15th scripts when they got word, so they had to rework the 13th episode to create a resolution to the thriller about a rogue U.S. nuclear submarine, executive producer Shawn Ryan says. "Fortunately, it was an episode we always intended to be a big, epic thing."
Ryan is satisfied with the ending and the show as a whole, which essentially becomes a 13-episode miniseries. "I can't say we'll be complete in terms of wrapping up everything the way we might have wanted," says Ryan, who received praise for the way he closed FX's The Shield, "but even shows that are aware of where they're ending don't wrap up every single thread."
Even with advance notice, writers sometimes hedge their bets. When Fringe's writers were finishing work on Season 4 last spring, they crafted the last two episodes to serve as a potential finale. Another episode, which served as a futuristic jumping-off point for the eventual Season 5, could have stood on its own had the show not been picked up.
But even that Season 4 ending wouldn't have felt right to executive producer J.H. Wyman. He says he would have continued the story via graphic novel or another platform, had the show ended then.
"We have some of the most loyal fans I've ever encountered," he says. "It sounds like a joke, but I would have continued it in some other medium to give a better resolution to those people who really start to care."
Contributing: Scott Bowles
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