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April 22, 2010


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Anne Moore

The comparison between British and American serials is right on; I just saw a supersmart paper by Christine Becker of newsfortvmajors.com comparing the US and UK versions of Life On Mars--the end of the British one was more "satisfying" (whatever that means), but the American finale was INSANE in a way that I think emerges directly from the potential for chaos that is inherent in the loose, baggy, possibly endless American system.

As much as I do yearn for the promise of "payoff" constantly dangled by the kinds of open serial questions you're mentioning (When will Liz find love? Is the Truth Out There?), there's something awesomely ramshackle about American serials in the way they hold the constant promise/threat of spinning totally out of control (and I'll stand by Buffy or the first three seasons of Alias, taking any and all challengers). You mention the final season of Twin Peaks as a failure, but its final episode was the single experience of my life that most resembled watching someone else have a nightmare. I'm not sure that the uncanny, lurching quality of that episode would have been possible without the incoherence of the episodes that preceded it.

The background here is of course the production system--and the American production system is rooted in the success of the daytime (and later nighttime) soap. As much as newer serials work to disavow their connection to soaps, not least through hypermasculinity (I'm looking at you, Battlestar Galactica!), the soap is the obvious predecessor of American serial TV shows, from St. Elsewhere to The Sopranos. As the questions that drive the narrative proliferate (like in the case of The Office that you mention), the story looks more and more like a classic soap opera.

So this is my question--and it's a real one, I'm not being twee--why are we so attached to closure as a sign of quality? Why has the final moment become the thing that determines whether or not a show was good all along? I won't lie, in my heart I yearn for closure, but I'm not even sure why I give the end of a story so much power--especially when the pleasure of reading a story all happens in the middle...


Anne, that's a good question, and I think it depends entirely on the rules that were set up by the work in question. To take the obvious example. the Sopranos ending is famously inconclusive, but it fit a show that after its classical first season often treated its season-long arcs nearly as contractual obligation. The Sopranos was largely dedicated to showing how the "a-ha!" moments we get from drama or therapy are just blips on the otherwise steady progress of our corrupt lives, so why give us a "oh and now it all makes sense" moment for an end?

On the other hand, I admit that the ending of BSG was a bitter experience for me, and makes the series shine a little less brightly in my eyes than if it was just one of several lackluster episodes. The reason is that BSG has always been a goal-oriented series. Their Pam and Jim was Finding Earth (which was what made that 4.0 season finale so brilliant. It was like Pam died.) or at least a Home and every episode restated that as the spine of the show. So if you were not happy, as I was not, with the way that goal was achieved and the mysteries revealed, you feel sort of conned. This was a show that made you care about what would happen in the end, which put much greater weight on that ending.

Of course these are all serial stories. Do we even care about closure on an episodic show? It seems like a bonus. I can't imagine that a series finale of 30 rock will have a huge effect on how I view the show as a whole. But we care about it in serial shows because if we care about the story, it's not just about the moments, it is where it's going. Momentum frustrated is a souring feeling. Put it another way, it's all well and good to be making out, but if at a certain point things seem headed towards the big O and that doesn't happen or happens badly, it's hard not to be disappointed with the experience. So my answer to your question in short: it's biological.


Remember, Tim and Dawn never got together on the British office:



It's funny; I was having very similar thoughts yesterday, sort of at random, while thinking about Chuck, a show that's navigated the whole "will they? won't they?" dynamic pretty well, by shifting it more to a "Do they or don't they?" Or even more of a "Can they or Can't they?" which is far more sustainable.

I've long been an advocate for the British/cable model of shorter seasons and a willingness to find an end to the story. Since network television is much more a delivery vehicle for advertising, they're more compelled to create open-ended storylines (or force them to be open-ended, even when they shouldn't be.)

I do think that it's the nature of dramatic work to provide catharsis and part of catharsis comes from closure. We want to feel like we've reached an ending, a summation, that the travails we've gone through with the characters means something, is worth something. That's what pisses us off about "It was all a dream/fantasy/autistic kid's mental creation" endings. We get denied catharsis. Which blows.

The creation of a Central Tension is key to all of that. What The Sopranos (and cable series in general) changed is that, now, the real Central Tension covers a whole season. It used to just be an episode (Who will Jack Webb catch this time? Will the Duke boys get away with it this time? What will the A-Team build this time?) but now we expect there to be some sort of overarching drama. I think it's an advancement.

Ben TS

The problem with the American Office isn't simply that Jim and Pam got together. It's that the writers created such a cohesive and intentionally plotted narrative in seasons two and three that it was downright bizarre they continued at all once they tied it up. They created a pretty brilliant, ballsy two-act stucture: Act One (Season Two) established the environment of the show and its relationships, and then in Act Two (Season Three) all hell broke lose, finally resolving as tightly as an Elizabethan comedy. What I loved about those seasons was that they smartly thwarted our initials expecations of the show. What had at first seemed like a whacky sitcom was suddenly shattered by a very un-whacky declaration of love at the end of Season Two (a more shocking shift in tone than the lawnmower mishap in Mad Men). And like Ross and Rachel's breakup, the timing was the genius of it--just when we feel like everything is established narratively, chaos ensues.

But the American Office has become a good lesson in the fundamental problem with a lot of television: when there is no more drama to be mined, the story needs to end. In this case, that point was when Pam and Jim finally hooked up, Michael settled into domestic life with Jan, and Ryan got promoted. There is nothing fundamentally dramatic about any of these circumstances (at least not in any way that would relate to the show as a whole), which is why the show since then has been one curiously long, albeit amusing denoument. It's sort of like if the Christmas episode of the British Office had been extended into an entire series longer than the original show itself.


I think they also short-circuited the drama of a relationship. One of the plot turns I found really compelling and dramatic was when Pam went to New York for the art classes. I thought it would be interesting to see them struggle with that and with the idea of whether Pam wanted a different kind of life, or maybe is a serial flirts-with-the-other-guy kind of woman. But then, all of a sudden, they were engaged and she was back and they weren't going to face even the darkness of Pam failing at her dream.

I think they've invested waay too much in the supporting cast. They're all good actors and funny and their characters are interesting in small doses and asides, but, Jesus, they're all freaking nuts and obnoxious and it's gotten to the point where not only do I not want to work at that office, I don't even want to visit.


I've never liked the American Office, and because of that will never try the British one, because past jobs have given me enough experience working in soul-killing, destructive environments -- and, they weren't funny.

Anne Moore

Ben, I think your example of the moment when Pam goes to NYC to pursue her art career is a great example of the way that the show could have taken what looked like the end of the Pam and Jim narrative to reinvent the show altogether--change the dynamics, change the central questions (maybe from "will they or won't they?" to "should they or shouldn't they?").

I mean--I get what you're saying about the structural value of the big O, but who says there can be only one big O? Or that sex is not pleasurable without it?


Anne, I think it's about managing expectations. If you make us think it's all leading up to the big O, it's dispiriting. But if the work makes it clear the the big O is not the point, we are willing not to put so much emphasis on closure.

Not to dwell wholly on the American Office, but I never felt the disappointment many felt with Pan and Jim got together because that's around when I started watching. My relationship with was formed after it had become a lower-dramatic stakes kind of show, so I'm perfectly happy for it just putter along and to take it as it comes. I agree that the New York thread and the questions it raised were aborted too soon, but I'm glad that the emphasis is still on "what happens after happily ever after" as opposed to "but what if they break up? and then get back together?"

Here's another thought: the ending is often when the author most consciously tells us what they make of the whole mess they created. Whatever enjoyment we get from the middle, the end tells us how the author thought it would be enjoyed, which makes you re-evaluate the middle in light of that information. So for me, Angels in America suffers slightly when I learn at the end that as vividly as Joe was written, Kushner actually would just as soon he burn in hell. It doesn't completely undo the richness of the character, but it sullies it. I really need to find a new metaphor, but again it's like you're doing it and at the big O your partner cries out "Mommy!" It kind of makes you question what all the fun was about before, and whether it was on false pretenses.

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