Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
What piece of work, in your mind, stops prior to the official end? For me, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica stops at the end of the shortened fourth season (episode 10, “Revelations”), with the characters on a desolate beach, and Roslin saying “Earth.” I’ve heard about 10 more “episodes” after that, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s fanfic. Another example: the Kubrick/Spielberg movie A.I. has several points that could be the ending.
I’m not talking about merely a drop in quality after season seven, or whatever. Many series hit that point where the characters become cartoons. I’m speaking of art where you honestly believe that ignoring what happens after a certain point makes a better story, not just saves you from poor execution. —Charles
Growing up as a fantasy reader, I used to be pretty dogged about sticking with book series to the end, more out of a sense of weary obligation than anything else. Kids in particular often have a weird desire for completism, and a proprietary collectors’ sense about their pop culture, and such a limited understanding of the world that if they find something they like, they want all of it—hence the marketing of so many endless series (Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, etc.) and endless product lines (“Gotta catch ’em all!”) to kids. I was 18 before I finally realized I could just stop reading a series that no longer interested me, and move on to something else. Granted, in the case of most of the series I had dutifully stuck with, I was already five or six books past that point. If only I could get that reading time back. With that in mind, I would like to pretend that, say, the Pern series ends after Renegades Of Pern (well before the talking dolphins show up, and before the story changes from gritty ’70s fantasy to sprawling, conflict-light utopian science fiction), and the Xanth books consist of a single trilogy, and maybe not even that, and the Myth Adventures series ends around book five before it gets maudlin, and… man, fantasy writers really tend to milk it. And generally, for me, this isn’t about that drop in quality you mention—it’s about watching writers use the same tricks over and over or tell the same stories over and over, until all the world-building creativity that went into the original installments starts to feel stretched thin, like a queen-sized blanket trying to cover eight beds at once.
But here’s a more modern and relatable example: For me, Heroes stops dead after season one. As far as I’m concerned, everyone gets together and fulfills all the prophecies and visions, and they fight, and Sylar crawls off into the sewer and dies. THE END. I’ve never watched any Heroes past that point; by the time I got to that first season on DVD, I was hearing so many bitter complaints about the show that getting into it seemed like a conscious act of masochism. (And frankly, keeping Sylar around—while consistent with the show’s superhero-comic roots—smacked of cowardice and wheel-spinning, and made it pretty clear to me that the show was more invested in keeping viewers on the hook forever than in telling any kind of cogent story.) The friends I watched season one with dutifully continued the show on their own, and their subsequent moments of satisfaction have never outweighed their bitching about the show. I’m always irked listening to people dismiss art sight unseen, but in this case, I just feel like I’m better off.
I agree with Tasha: Far too many fantasy series drag on and on, whether they’re open-ended monstrosities like Xanth or crazy, 8,000-page epics like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, a series that tragically outlived its own author and had to be completed by someone else. But the series that first drove home this phenomenon to me is David Eddings’ The Malloreon. The five-novel cycle follows Eddings’ previous pentalogy, The Belgariad, a formulaic but solidly, warmly written iteration of the young-wizard Bildungsroman. Of course, there was absolutely no reason for the late author to write one sequel, let alone five; The Belgariad neatly wrapped up every loose thread and was topped off with an entirely satisfying ending. Granted, for fans like me, The Malloreon was a chance to spend more time with a cast of characters I’d grown to love—but The Malloreon is annoying because Eddings was entirely self-conscious about the fact that he was rehashing his own creation, and he even tried to justify the rehash by concocting some bullshit meta-theory about how prophecies eternally repeat themselves, therefore somehow justifying the fact that The Malloreon is almost the exact same story as The Belgariad. To his credit, Eddings chased The Malloreon with two standalone prequels, Belgarath The Sorcerer and Polgara The Sorceress, which work well by untangling themselves from this cycle of redundancy. Still, The Belgariad would be just as good, if not better, without all that extra weight hanging around its neck.
With about 30 pages to go, I mistakenly left The Ringworld Throne—the third book in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series—in the seat pocket of an airplane. I never bothered to replace it, instead choosing to purge the misbegotten Throne from my own mental canon. Ringworld is driven by the thrill of exploring Niven’s massive spinning donut-land, and the second book, Ringworld Engineers, sets up a suitably enormous crisis for everyman hero Louis Wu to resolve. And then Throne is pretty much all about fucking. Reading Throne, I felt like I was riding in the car with an increasingly creepy uncle on the way to a Star Trek convention, as Niven decided I was old enough for him to share some of the more private, scattered corners of his psyche. For the first half of Throne, Louis Wu gets shoved aside so Niven can paint a skeevy, tedious tableau in which people screw each other constantly, whether it’s because of marauding vampires who secrete a gas that causes people to screw constantly, or because of rishathra, a diplomatic custom that compels different species to screw constantly. Yet the unforgivable sin of Throne is the way it retroactively kneecaps the conclusion of Engineers, in which Louis Wu has to make a civilization-altering choice about the future of the ringworld. To set up the dull power struggle that occupies its second half, Throne clumsily declares that the consequences of Wu’s decision in Engineers weren’t such a big deal after all. Except that ending was a big deal to me, so as far as I’m concerned, the Ringworld epic met its glorious demise after Book No. 2.
After two short seasons, the original UK series of The Office closed on a strikingly realistic note. In significant ways, most characters weren’t as happy as they could be (in short, the way life generally is) and the modern work environment was responsible for their profound lack of personal fulfillment. The most tragic example of this is Tim, who, despite desperate attempts to quit his job to study psychology, is ultimately too spineless to do it; he’s also too conflicted to commit to his career, so he turns down a key promotion. The show’s most likeable character until that point, Tim is revealed to be frustratingly self-defeating, and he ends the series exactly where he started: in a job he hates, with no prospects and no direction. Dawn’s only way out is to move away with a fiancé who doesn’t respect her enough, though at least he can make decisions. But the finale’s most confoundingly sympathetic character is none other than David Brent (Ricky Gervais), whose insecure, lonely existence becomes dismally clear as he sadly pleads to keep his job. Until that scene, I, like any rational viewer, had been rooting for his firing since the first episode, but suddenly I very much wanted to believe he could change, though of course he wouldn’t. I left The Office regarding “the office” as a trap for the risk-averse and a playground for incompetent people who have nothing else—which gave the show a meaningful point.
All that changed with the two tacked-on Christmas specials, which replaced the original ending with a series of quick turnarounds. Dawn comes back and leaves her fiancé, and she and Tim get together. Now they’re both happy, hooray! Oh, and David Brent (after a few flimsy plotlines involving original music videos and celebrity appearances) has met a girl who suits him perfectly, so things are looking up! At the end of the specials, The Office’s message is completely flip-flopped: What matters isn’t where you work, but the people you’re with. I have no problem with that theme, but it isn’t particularly unique or interesting, and the preceding seasons weren’t a good vehicle to deliver it. On rainy days, I’ll still sometimes work through The Office in one sitting, but I always leave the Christmas-specials DVD on the shelf. Plus I think the positive outlook that the specials so sloppily slapped on is there in the show’s closing lines, in which David lays out a simple fact of life and finds hope in the unknown: “Life is a series of peaks and troughs, and you don’t know whether you’re in a trough until you’re climbing out, or on a peak until you’re coming down. That’s it, you know. You never know what’s around the corner, but it’s all good. If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain. Do you know which ‘philosopher’ said that? Dolly Parton. And people just say she’s a big pair of tits!”
A few seasons ago, I was one of those people who dined at Subway with increased regularity if it meant my beloved Chuck would remain on the air for even just one more episode. How times have changed: Chuck’s second season was refreshing—an unabashedly goofy spy drama with beloved characters and real emotional stakes. And every time I thought the show was backing itself into a corner (like removing the Intersect from Chuck’s brain), the writers were seemingly one step ahead with an unexpected twist (“I know kung-fu”). But the evolution of the show stopped somewhere in the middle of season three. Rather than pushing its characters forward, it held them back; now Chuck and his cronies harp on a few things each season, and budget cuts have necessitated repetitive shooting locations as well. And not to give too much away, but in the absence of real relationship drama, this season has basically turned innocuous datey-type stuff into major sources of contention and anxiety. The show found the best way to use all its elements, then stopped refining the formula once it hit upon a workable solution. I gave up on writing about Chuck for TV Club because I’d truly run out of things to say about it.
This is a pretty obvious answer to this question, but even with the solid final two seasons, I still wish The West Wing had ended once Aaron Sorkin left/was forced out by NBC. I’m not as big of a fan of that show’s third and fourth seasons as a lot of people are, but even I’ll admit that they were many degrees better than the morass the show collapsed into in its fifth season, as well as substantial portions of its sixth season (which only really gets going once it starts focusing on characters other than the original core cast, sad to say). I kept watching because I still liked all the actors, and the writers occasionally came up with an intriguing twist or two in the storytelling, but much of the post-Sorkin run is overrun by a weird desire to either ape the by-then-more-buzzed-about 24 or a wish to seriously reflect the problems of the war on terror. Before Sorkin left, he was building to a grand mix of his usual liberal-fantasyland political drama with a more action-oriented take on the president utilizing his wartime powers. (I would kill to see how Sorkin would have escaped the season-four cliffhanger, which the new writing staff mostly punted on.) The final season and a half, involving an election for a new president, isn’t bad, but it still makes me wish Sorkin had been writing it. And I don’t even like the guy all that much! (And while we’re at it, I wish 24 had ended with Jack Bauer hauled off to a Chinese prison, Gilmore Girls had ended with Luke and Lorelai’s season-five reunion, Hill Street Blues had ended with Phil Esterhaus’ death, The X-Files had ended with the birth of Scully’s baby, and Six Feet Under had ended with the season-three finale.)
I think this can apply to non-scripted shows as well. For a while, my wife and I devoured Intervention for both the drama and, let’s be honest, the voyeuristic thrill of rubbernecking at human wreckage. Locked Up Abroad ramped up the drama, and Hoarders increased the rubbernecking thrills (though we never watched that much). Aside from the occasional follow-up episode, these shows are all self-contained in 42-minute packages, so repetition becomes problematic unless you up the ante. (He’s a bulimic and an alcoholic!) It sounds terribly glib, but we started to feel like we’d seen it all after a season or two. Then there’s the fact that the shows can be terribly depressing, which accelerates burnout. Anyway, Intervention probably reached its zenith in season five with Allison, a.k.a. the “Walking On Sunshine” inhalant addict. (She’s fully recovered now.)
I like to imagine that the second season of Jersey Shore doesn’t exist, that it was all just a terrible alcohol-induced nightmare DJ Pauly D had. It violated everything Jersey Shore is supposed to be about, which is remarkable, considering the show’s nonexistent values. For me, season three wasn’t just a return to form and a return to Seaside, it was a return to sanity. And existence.
While the obvious answer to this question seems to be a screamed “STAR WARS PREQUELS!”, that’s a road we’ve been down before. Instead, I’ll go with the Rocky film series. After a fantastic first two films and a fun third film that featured a memorable run on the beach and a great villain turn from Mr. T, the series went international with Rocky IV, in which the seemingly indestructible machine Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) kills Apollo Creed in an exhibition match, goading Rocky out of retirement and into a revenge match. Rocky IV was also far more successful in ending the Cold War than any other movie (like, say, Superman IV) could ever hope to be. And this is where the series should have ended: a triumphant Rocky, once again the scrappy, victorious underdog, held aloft as he basks in the glory of adulation from thousands of Russians ready to bring down the Iron Curtain and make nice with America. But no. Stallone had to keep going to this well, so he gave us the banal Rocky V, which finds our hero broke and suffering from brain damage while his son is bullied at school; it isn’t the happy ending our hero deserves, and the film itself is tedious. While the franchise’s sixth movie, Rocky Balboa, was actually pretty decent (and a far more suitable downer of a follow-up than Rocky V, if that’s what you’re into), it’s still sullied by the fact it follows Rocky V. You could conceivably skip Rocky V and go straight to Balboa, but, really, just stop at the end of Rocky IV (while forgetting that Stallone later made Rambo III, in which he fights and kills lots of Soviet troops), and revel in the glory of those famous words of international diplomacy: “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!”
I have to expand on something Todd said above and talk about Gilmore Girls, which I loved, then left. When a show is defined by its creator’s unique personality and then said creator goes away, what’s the point of keeping it going? Admittedly, the series’ sixth season wasn’t its finest, but the departure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino—whose quick-witted, fast-paced dialogue and affectionate portrayal of small-town life and quirky-but-not-too-quirky characters was the show—made everything that came after feel like an epilogue. True, Sherman-Palladino didn’t help matters by more or less blowing up the show on her way out by having a major character behave way out of character, and in the few episodes I saw, it seemed like her replacement did his best to get the show back on track. But the spirit had fled by that point.
Aliens is one the best sequels ever made. It manages to expand on the universe of its predecessor, Alien, in a way that’s natural and relatively unforced; it makes a familiar threat feel freshly terrifying; and it strengthens the franchise’s heroine, Ripley, turning her from a mere survivor into one of genre films’ most likeable bad-ass protagonists. And then Alien3 has to come along and muck everything up. As David Fincher’s big-screen debut, it’s a deeply inauspicious piece of work, sluggish and morose, but without any of the adrenaline highs or knee-knocking horrors of the previous two movies. (The Assembly Cut, included in the Alien Quadrilogy set, is actually surprisingly credible—it doesn’t fix all the problems, but it at least feels more like something people would willingly watch.) Which is bad enough, to be sure, but if the problem were simply the quality, it would be easy enough to find some enjoyment in just watching Sigourney Weaver and a cast of talented character actors running around screaming at each other in the shadows. The problem is, Alien3 opens by killing off the other three survivors of Aliens: Bishop, the android (who gets resurrected later, but only for a scene), Hicks, Weaver’s near love-interest, and Newt, the surrogate daughter whose abduction near the end of the previous film leads to arguably one of the greatest climaxes in action-movie history. Given the general doom and gloom that pervades Alien3, it’s not surprising that these potential providers of hope and warmth had to go, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to watch. The movie doesn’t just kill off a little girl, thus essentially negating the entire point of the last 20 minutes of Aliens; it then forces us to watch Ripley sobbing through the kid’s autopsy. Nothing that follows ever justifies the sacrifice. While I can find a few things to like in Alien3 (and sometimes get a weird urge to watch Alien: Resurrection), the only way I can watch it is to pretend it exists in some parallel universe to the previous two films. Or else it’s all just one long dream Ripley’s having. Either way, in my world, the Alien series ends with Ripley and the others blithely sailing back home.