A Meaning To An End: Lost, Scrubs, BSG, etc.
Two weeks ago, Lost ended its fifth season in apt style, with a tense, twisty, mind-bending episode that was thrilling to watch and fun to pick apart afterward. In some ways the episode was a little frustrating: in part because of an explosive cliffhanger, and in part because the incidents in “The Incident” raised more questions than they answered. (And this on a show notorious for its dangling threads.) But much of the fun of the last five years of Lost-watching has been wrapped up in the tingles of mystery and the opportunities to theorize wildly, and Season Five—and “The Incident” in particular—offered ample servings of both.
But here’s the thing: Next year at this time, Lost will have reached the end of its sixth and final season, and all the excuses that hardcore fans have made for the show’s plot holes over the years—primarily that there are no real holes until the entire series ends—will be put to the test. If Lost doesn’t end in a way that makes a significant number of its fans happy—if it goes the way of Battlestar: Galactica, in other words—then there will be virtual riots in the comments sections of TV blogs everywhere.
Is this fair? Yes and no. Clearly when someone invests an hour a week for several years in a set of characters and their fictional problems, then ideally that viewer would like to see the story come to an appropriate, emotionally affecting end. And a good finish can be redemptive. The Shield was a superior-enough show that it didn’t necessarily need a strong finale to maintain its reputation as one of the best TV cop dramas of all time, but certainly the way it wrapped up—with a strong dose of poetic justice for anti-hero Vic Mackey—cemented The Shield’s place in television history.
On the flipside, while Scrubs has been scattershot at best during its eight-year run, the finale’s big finish—with that eternal sap Dr. Dorian enjoying the ultimate fantasy sequence, set to a Peter Gabriel cover of a Magnetic Fields song—delivered all the wit, clever staging and sentimentality that long-time fans have always looked for in the show.
Consider this though: Just last week ABC announced that they were picking up Scrubs for yet another season, and though it’ll reportedly be a revamped version of Scrubs focusing largely on new characters, almost all of the original cast has been slated to appear for multiple episodes. So does this invalidate the perfectly fine ending Scrubs has already aired?
My answer: Why would it? The Season Eight finale will still exist, both in perpetuity on DVD, as well as in the memories of Scrubs fans who watched it not knowing that they weren’t really seeing the end. I can understand downgrading a movie or a TV show upon re-watching, or upon reflection, but I’ve never really understood downgrading the original experience. The Star Wars prequels (and a little growing up) may have made the original Star Wars a little harder to enjoy now, but anyone who saw and loved Star Wars back in 1977 should still be able to cherish those memories. Right?
I'm not sure we should put so much stock in endings, generally speaking. One of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, is a master at beginning novels, and kind of a clod at wrapping them up. That doesn't mean I don't still enjoy the good stuff while it lasts. And while there are some endings so appalling—like the finale of the American Life On Mars, for example—that they make viewers feel stupid for having ever cared about the story, even that epic failure can be entertaining in its own fun-to-be-outraged way.
Perfection is so rare in the narrative arts… or perhaps I should say that perceived perfection is rare. We all have different tastes, and different things we’re looking for out of a movie or TV show. The further a movie or TV show is from what we consider perfection to be, the more we tend to rationalize our enjoyment, based on factors like performance, subject matter, set-pieces… anything that appeals to our own personal quirks. TV fans have raised this “selective appreciation” to an artform. You’ll get Fringe fans who prefer the “freak of the week” plots to the master-plot. You’ll get Office fans who’d rather the show stick to the comedy-of-humiliation business and drop the sentimentality. And then there are the surprisingly large number of devotees of Buffy, Dollhouse, Lost and How I Met Your Mother who actively hate the main characters of their favorite shows. We’re a perverse lot, we TV buffs.
I hope Lost-ophiles are able to grasp and even revel in that perversity a little as a less-than-perfect-but-still-very-good show reaches its homestretch. At its best, TV can be as moving and artful as the best movies or the finest novels, but at the end of the day it's still an episodic medium that parcels out its pleasures, and that withholding is as much a part of TV art as performance or plotting. After Battlestar: Galactica ended a few months ago, I read some comments from angry fans who insisted that the show’s literal “deus ex machina” finale had invalidated everything they’d watched the show for over the previous six years. “Battlestar: Galactica wasted my time,” they griped. And all I could think was: Isn’t that what a TV show is supposed to do? And wasn’t that waste of time fun while it lasted?