September 29th, 2013
A series finale is different from any other episode of a television show; the biggest test for a series finale is whether or not it feels different from any other episode of that television show.
Breaking Bad has been an often messy show, driven by complex moral agency and characters who seem simultaneously the architect and the victim of chaos. It was a series that continued to grow in scale but largely followed the same principles of tight characterization and almost claustrophobic connections with those characters. In the show’s third season, it delineated between “half measures” and “full measures,” and the series was ultimately a narrative driven by the former: while some were explosive and others were tragic, there was never a moment when one could say that Breaking Bad had solved or even dramatically mitigated its central conflict.
It was this quality that gave the series its momentum, and enabled it to grow an audience of devotees from a series that many people—myself included—had not given much of a chance in its early seasons. It was also this quality that by the very nature of a series finale was forced to change in “Felina,” a clean end to a messy show that very purposefully limits its capacity to embody the series it brings to a conclusion.
March 21st, 2011
“Is that why I’m here? To tell stories?”
In reviewing last week’s penultimate episode of MTV’s Skins, “Tara,” at The A.V. Club, I sort of offered my general take on the show thus far: while it has not lived up to the British original, it has made enough variations to define itself as largely independent from that series’ successes and failures. While it remained uneven throughout its run, things started to gel towards the end: actors improved, plots became more interesting, and the branching out into Tara’s perspective was a welcome departure from the British model.
Of course, just because the show is now being considered largely based on its own standards does not mean it won’t fail to live up to those standards in “Eura/Everyone.” In some ways, the finale is the ultimate test: as stories reach what more or less resemble conclusions, the strength of the series’ storytelling is challenged. Skins is a show that tells stories by limiting its perspective, as individual episodes are framed by one narrative while intersecting with others. As a result, an episode like “Eura/Everyone” where the frame character is notable in her absence asks the series’ collective cast to fill in the gaps, never quite allowing any one of them to fully take over (as evidenced by the “Everyone” side of the title).
Ideally, the characters will have taken on such a complexity that the ensemble feel should feel like a culmination of a season’s worth of development. More realistically, however, “Eura/Everyone” will reinforce the hierarchy between characters, their “resolutions” revealing which of them became three-dimensional teenagers and which were left to feel like characters in a story.
That hierarchy is strikingly evident in this finale, although I’d argue that “Eura/Everyone” is more successful than not when it counts the most.
February 9th, 2011
“Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”
Perhaps more than any other show on television, Friday Night Lights is actively concerned with the notion of legacy. The Dillon Panthers were one, the East Dillon Lions are becoming one, and the show itself has formed its own sense of legacy with distinct notions of past, present and future despite a relatively short five season run.
In politics, or even in sports, the final moments are when the legacy is at its most vulnerable. As unfair as it might seem, the legacy of Friday Night Lights could very well come down to how “Always” brings the series to its conclusion. This will be the final time we spend with these characters, their final actions and reactions, and Jason Katims’ challenge is finding that balance between progress and consolidation.
He found it. “Always” is not perfect, getting a bit too cute for its own good towards its conclusion, but it all feels so remarkably “right” that it captures in an hour what the series accomplished over the course of five seasons. It is uproariously funny and incredibly moving, and those moments which resonate emotionally are not simply those which have been developing over the course of 76 episodes. The weight is felt across the board, with characters old and new finding self-realization amidst a larger framework.
They are legacies within legacy, as “Always” captures the emotional current of what will go down as one of the decade’s finest drama series.
Aired: March 23rd, 2010
[Cultural Learnings' Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective - for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Last year, in making a similar list, I put Battlestar Galactica’s “Daybreak” on it, and as one would expect it proved somewhat divisive. The fact of the matter is that I loved the poetry of the BSG finale while acknowledging some of its shortcuts, and in many ways the controversy surrounding it only made it more likely to find its way onto a list like this one; my investment becomes stronger when I feel as if there is a groundswell to reject the finale entirely based largely on principles of television viewership which I don’t entirely understand. This is not to say that I start a crusade to change their minds, but rather that I become very interested in discovering where they’re coming from.
It’s almost scary how much of a carbon copy the reaction to “The End” has been for me. Last week, when Dan Harmon snuck in a dig at Lost’s sense of “payoff” in the Community Christmas episode, watching my Twitter feed’s reaction was a microcosm of larger opinions: some laughed along, the joke confirming their pre-existing dismissal of Lost’s conclusion, while others became legitimately angry at the off-hand dig. Personally, I laughed, but only because I don’t feel as if I am particularly defensive of “The End” (even if I totally understand why some people are).
I loved “The End,” which should be obvious considering that it’s on this list, but I love the fact that people hated it perhaps even more. I think that Lost, as a television series, will be remembered not so much for its story but for how its story was told; as a fan, this disappoints me, but as a critic and scholar it makes the series’ legacy far more important to the future of television. “The End” was a finale that was never going to please everyone, and so Lindelof and Cuse’s decision to not even bother trying was admirable, reckless, and ultimately one of the most affecting episodes of television of the past year.
“Constance Carmell Wedding”
June 25th, 2010
In some ways, there could never be a perfect finale for Starz’ Party Down. The show is about people confronting the fact that they might be living their finale, that working for a catering company may be the highest rung they will climb in southern California, and so “endings” are inherently unnatural. Instead, the characters are in a constant state of waiting to become, working hard or hardly working towards the end goal of achieving great success in their chosen field. And so while this may well end up the series finale (due to Starz reinventing itself as a genre network under new management and the middling ratings for the series) of Party Down, it is an episode about failed beginnings more than endings.
While very funny and quite poignant in a number of areas, “Constance Carmell Wedding” suffers a bit under the weight of those final moments, unsure of who would be returning for the following season or if there would even be a following season. Constance’s return is most welcome, and the focus on career goals is well met, but there’s a point where a half-hour comedy just can’t carry the weight of beginnings, endings, reunions, unions and everything else in between.
However, let’s not pretend this means I won’t miss the show should it truly be done, or that I didn’t find the second season to be particularly strong: while it may not have all come together perfectly, it was a confident second season which built on the first season’s success without abandoning its winning formula, and I sincerely hope that the show gets a reprieve if only to see what a third season would look like for these character I’ve come to admire.
“The Big Bang”
June 26th, 2010
While I never publicly agonized over it, the decision to watch Doctor Who’s fifth series (or first series of the Moffat era, if we want to get really complicated) on the British schedule was not an easy one: while a large part of my readership appear to have been watching at the same pace, making for lively conversations, I have not been making light of the ethical dilemmas therein in continuing to post in this fashion.
However, ultimately, I think Steven Moffat has created a season of television which demands to be watched as part of a collective audience, and as a newcomer to the series I feel as if I would have been lost had I been following the North American viewings. Commenters have been most kind at helping contextualize my experience with the series within the series’ larger framework, and the season has been so aggressively timey-wimey that there is a great value to be watching at the same pace as those who can help provide important context for what I’m experiencing. If I were three weeks behind, many of those fans may no longer be interested in these episodes, and I think this season would have been a much less enjoyable one as a critic.
“The Big Bang” is a story at once about the beginning and the end of the world, and yet it is a sparse story told using only a few primary characters as opposed to some sort of epic struggle. There is struggle, but it is struggle which unfolds between various different versions of the same characters over time as opposed to between a larger number of characters. And while there’s enough time travel to make your head spin, and it introduces various elements which border on dei ex machina, those elements are so intricately linked to these characters that they play out more like poetry than plot.
And through a small story with big consequences, “The Big Bang” stands as a conclusive finale which connects back which all which came before, an episode which solidifies the quality of the Eleventh Doctor, the importance of one Amy Pond, and the sheer potential which lies in the future with Moffat at the helm.
“The Pandorica Opens”
June 19th, 2010
As a newcomer to Doctor Who, one of the challenges I’ve had to face in terms of writing about the series is what to do with its two-part episodes. In particular, there’s a distinct challenge with writing about the first part of those episodes, as Doctor Who tends to quite literally split narratives in half as opposed to telling two connected stories. As a result, the first half tends to be fairly heavy on exposition and setup before the second half brings it all to a resolution: while this means that there is plenty to speculate on about the first episode, it’s tough to offer a critical opinion when so much of the two-parter’s effectiveness depends on how it concludes.
[Note: this seems as good a time as any to link to Scott Tobias and Noel Murray's fantastic conversation about the challenges of writing about television at The A.V. Club - I'd add "two-parters" to their list of confounding situations for television critics who write about television on a weekly schedule, although they are not particularly common in this day and age.]
I’ve gotten away with it so far this season by either writing about episodes from previous series (catching up with the Weeping Angels and River Song in my review of “The Time of Angels”) or catching up on previous episodes in this series (lumping reviews of “Vampires of Venice” and “Amy’s Choice” in with “The Hungry Earth”), but with “The Pandorica Opens” (the first part of the series finale) I knew that there was no such cheat available, which meant that the episode was either going to lend itself to instant analysis or it wasn’t.
There are times when I write about episodes of television because I feel I have something to say, or because I want to start or continue a conversation, but there are other times when I simply feel as if I need to write about something so as to be able to even come close to being able to wrap my head around it. “The Pandorica Opens” is one such episode, a first-part which wastes no time drawing a clear (and quite ingenious) connection between this story and the ongoing series narrative and in the process leaves me enormously confused in the best possible way.
Talking Lost with TV on the Internet and The /Filmcast
May 29th, 2010
I’ve written a lot about Lost this week, but if you’re still interested in hearing more discussion about the series finale and the series as a whole I took part in a couple of podcasts on Thursday that might make for some nice weekend listening for those so inclined.
First, I was one of many guests on TV on the Internet’s special Lost episode, which collected a bunch of people who write and tweet about Lost to discuss the finale (including hosts Todd VanDerWerff and Libby Hill, Jason Mittell, Zack Handlen, Daniel T. Walters, Chris Dole, and myself). For the most part, we all liked it, which means that the episode was more of a discussion of the finale and the series as a whole than it was a deconstruction or a dissection. It was a podcast with some really intelligent voices, and it resulted in some cogent discussion on the final season, the characters and their journeys, as well as the cultural impact of the series on both television in general and in our own lives.
TV on the Internet, Episode 37: Lost [Media Elites]
I think both discussions are equally interesting, but the special /Filmcast bonus Lost episode is definitely a bit more dynamic due to both its free-for-all format and the presence of more diverse opinions relating to the finale and the series as a whole. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the episode an outright debate, but /Filmcast hosts Devindra Hardawar and Adam Quigley raise some legitimate concerns with the series which Katey Rich and I work to reconcile with our own enjoyment of the series. The result, at least for me, is an honest and frank discussion which in its confrontation gets to the heart of the ways in which viewers experienced Lost and its finale, and I think anyone listening would find some part of their voice within the arguments being made.
The /Filmcast Bonus Ep. – Lost Series Finale and Wrap-up [/Film]
I want to thank Todd and Devindra for both inviting me to the respective parties and doing a fantastic job in their capacities as moderator/host/whatever you’d choose to call it, and I truly recommend that those who are still contending with their feelings over the Lost finale give these shows a listen (although perhaps spread out a bit, since both are about two hours long and I can speak from experience that four hours of Lost podcasts in a single day is a bit overwhelming).
Lost the Morning After: Critics face “The End”
May 24th, 2010
Writing about the end of a television show is a lot like writing about the end of a war. When a war comes to a close, people want to know the facts of how it came to an end, and they want to understand the legacy that it will leave behind, and the same goes for a television show: people want to “understand” the ending, and they want to see the “big picture” in order to evaluate the series as a whole.
However, for critics who have been reviewing the series episode-by-episode, this is a greater challenge than I think people realize. It isn’t that we don’t have opinions about “The End” in terms of where it fits into Lost’s big picture or how its ending concludes the series’ long-term storylines, but rather that we have been in the trenches, so to speak, for years of our lives. Noel Murray likened writing about Lost weekly to “reports from the field…recording immediate impressions,” but now we’re forced to combine the immediacy of our response to the finale with this desire for closure, both within the viewing audience and within our own expectations. These critics are the embedded reporters, people who have dedicated so much of their time to cataloging their immediate responses that channeling that energy towards the end of the series seems like a different and in some cases counter-intuitive experience.
However, they’re also the people who offer a valuable glimpse into the series’ run as a whole, both in their wide-reaching commentary and in their specific analysis of “The End” and its various mysteries and reveals. Their “reports from the field” may be over, but the final transmission will serve as a wonderful starting point for the larger discussion, so let’s take a closer look at their analysis and see how the process of historicizing Lost’s impact begins.