Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How not to end a TV Series

Matthew Fox as Jack in the final shot of the Lost finale. Photo courtesy of ew.com.

The AV Club just ran a very interesting article that dealt with the problems inherent in sustaining the momentum of fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time, as well as the tricky proposition of ending such a series. The article is a response both to fan criticism of the glacis pace at which George R.R. Martin is producing ASOIAF and Neil Gaiman's reaction to that criticism, which came in the form of an essay called "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch."

The situation in which Martin currently finds himself is one familiar to many authors and fans of long-running fantasy series. It also happens to be extremely relevant to fans of serialized, mythology-heavy TV shows with unsatisfying ending, like Battlestar Galactica (which I just finished watching) and Lost (the finale of which I can finally talk about without vomiting from rage). There are a number of parallels between these two shows and various literary fantasy series, and I think these parallels can help explain why the finales of Lost and BSG were so explosively bad.

One of the problems that author Zack Handler brings up in the AV club piece is the issue of a series ending up much longer than originally planned because of a writer's tendency to "get lost inside his work." This was a huge issue at various points during Lost's run, most notably during the pointless Hydra station arc in season three and "Stranger in a Strange Land," a.k.a. that episode where Bai Ling gives Jack his tattoos and the audience takes a nap.

These particular irrelevancies remind me of So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, the fourth book in Douglas Adams' other wise fantastic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. The book isn't as bad as "Stranger in a Strange Land," but it is just as pointless. Most of the characters we've come to adore - Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the Paranoid Android - are completely absent, and in their place we get Arthur and his new girlfriend Fenchurch having sex on the wing of an airplane. The one or two relevant facts we learn could have been introduced in the next book, perhaps at the moment when we learn that, between the two volumes, Fenchurch has died, rendering So Long even more pointless than it already appeared.

The previous problem was not necessarily the fault of the Lost writers - at that point in the series' run the show had no end date, so Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were actually trying to stall the plot. Lost's biggest problem was the finale, which Cuse and Lindelof can blame on no one but themselves (just as Ron Moore is solely responsible for the clusterfuck that was the BSG finale). The flaws of these two finales are eerily similar, and they boil down to two fundamental issues: an attempt by the writers to wrap up every individual character arc at the expense of the larger issues, and a solution to the show's ongoing mysteries that throws the complexity of the series out the window in favor of a sudden descent into religion-fueled, pseudo-philosophical mysticism.

I should probably mention here that I don't have a problem with the religious aspects of these shows, which were present from the beginning. I do, however, have a problem with grafting a simplified religious ending onto a complex, multifaceted TV series and pretending that it explains everything. In particular, both finales contained an ultimate message of faith trumping science and reason. I've talked about BSG's anti-intellectual streak before, but it bears repeating that the ultimate "faith is good, science is bad" conclusion is a disservice to the four seasons that BSG spent exploring the complexities of faith, the dangers of dogmatism and the horrors of conflict driven by religion, instead replacing these issues with an inane warning to be afraid of dancing robots.

The Lost finale did exactly the same thing a year later, which I can only explain using the following imaginary conversation:

LINDELOF: Hey Carlton, did you check out that BSG finale?
CUSE: Yeah! I loved how they discarded the complexity of the whole series and boiled everything down to a simple pro-faith, anti-technology message!
LINDELOF: I know! We should totally do the same thing.
CUSE: Awesome idea! And while we're at it, let's ruin Jacob's evocative cork metaphor by putting a literal fucking cork in the island!
LINDELOF: We are going to win so many awards for this.

What I'm trying to say here is that Cuse and Lindelof resolved one of the most interesting conflicts on the show - the tension between science and faith, as personified by Jack and Locke - by giving Jack a religious conversion, just as BSG did with Gaius Baltar. This not only cheapened six seasons of rich dialogue about the nature of science and faith, it spat in the face of viewers who feel science to be useful and who, for whatever reason, don't happen to be among the faithful.

I wouldn't have had such a problem with the religious aspects of these finales, however, if they had actually helped to explain the shows' larger mysteries. Instead, the writers ignored the mysteries in favor of resolving every character's arc. I'm certainly not saying they should have completely ignored the character arcs - it was nice to see Sawyer and Juliet's sideways-world reunion and Helo and Athena's happy new life with Hera - but all the focus on these arcs meant there was no time to answer the many other questions raised over the series' runs. I for one would have liked to find out more about the Island's electromagnetic properties, or the importance of the Opera House beyond having Gaius and Caprica carry Hera all of three feet into the CIC.

Admittedly, it was always going to be absurd to expect the writers to answer every question and please every fan. Hell, even the final book of the classic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia suffered from the same problems discussed above. Narnia is actually worse in some ways, particularly the fashion in which C.S. Lewis condemns Susan because she was a teenage girl interested in - god forbid! - boys and makeup. (If you haven't thought through the implications Susan's fate before, I highly recommend Gaiman's short story "The Problem of Susan," although you probably shouldn't read it if you don't want to hate Lewis). Ending a mythologically complex series is hard, and very few people have ever managed to do it successfully. I'm still angry about the resolution of Lost, but I can understand the kind of pressure Cuse and Lindelof were under. I just wish they had worried less about placating the fans, and more about crafting an ending as groundbreaking as the series that led to it.

In conclusion: pray for Fringe, because trust me, they're going to need it.

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