Appearing on Fridays, This Was Television Asked & Answered is a chance for the writers of TWTV to answer questions about TV history. Questions can range from the personal to the critical about historical television. Asked & Answered has been on hiatus for a while, but we thought we’d bring it back for the warm summer Fridays.
While we came up the question for this installment, we’d love for you, our readers, to submit questions for us to answer in the future. Feel free to leave them in the comments, tweet them to us, ask on Facebook, or email them to us.
This week’s question is: With Breaking Bad‘s final (half) season off and running, how important is the final season to you in terms of a series’ overall quality/legacy? And which show nicely fits your vision of what a compelling final season can look like?
Emma: I can think of shows where the final season has been pretty turgid but it hasn’t necessarily impacted on the overall legacy. The main one that represents this thought process is The X-Files and despite the it going on for longer than it should have it still gets talked about in a mostly positive manner. Coupled with the recent movie, which is also wasn’t particularly good this show can still draw a huge panel at Comic-Con for their twentieth anniversary. It probably helps that the good outweighs the bad in terms of quality material and that the relationship between Mulder and Scully is much easier to recall than the mess of the mythology.
Last time I spoke about ER, and I was an avid viewer until around season 10, when I lost interest. Originally season 14 was meant to be the final one and this is when I picked it back up. When the writers’ strike happened they were given another season to tie it all up. This worked in the show’s favor as they got to bring back big-name stars like George Clooney and Julianna Margulies with stories that felt organic and not rushed. The legacy of ER is based on those earlier excellent years, but having a fantastic final season renewed my love for the show with both the contemporary cast and with those who had moved on many years before.
Greg: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a final season that completely ruined the legacy of its show, but that could be because I’ve never seen a truly dreadful one. With all the talk about how difficult sticking the landing is for long-running shows (dramas in particular), in general I’ve found that if the writers knew what they were doing in the previous seasons, they’re not going to mess things up too badly in the last one. Sure, Lost‘s final season had a huge number of problems, but it also did enough good things that I still think it was a solid enough conclusion to the show’s run (despite a finale that I like less and less the more I think about it).
However, I imagine it’s possible, given that the reverse is certainly true: a great final season that makes the whole show seem even better than it actually was. My main example of that phenomenon—as well as a good answer to the second question—has always been Angel, whose final season (while not perfect) closed with an incredibly great run of episodes, capped off by one of the all-time great finales. All of this came after a fourth season that was a complete mess: a season that, were it not for the existence of season five, might have left me with a far less positive overall impression of the show. But is there a greater four episode stretch anywhere in the Whedonverse than “Smile Time” through “Underneath”? Those are ultimately the episodes I’ll remember the show by, much more than the dreadfully boring Jasmine arc or any of the show’s occasional other missteps. So going out at (or near) the top of your game certainly makes a powerful statement.
Andrew: I think a lot of this can depend on what came before. When a show has faded in its later years, a great final season can make the entire series seem much better (as it did with 30 Rock earlier this year, or Friends in 2004), while a weak final season can taint a once-successful series (Will & Grace, for instance). However, on shows that are more balanced through their runs, the final season can have little to no impact (outside of the aging of the children, I’m not sure I could tell a season one episode from a final season episode of Everybody Loves Raymond). However, once a series has reached a point where it is getting a designated final season, that season can only have a minimal effect on the series as a whole. Short-running, ignored series never get final seasons to be defined by, only shows that are in someway culturally significant enough to have a run get this privilege, and by definition these shows have already been put in their historical place.
To me, the ideal final season is one in which I get to say goodbye to the characters, without some ultimate , required endpoint. I don’t want my last set of episodes with these people I’ve gotten to know to be set in stone before it starts—this is why I dread the upcoming final season of How I Met Your Mother. Bringing characters to a natural endpoint is good, but making the entire season about getting to that endpoint is less enjoyable. The final season of a show should be representative of the show, not something distinct.
Cameron: I don’t think I have an overarching “ideal” vision for a final season, because each final season is relative to the show in question. Lost, for example, secured a final season three years in advance, which gave them a lot of time to think through (at least the broad strokes of) an ending that would best satisfy them as creatives. As a result, the last three seasons of Lost are more intensely focused on plot and world-building; there are fewer episodes in those seasons that focus on expanding character, which was both beneficial and detrimental to the show as a whole.
Meanwhile, Breaking Bad has been lurching towards an inevitable model of an ending for a long time now, but for strictly legal and business purposes, Sony/AMC split the show’s final season (its fifth) into two eight-episode pieces, mostly because DVDs that have the words “Final Season” written on them tend to sell better than those that do not. But Breaking Bad allows for such a break because, as I said, the ending is all but set in stone at this point. And as with Lost, I’m sure it didn’t hurt to have some extra time to really think through the last set of hours of the show in order to make sure it was most satisfying to them as creatives.
Finality is such a hard thing for serial narratives to deal with because of the time investment for everyone involved. The people who have been working on the thing for years are suddenly at the natural end of the story, or else have let the narrative live beyond its natural death point and are now looking for a way out. For the readers/viewers, the time spent with the characters means there’s a bittersweetness in knowing that soon, they won’t be around to have adventures with anymore. And in the past 10 years in television, a silent battle has begun between creatives and business suits as to how long, exactly, a TV show should run. TV shows, after all, are supposed to be built to last for as long as they remain financially viable, but the Golden Age of Television, with its emphasis on myth-arcs and series bibles, created a new set of expectations among viewers and television writers/creators alike, expectations that at times seemed impossible to fulfill. (Witness the bountiful list of post-Lost knockoffs as evidence of that.)
There isn’t really a show that represents a solid vision of what a compelling final season can look like, either, because shows that run a long time tend to start getting experimental in old age in order to spice up the storytelling. Or, in the case of myth-arc-heavy shows, the episodes tend to feel less like individual pieces of story and more like installments in an over-long miniseries, sludging its way through the remaining plots while still trying to maintain some surprise and suspense. None of the examples I can think of—Buffy, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Numb3rs, House—are perfect; each has lulls, moments when the shows fall back into bad habits previously shed by former glories. That doesn’t mean I think any less of them (in fact, Numb3rs remained my favorite procedural show ever until Elementary‘s first season knocked the last few episodes out of the gorramn park and into the frakking stratosphere) but, in reflecting on the last seasons of each, I’ve come to the realization that trying to force my own idea of perfection onto them would be counterproductive to understanding each show, and each show’s final season, on their own terms.