May 25, 2010

LOST and The Final Episode Conundrum

There is an inherent problem with final episodes of TV shows--they usually suck.  OK, so maybe that is a gross generalization but seriously, can you think of a final episode that was universally loved?  Maybe the wrap-up for "The Mary Tyler Moore" show, but that was what....almost 40 years ago?  Since then its been a history of train wreck swan songs....from "Seinfeld" to "Sex and The City" to "Will and Grace".  

Anyway, as LOST fans bitch and moan this week about questions answered, unanswered and essentially ignored (not to mention the big dopey reveal at the end), I have to say that the problem is not with LOST itself but with the way American television operates.  I say American because in the UK, where series usually don't last more than 2 or 3 six-episode seasons (other than Dr. Who & East Enders).  Their system works beautifully because the shows are more like mini-series.  But series creators in the UK don't have to deal in the harsh capitalism that drives American broadcasting.  Here, if a show is a success, it must then run for at least 5 seasons so there are enough episodes for syndication.  Then, once a show is generating so much cash it's hard for the network to turn that faucet off so shows often outlive their premises by many years.  For example, "Friends" was fresh and funny for about 3 years...but by season 10?  It was staler than 10 year old bread. 

The essential nature of American TV shows is that you get to hang out with the same group of characters week after week and nothing really changes.  Witness the success of "The Simpsons" going strong after 20 years.  But, if a series has to end, that is often a massive change which often forces shows to operate totally outside their comfort zone.  Remember the mawkish finale of "MASH"?  It was so far removed from the average, hilarious episode that it might as well have been another series entirely.  

One show I can think of which had a beautiful ending lasted only 13 episodes; Judd Apatow's 80's flashback "Freaks and Geeks".  Apatow knew the show was doomed so he was able to craft a final episode that worked and still felt like an episode of "Freaks and Geeks".  As for the LOST team, they knew they were doomed in an opposite way. They admitted that they had no grand scheme for the show when it started so when it became a worldwide mega-hit, they, like their characters, got stuck on that island for five more years than they had planned.  So, like most TV writers, they have been making it up as they went along and I mean that in a good way.  They were very creative and clever as they turned 13 episodes into 113.  So I'd cut them a little slack on number 114.

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