A year ago Elke Weissmann wrote about finding time for television, and discussed that when we actually find that limited time in our day to sit down and watch television, we do not actually watch television. Instead we watch a specific programme, whether on DVD or on-demand, and are often prone to binge watching these programmes. And these programmes, the special few that we choose to dedicate our time and attention to, are becoming subject to stricter and harsher criteria. After all, nobody wants to waste 20 hours of their lives on what turns out, ultimately, to be a complete let down.
This has led to a shift, while it used to be the role of the pilot episode to set up the viewers’ expectations, introduce characters, themes, genres and style in an attempt to ‘hook’ the audience and attract new viewers, this is no longer the case. Instead, finales are increasingly being utilised by potential audience members as a way of judging whether they want to watch a series. With a huge range of new and old programming freely (or at least cheaply) available through services such as Netflix, audiences have to find new ways of deciding what programmes to watch, of whittling down thousands of possible programmes into the manageable few. And an easy, quick way of judging a programme is seeing if the finale lives up to expectations.
The bad news is that finales are notoriously hard. There are endless lists of ‘Worst Television Finales Ever’, with hundreds of examples of bad television finales. And while certain genres rely less on their finale, such as procedural dramas and other episodic programmes, flexi-narratives and serial programmes rely on them heavily. The problem is that a lot is expected from these finales, years of plotlines and character development need to be boiled down to one, pivotal episode. We want closure, both narrative and emotional, the chance to say goodbye to characters we have spent possibly hundreds of hours with, and the overall themes and tone of the series to be reinforced. So it’s not a surprise so many shows seem to fall down at this final hurdle. From the disappointing (Quantum Leap), to the derided (How I Met Your Mother), and the divisive (Did Tony Soprano die? Did he?), to the downright hated (Dexter), many audience members say farewell to their programmes on a low note, rather than the blaze of glory they were hoping for. Reddit user ChallengeResponse collected IMDb ratings and plotted how finales rated against the average episode ratings, and illustrates that while many finales end a programme’s run satisfactorily, it seems that it is easier to fail than succeed (as the most improved finale, Glee, was rated more than two whole points above its average (6.8 average to 9.2 finale), compared to Dexter, which fell four whole points (8.9 overall to a 4.8 finale).
While a badly received finale has never been a good thing, at least when they aired during a programme’s original run the programme already had an audience to disappoint. But as finales have increasingly become a way of judging a television series’ worthiness, these disappointing episodes have more impact. As previously mentioned, with less free time and more choice audiences are becoming increasingly picky about what they choose to invest their time in. Nobody wants to invest what could amount to hundreds of hours to programming that leaves them unsatisfied. When discussing the finale of Lost, Charlie Oldfield wrote that “Now finishing a show with a sense of mystery can work in some cases, but when a programme’s only hook is the promise of answers then the technique doesn’t really make sense. Also, considering how the series contained such dark themes as limbo and murder, the ending was a pretty soppy mess, attempting to provide a ‘happily-ever-after’ ending that didn’t really make sense. It undermined everything that had come before, showing that the writers never knew where they were taking the show and were in fact just making it up as they went along.” The lack of answers and payoff in Lost’s finale undermined everything about the series. Why would a possible new viewer want to invest 85 hours into a mystery that is not satisfactorily solved?
Indeed, perhaps this is a learned behaviour. Personally I know that on multiple occasions programmes that I have loved, programmes that I have defended, have ended badly, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth and an acute sense of embarrassment. I can no longer trust that programmes will honour me the way I honoured them, causing me to became defensively suspicious of television. When the time came to choose the next programme, the next obsession, the next time sink, I became pragmatic. No longer would I invest time, week after week, in a programme that could betray me. Instead I wait, biding my time until a series has ended. Then I search for the vaguest, and hopefully spoiler free reviews, of the programme. If the audience seems satisfied, if fans aren’t crying out on social media about the nonsensical plot resolution, or forgotten character development, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll give it a shot. And I am not alone, message boards and social media is full of discussions about which finales ruined a programme, and often when new viewers ask whether programmes are worth starting, the answer is a responding ‘no’.
Netflix seem to have understood how to utilise this mind-set, even for programmes that have not ended. Rather than making viewers watch an episode a week, waiting months to see if that murder-mystery has a satisfactory conclusion, audience members can find out in a weekend. Then hey, if it sucked, at least only a weekend was wasted. And with a Netflix release like Daredevil, which is released all at once, audiences do not have to wait three months to see if the finale will end the series satisfactorily. Wait a day, maybe less, and the internet will be full of reviews praising the programme and making predictions for season three.
The downside to this is that many programmes with bad finales can be amazing. If we refer back to ChallengeResponse’s list and look at Dexter, while the finale scored a disappointing 4.8, the rest of the series was incredibly well received. The question becomes, how much can viewers enjoy the journey of a television programme if they know the destination is a let-down? Would those previous episodes of Dexter be rated as highly as they are if viewers knew that any character development they witnessed ultimately had no payoff? A plethora of scholarly work has been done on narrative closure across a range of different media, so it is not my intention to answer these questions here. Indeed, it is really down to individuals to decide whether a programme is still worth watching even if it has a disappointing ending, just as each programme has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. But finales are becoming just as important to potential viewers of a programme as they are to an established viewer, and are increasingly taking on the role once reserved for the pilot episode.
[P.S. However if you are interested, here are the Top 10 Disappointing TV Show Finales:
Claire Burdfield is a postgraduate researcher of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis, tentatively entitled ‘The Accidental Audience: Industrial Management of Unexpected Viewerships’ focuses on how the television industry manages audiences that engage with their programming that differ from the intended audience. She also works for the Children’s Media Conference and is a member of the BAFTA Youth Council.