Monday, March 31, 2014

800 Words: How to End a TV Show

Read no further if you want to preserve the mystery of How I Met Your Mother ends, but if, like me, you suspected the odds of a downer ending were nearly 1-to-1, you can’t help but admire the balls it takes to do it, even if you still view it as a terrible copout. True to form, this mainstream sitcom grinded millions of noses in the shit of what life really is - even if it can’t help but shout at the top of its lungs that that’s where it’s grinding your nose. How I Met Your Mother is, from beginning to end, the greatest shitcom ever made. But it’s still a shitcom.

HIMYM wanted it both ways, it wanted to be a fairy tale about how a romantic finally met the perfect woman after a decade’s agonized search, yet it also wanted to be true to real life and show that life is full of suffering, awkwardness, and boredom. It’s truly astounding how well it managed to stride those two worlds, and perhaps a more sympathetic viewer than I would say that it’s not a problem. But it’s a problem.

The mother was never, for even a moment, a real character. She was an apparition, a tantalizingly conjured dream of a dream woman with no wishes and needs of her own - kept off the screen for every possible moment to preserve her perfection in Ted’s (and our) eyes, kept mostly chaste in her backstory while Ted ran around with 40 other women, showed only enough times we can see so that her only role on the show is to be Ted’s destiny, then killed off before we could gain any insight into whom she truly was. If their goal was to create a dream woman, they succeeded brilliantly. Of course, if we saw the mother in three-dimensions, she would disappoint us all. But that’s precisely what we needed - we needed to see a relationship with disappointments, leading to a marriage with disappointments, with children who disappoint them both, leading to a decision of whether or not to preserve the marriage in spite of the disappointments. Half of every human relationship is defined by how we disappoint each other (probably much more...), and true disappointment is what How I Met Your Mother always evaded. There was always another huge romantic gesture to cover up life's brutality, and no allowance that most people’s lives contain more agony than joy. Their evasions were astoundingly skillful, and even now, our picture of the Mother fits like a perfect piece to a jigsaw puzzle. Nobody can say that HIMYM avoids life’s disappointments after this series finale, but it's all far too neat. The resolution of this show is no more than a jigsaw puzzle version of how life really is that’s meant to appease both the rom-com audience and the critical one. Sure, Ted experiences terrible agony and unfairness, and Marshall and Lilly have unresolved issues in their marriage which will pull it downhill, but their real suffering is in the future, off-screen and after the series ends.

Otherwise, it was a pretty good finale - admitting what we all knew, that Barney couldn’t stop being a lothario and Robin would pine after Ted, that these friendships could not possibly last for any longer than they already did, that Marshall and Lily would have to clean up after everybody else’s messes, but also that these people were family, and nothing could keep them apart for life’s greatest and worst moments. But if HIMYM were really true to life, Ted and Robin would never have another opportunity to get together. It it would be the unfortunate 'what if' of both their disappointing lives. Ted would have met Tracy give years earlier, and we'd see their relationshp play out. They would be the ones tempted to divorce, and it would be Barney who’d meet an unfortunate end as so many people who live too hard do too early. Maybe Barney was still shacking up with bimbos and fooling Robin into thinking he was a faithful husband, perhaps he got drunk and had a heart attack during sex with a stripper, or crashed his car into the East River and drowned both himself and Robin's intern while his pants were down. But ‘lifeness’ was never HIMYM’s goal, their goal was to give us just enough realism to let us escape from reality.

A TV finale is a declaration of principles. In movies or plays, the ending is a third of the artwork itself - the conflict is raised, wrestled with, then resolved. But TV, like novels, must have a resolution which is true to the spirit of the show, and while a series finale can disappoint (I’m looking at you Larry David), it can’t help but shed light on what this long story was about. We already know the characters, we already know the story, all that’s left to do is to sum up why we undertook this journey. Seinfeld’s finale was famously reviled, but it was utterly true to the show - as devastatingly nihilistic and antisocial as the entire series was. Opinion on The Sopranos’ finale was divided, but like the show itself, it was meant as a challenge, meant to make us think on a level which no TV show had ever before done. Breaking Bad’s finale (yes, I watched out of sequence and ahead…) was an almost universally applauded realistic end that could also be interpreted as the final flashes of imagination within a man who freezes to death - summing up a show that worked both an exciting pot boiler and a brain teaser. Some finales, like Six Feet Under, are more well-praised than the show itself, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a show about death would be extremely well-prepared to have a great ending. But to me, the greatest TV finale I’ve ever seen was to Big Love, a flawed but vastly underrated show to the very end, in which the series finale seemed to demonstrate that the show’s point was to document the founding of an entire religion, and not a single TV critic noticed...

Nobody is ever going to be completely satisfied with the ending of a great TV show or book, and you can find thousands of Amazon reviews from readers who complain that ‘the ending of this novel was arbitrary.’ To a huge extent, a great play or movie is its ending - we only know its characters for long enough for us to define them by what happens to them. But a great novel or TV show can still have a terrible ending and be a great work of art, because we live and breathe with these characters for as much time as we spend with our friends and family. Life can be disappointing, and so can the ways we part with our favorite characters within them, so why can’t TV shows have disappointing finales too?

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