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Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
By now, it seems obvious that the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” which aired last night, enjoyed near-universal (if sometimes measured) acclaim.
And though we’d all be well-served, perhaps, by re-evaluating the finale once the fervor has died down (so, in a couple of years?), early impressions of finales tend to stick. “The Sopranos,” whose finale is to my own personal taste, stumped in 2007 and still prompts debate; the last “Six Feet Under” was hailed in 2005 despite a rocky final run of episodes and still comes up in best-finale conversations.
“Breaking Bad” meted out, in its final minutes, punishment and reward to the respectively deserving. But for a dark drama, it was remarkably conclusive, resembling less the open-ended (but great) final moments of “The Sopranos” and “The Shield” than the last moments of a sitcom. When done well, leaving loose threads dangling can be marvelously satisfying; this is not the route the “Breaking Bad” team took, so much so that at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz compared the finale to that of “Cheers.” To me it chimed more with (admittedly, a hobbyhorse of mine) the “Sex and the City” finale.
On that comedy’s final moments, the protagonist declares that her quest for love — the very point of the show — hasn’t really been as important as her own personal development. “But the most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself,” Carrie intones in voice-over. If “Breaking Bad” had a voice-over effect, Walt might have used different words to convey the same effect; that everything that’s come before can be re-evaluated through the lens of the central character’s narcissism, and that the protagonist’s personal development has been the really important element of the show. Indeed, Walt’s admission to Skyler during their final meeting that he’d truly loved manufacturing and dealing meth — that he’d done it, more and more, for himself and not for the family — serves that purpose. Finally, we’re able to see Walt for what he really is, fannish love for his bravery or self-sacrifice or toughness or whatever it is his admirers like about him aside. He tells us so himself! He’s a person whose actions were undertaken out of sheer joie de vivre, who explained it to himself as a sort of family obligation. This sort of direct, plainspoken conclusiveness is unusual for the modern drama.
Conclusiveness does not necessarily mean the sort of hairpin turn that many finales take — as in the case of “St. Elsewhere,” where it’s revealed the entire show was made up by an autistic child, or “House,” where House fakes his own death and drives off on a motorcycle. It’s possible to end a show in a decisive manner without resorting to an eleventh-hour twist, but everything that comes before has to have been unified enough to have built to a conclusion. Without a properly built show, any ending will seem out of left field.
The recent high-art cable boom hasn’t had much room for tidiness; the finale of “The Shield” leaves entirely open what its protagonist is going to do with that gun. “Six Feet Under,” for as fantastic as its series-ending montage of every character’s death is, leaves open the question of whether their lives were well-lived. “Breaking Bad,” in its last episode, was so neat as to almost seem didactic in comparison to other recent finales of its ilk. If it seems “too neat,” that’s because other great endings are so very messy; perhaps that’s what viewers needed, though, to metabolize the somehow-even-worse-than-Tony-Soprano misdeeds of Walter White. An inconclusive ending would have been unsatisfying here even as it satisfies elsewhere. There was catharsis in the death of Walter and of Todd et al., in the freeing of Jesse, and in Walter’s plainspoken conversation with Skyler.
It seems likely that this will enter the best-finale conversation, if only for its novelty. Lesser series tend to ape better ones, and so it is that the inconclusive finale has come to be in vogue for shows that don’t know what they’re doing. Tony Soprano’s cut to black begat Dexter sudden flash-forward to life as a lumberjack, his future unclear; “Dexter” was one of those shows not nearly well-constructed enough to support an ending that wasn’t at once entirely random and still, somehow, inconclusive. “Breaking Bad” had the courage to be satisfying in a TV climate that has for a few years treated obliqueness as art itself.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_ More Daniel D'Addario.
"Californication" (seven seasons)
"Entourage" (eight seasons)
Much like “Californication,” this man-centric show started strong and buzzy -- a perpetual nominee at the Golden Globes and Emmys, and a perceived gender-swapped “Sex and the City.” Then it ground on and on, and what might once have been read as a sophisticated satire of Hollywood materialism became a grinding conveyor belt of self-congratulatory guest-star appearances.
"Will & Grace" (eight seasons)
Hey, did someone say “self-congratulatory guest-star appearances?” Look -- it’s Jennifer Lopez, and Cher, and Janet Jackson, and Madonna! The latter seasons of “Will & Grace” effectively ruined the fun of watching the show in syndication now -- will it be a fun and jaunty early episode, or a later episode in which title characters enact an Ibsen play about having a baby together (really) while Jack and Karen meet one pop star or another? The fact that the show hastened a widespread acceptance of gay people that, then, made the show something of a throwback by the time it ended is one thing; the fact that the show itself seemed uninterested in relying on its actors’ sharp comic timing is quite another.
"The King of Queens" (nine seasons)
This CBS stalwart just kind of kept going, exactly as long as was needed to launch Kevin James’ film career. In the show’s final minutes, a formulaic sitcom became a mile-a-minute soap, with the central characters considering divorce and then having two children.
"Frasier" (11 seasons)
Though it ended strong, "Frasier" had something of the opposite problem as “The King of Queens”: While the CBS comedy chucked a whole bunch of plot at viewers toward the end, NBC’s Emmy magnet stayed stuck in familiar ruts, with Frasier questing endlessly for love and Daphne and Niles in fairly unthrilling domestic bliss. The jokes stayed good, but this maybe could have gone one or two years shorter.
"Weeds" (eight seasons)
As “Homeland” viewers may be learning, Showtime isn’t particularly good at keeping its shows coherent over time. (Maybe this is “Californication”’s issue -- we wouldn’t know!) This show changed settings and, effectively, organizing conceits so many times that by the end, it had few earnest defenders.
"Nip/Tuck" (six seasons)
This FX series, too, changed settings midway through, moving from Miami to Los Angeles four seasons in for no compelling reason. The show’s most gripping subplots had a way of petering out (remember the anticlimactic solution to the mystery of the Carver?), and its bizarre tendencies overtook any sense of fun.
"Glee" (five seasons and counting)
The series has, like its sibling show “Nip/Tuck” (Ryan Murphy created them both), switched locations, moving in large part to New York once its core cast graduated high school. But what’s the point of a high school series when the stars graduate? Despite some lovely moments, the show’s heat seems gone, and attempts to get back into the conversation (the school shooting episode, for instance) have been more desperate and tone-deaf than effective.
"Grey's Anatomy" (10 seasons and counting)
Here’s the thing: By all accounts, “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a creative failure. And it’s still widely watched. But when you begin your life as a world-beating hit, anything else seems somewhat marginal. “Grey’s Anatomy” has shed more regular viewers than many shows will ever hope to get in the first place (same’s true of “Survivor” and latter-day “ER,” to name just a few). Those who stopped watching once the Golden Globe nominations petered out may wonder why the show is still on; loyal viewers know better.
"The Simpsons" (25 seasons and counting)
Like the “Grey’s” doctors, the Springfield clan and their neighbors still draw a crowd. But “The Simpsons” is so omnipresent in syndication and in pop culture that the first-run series seems besides the point (not least because, though there are good episodes here and there, the show’s best days are universally agreed to be behind it -- like way behind it, in the 1990s).
"The Office" (nine seasons)
There was a natural break for this show, where it ought to have ended -- with the departure of lead actor Steve Carell in Season 7. The latter years were a creative fugue state, and as NBC’s Thursday night lineup continued to flatline in the ratings, one-time fans could be forgiven at their surprise that the adventures of Jim and Pam kept on unfolding.
"The X-Files" (nine seasons)
Once one of the show’s leads departs and has to be replaced -- as Steve Carell did on “The Office,” or David Duchovny did here -- the show faces a reckoning; if the lead is so central to the show’s plot as to make people wonder how the show could possibly go on, maybe the show shouldn’t. And even “X-Files” superfans might have been happier with fewer seasons of drawing out the conspiracy string toward a famously unsatisfying ending.
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