Finale thoughts

The best and worst of TV's season-ending episodes.


Joyce Millman
June 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The TV season officially ended last week the way it always does -- in a
spasm of weddings, births, deaths and other gimmicks. But the oddest finale
by far was the real-life cliffhanger WB executives devised for "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer." A day before the second part of the season finale,
"Graduation Day," was to air, WB chief executive officer Jamie Kellner
announced that the network had postponed the episode "out of sympathy and
compassion for the families and communities that have been devastated by
the recent senseless acts of violence perpetrated on high school campuses."
The episode that was pulled depicted high school seniors in an apocalyptic
battle with a 60-foot-tall serpent demon at their commencement.
At one point, reportedly, part of the school blows up. Instead of the
finale, WB substituted a rerun from earlier in the year.

This was the second time since Littleton that WB executives had shelved a
"Buffy" episode just hours before airtime. A week after the massacre, the
episode "Earshot" was pulled because it involved Buffy discovering that a
classmate was planning a mass murder at school.

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The strangest thing about WB's decision to pull "Graduation Day, Part 2"
was Kellner's assertion that the episode would air sometime later this
summer -- implying that the memory of Littleton, and the debate over
violent images in the media, would both have faded by then. WB is gambling
that the American attention span regarding news events will remain short,
and the gamble will probably pay off. For now, its act of self-policing
protects a vulnerable media giant -- Time Warner has long been a target of
anti-media violence groups. But moving "Graduation Day, Part 2" to August
or so serves the network by keeping fans' curiosity piqued and creating a
ready-made media event when it does run. It also gives the episode a
better, less competitive air date, removing it from the swirl of May
finales, and that's good for the fall 1999 "Buffy" spinoff "Angel," which
"Graduation Day, Part 2" sets up. ("Buffy" fans on the
Net
have launched a counter-attack on WB, offering a bootleg of the
episode for download.)

After watching "Part 1," I can see why WB pulled "Part 2." It was
impossible to hear high school kids in the episode saying things like "If
I survive graduation day" and "We have our whole lives ahead of us and now
we're not going to get to do the things we're supposed to do" and not find
yourself distracted by thoughts of Littleton.

That doesn't mean WB was right, though. "Buffy" is caught up in the
aftermath of Littleton, but it's being punished for anticipating it.
In its Gothic horror-cartoon way, "Buffy" is an extraordinarily astute
depiction of what it's like to be a teenager in suburbia. The show is all
metaphor. For much of its run, the weird, different-drummer kids like
vampire slayer Buffy, brainiac Willow, geek Xander, werewolf/garage band
dude Oz were the only ones who could see the truth about the world around
them (the popular kids and the jocks are finally catching on, though).
Since their California suburb, Sunnydale, sits atop the mouth of hell, evil
is a stalking, breathing, undead thing. But "Buffy" makes it clear that
this evil is as old as the world itself -- not a new concept like video
games, the Internet or rock 'n' roll, all of which the parents and teachers
of Sunnydale have been quick to blame for the town's numerous killings and
maimings.

But Buffy and her friends are unusually resilient in the face of evil;
beneath its smartly delivered wisecracks and demons of the week, "Buffy" is
the most optimistic show on television. Friends stay loyal; classmates rise
above petty rivalries and cliques to battle adversity together; teens
sacrifice their own desires to a larger sense of duty and community. On
"Buffy," goodness always triumphs, and darkness isn't represented solely by
vampires, zombies and 60-foot-high serpent demons, but also by teenage
depression, alienation and thoughtless cruelty. The episode that aired the
week before "Graduation Day, Part 1" recalled Littleton even more directly
than the finale: Buffy discovered a boy's plan to unleash a pack of killer
hellhounds at the senior prom as revenge on all the girls who turned him
down for a date. Buffy kicked his ass of course; no troubled teenager ever
gets away with violent acts of vengeance here, and anybody searching for
validation of antisocial, neo-Nazi, violent, self-pitying behavior would
probably be bored by the show.

The real world, in the form of problem kids with easy access to weapons,
has finally caught up with the formerly over-the-top universe of "Buffy."
The wise-ass wisdom the show imparted to viewers -- high school sucks, but
you'll live -- has served many an unpopular kid very well for a long time.
Not anymore.

So how about the season finales that did air? Some thoughts on a
select few.

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Best finale: The Practice (May 9, 1999, ABC) Not to mention, the
weirdest. Creator-writer David E. Kelley made like the guy who used to spin
plates on "Ed Sullivan" with this episode, which began with lawyer Lindsay
Dole (Kelli Williams) being stabbed while working late at the office. She
managed to croak the word "nun" before passing out, which led to a parade
of familiar suspects from previous episodes.

Was her assailant a nun, angry over Lindsay previously getting an alleged
nun-killer off on a technicality? Yes! Wait, no! Because horny Judge
Kittelson (Holland Taylor), who had the hots for Lindsay's boyfriend,
lawyer Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott), all season and went so far as to
have Lindsay stalked, just happened to have a nun's habit in her closet.
Except, Lindsay comes out of a coma and says that the attacker was a man.
So that means it was -- the nun killer in drag! Yes! No! Because he was
busy torturing another victim in his apartment at the time of the attack,
and besides, a videotape just arrived at the firm from clever Joey Herrick
(John Larroquette), who got away with murder twice, and in it he implicates
-- George Vogelman (Michale Monks), Ellenor's former boyfriend the
podiatrist, who stood trial for murder because he woke up with a woman's
severed head in his medical bag and he didn't know how it got there! In the
last scene, there's good old George, in a nun's habit, prowling the street
at night. Ellenor, watch your back!

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As if these tensely wrought plot twists weren't enough, Kelley had Bobby
propose to Lindsay in an insanely old-fashioned hospital bedside scene,
complete with their pal, District Attorney Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle),
swooning over the size of the ring. "The Practice" isn't just any old
courtroom drama -- it's a psychological mystery thriller chick-show
courtroom drama. Alfred Hitchcock would be impressed.

Most depressing finale: NYPD Blue (May 25, 1999, ABC) Well, this was
a happy year for our friends at the 15th Precinct, wasn't it? After ripping
our guts out last November with Bobby Simone's agonizing death
from a heart infection, producer David Milch and his co-writers capped the
season by killing off Andy Sipowicz's wife, Assistant District Attorney
Sylvia Costas, in a courthouse shooting. Shellshocked Andy (Dennis Franz)
was left to care for their young son, Theo, while his squad-mates worried
that he'd start drinking again, or even turn suicidal. It wasn't a foolish
worry -- Andy, you'll remember, has already been through the murder of his
grown son and the death of his partner and, well, how much more can a guy
take? "It's like you're stuck in that movie 'Groundhog Day,' except in
hell," Andy remarked in the episode. We hear ya, buddy.

Look, I understand where Milch is going, which is to say, in circles. With
each loss, Andy grows up a little more. Clad in funereal black for most of
the finale, Andy surprised everyone with his dignified handling of Sylvia's
murder. He didn't fall off the wagon or unleash his anger and bigotry on
the people around him. He pulled himself out of self-pity, let new partner
Danny Sorenson (Rick Schroder) care about him and forgave civilian
squad-room assistant John Irvin (Bill Brochtrup) for the meddling that
inadvertently led to Sylvia's death. He even asked his ex-wife, Katie (Debra
Monk), to help with Theo, thus giving her, and himself as well, a chance to fix their
wrecked relationship and raise another boy.

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The symmetry was elegant, I'll say that. But I guess I've had a little too
much Andy this season. Watching Bobby die was a wrenching experience, and
one of the reasons it hit loyal viewers so hard was that it gave us a rare
opportunity to identify with Bobby's wife, Detective Diane Russell (Kim
Delaney). She blossomed in her worry and pain during the first four
episodes of the season, but as soon as Bobby died, the writers dropped her
like a spent shell casing and it was all about Andy again. Andy has
trouble adjusting to his new partner. Andy can't control his temper. Andy
discovers the roots of his racism in a dream sequence. We needed scenes
from Diane's perspective; we needed to grieve with her. But we never got
those scenes. This was a glaring example of unfinished emotional business,
but it wasn't surprising, given the show's persistent tendency to
marginalize its female characters (which was why Sharon Lawrence, who
played Sylvia, left).

Then, in the first half of the season finale, Danny ups and kisses Diane,
practically out of nowhere. (OK, he had been stammering a lot around her
all season, and she seemed cautiously interested in his personal life, but
the show's haiku-like dialogue didn't exactly spell anything out.) So Danny
kisses her in the station house, and she's, like, OK with it, and
then at the end of the last episode, she kisses him back. Hello? When did
she get over Bobby? I'd make a prediction that next season opens with the
two of them in bed, but the way things are going with this show, Andy'd
probably be in there between them trying to, you know, deal with it.

Most vaguely unsatisfying finale: The X-Files (May 16, 1999, Fox)
After a meandering (but entertaining) season of doppelgängers, ghostbusting
and Vegas diversions, the finale's shift back onto the conspiracy track
felt grindingly abrupt. Creator-director-writer Chris Carter did some of
his best work in the February sweeps two-parter "Two Fathers"/"One Son";
somber and stately, with shivery aliens-as-Nazis imagery, you might call
these episodes Carter's "Schindler's List." But then the alien colonization
of Earth theme, as well as the key bad guys, disappeared for the rest of the
season -- until Cancer Man, Krycek and Diana Fowley popped back in for this
cliffhanger. The episode's contribution to the series' mythology -- Mulder
and Scully discover evidence that human life may have originated on Mars --
was a tantalizing piece of the puzzle. But the episode felt strangely
perfunctory and weightless -- it was a set-up devoid of suspense.

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I will say, however, that there was no scarier moment all season than when
the chilly Diana (Mimi Rogers), who suddenly shows up to care for a
mysteriously ailing Mulder, grimly strips off her blouse and strides
purposefully into his bedroom. Brrrr!

Funniest finale: The Simpsons (May 16, 1999, Fox) In a manic assault
on the worst of two cultures, Homer dabbles in day trading at Springfield's
new Internet cafe, he and Marge attend a "live frugally and become a
millionaire" seminar, the Simpsons acquire cheap one-way plane tickets to
Japan, and they spend their vacation insulting the locals, blow all their money
on American fast food and then have to go on a sadistic Japanese game show
to win passage home. God -- or Matt Groening -- was in the details in this
one, with merciless send-ups of Bill Gates, Wired magazine, motivational
speakers, Hello Kitty, Pokemon, the Japanese work ethic -- you name it. A
great moment: Woody Allen, acting in a Japanese TV commercial, asks
himself, once the camera stops rolling, "What did I do to deserve this?" A
beat later, he remembers: "Oh, right."

Shortest goodbye: "Homicide" series finale (May 21, 1999, NBC) This
episode became the series' swan song with NBC's announcement that the
perennially ratings-challenged cop drama had been cancelled. Since it was
written as an ending of sorts (original cast member Kyle Secor was leaving
the show), it did manage to provide reasonable closure. When the series
began in 1993, Secor's Tim Bayliss was supposed to be our guide through the
underworld of this Baltimore police homicide squad. A new transfer to the
department, Bayliss was green and eager, and murder still had the power to
discombobulate him. Bayliss' personality changes over the show's run
coincided with the changes in the show, as the producers dealt with the
departures of actors and the constant threat of cancellation by tweaking
cosmetic elements (more music, sexier female cops, younger, studlier male
cops) and smoothing down the complex story lines. Over the past couple of
seasons, Bayliss was a very mixed-up boy indeed, sleeping around, deciding
he was bisexual, becoming estranged from his (work) partner Frank Pembleton,
getting shot, becoming a Buddhist, killing a homeless man by mistake,
quitting the force and, finally, taking justice into his own hands by
tracking down and killing the scummy Internet sex killer he'd been chasing
for half a season after the guy had his case dismissed on a technicality.
Well, at least Bayliss got to leave on his own terms -- which, sadly,
wasn't the case with "Homicide" itself.

Longest goodbye: "Mad About You" series finale (May 24, 1999, NBC) Is
it over yet? Are they gone? Are they?

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Worst finale, best performance: "Saturday Night Live" (May 16, 1999,
NBC)
"SNL" got funny again this season (catch the Ray Romano and Gwyneth Paltrow shows in rerun), but you wouldn't
know it from this almost totally laugh-free season finale, hosted by Sarah
Michelle Gellar. The exception: The opening bit with Ana Gasteyer and Will Ferrell
as regular characters Bobbi Mohan-Culp and Marty Culp, the resolutely unhip
middle-aged couple who "head up the music department over at Altadena
Middle School" and whose tortured medleys of pop songs have been one of the
treats of the past couple of seasons. Bespectacled, straight-backed Bobbi
(she looks like a live-action Peggy Hill) warbles in a music teacher
soprano holding her hands stiffly in front of her. Bald, Amish-bearded
Marty gets funky at the electronic keyboard. The Culps saved their most
hilariously incongruous medley for this last show. All I can say is, Sugar
Ray's "Every Morning" and Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" will never be the
same.


Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman


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