Please let David Letterman go: From "Mad Men" to "Sopranos," our obsession with endings gets everything backwards

We debate them to death, but there are no perfect endings. We'd enjoy our favorite shows more if we accepted that

Published May 19, 2015 6:21PM (EDT)

David Letterman            (AP/Michael Conroy)
David Letterman (AP/Michael Conroy)

Do we care too much about endings?

It’s basically impossible now for any popular TV series to come to an end without igniting a fractious Internet debate. "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner anticipated a backlash to his ending episode long before the ending or any of the episodes running up to it aired. It’s almost as though what happens in the ending itself is less important than the audience’s grief that a beloved show is ending.

Of course, simply not ending the show won’t head off the hate, since the only thing that makes us madder than our favorite show ending is our favorite show continuing long after it should have ended--the level of anger around shows that “should” have been canceled but weren’t was enough to spawn the phrase and attendant cultural phenomenon “jumping the shark.”

As I’ve heard pointed out lots of times, this is ultimately a very selfish thing for audiences to want. If the show continues to be profitable for the network, that means enough people are watching and, presumably, enjoying it to make the ad revenue worth it--and that in turn means that you’re basically rooting for a business to go under because you personally don’t like the product.

From an insider’s perspective even a “well-deserved” cancellation of a show means actors, writers, crew members all suddenly out of work and having to find a new gig. It’s not a nice thing to wish on anyone. (Indeed, the overwhelming sense I’ve gotten interacting with the behind-the-scenes crew on "Jeopardy!" is gratitude for having had a steady job for the past 30 years, when most people who work in TV can’t rely on steady work for even five years.)

But hey, TV may be business as well as art, but we interact with art as fans, not as investors. It’s perfectly reasonable for us to respect creators’ wishes while still expressing our own--and the Internet has made it easy for us to loudly discuss which shows should go, which shows should come back, and which characters on which shows should get married because we say so. (It’s not reasonable when our attachment to these opinions gets so fervent that it leads to attempted FCC complaints, lawsuits and death threats, but that’s the age we live in.)

It’s interesting, though, how central the idea of the right ending is to fandom. I won’t lie, one of the reasons I’ve retroactively soured on "House, MD" is remembering Hugh Laurie explaining how his character was like a “man on a window ledge”, a character in urgent personal crisis that needed to be resolved sooner rather than later--and instead the producers milked said crisis for ratings and advertising dollars for eight damn years until the crisis basically petered out.

And I’m one of the people deeply upset to learn that "The Simpsons," which was making jokes about how it was a show wearing out its welcome and running out of ideas back in 1997, apparently had a Christmas special in 2011 that would’ve functioned as an awesome series finale… but didn’t, because why would Fox give up their biggest cash cow if there was literally any other option available?

Now "The Simpsons" is going to continue without Harry Shearer, one of its most iconic voice actors and the man behind literally half of its main cast outside the Simpson family, because this show is at this point unkillable. Every “golden opportunity” to end "The Simpsons" at an appropriate time--with the release of the feature film in 2007, with the 20th anniversary in 2010, with the labor dispute in 2011, with Shearer’s departure now--has been ignored.

This logically shouldn’t make me that mad. I can easily pretend the 2011 Christmas episode was the series finale by the simple expedient of not watching the show anymore afterwards. In fact, I’ve already done that. There’s no logical reason for me to be upset that episodes of "The Simpsons" are still coming out other than my concern for the purity of the "Simpsons" “canon,” a term, I hasten to note, that arises from treating a piece of commercial entertainment like religious dogma, an attitude "The Simpsons" itself frequently lampoons.

But I’m certainly not alone in cultivating an emotional stake in TV that I’m free to simply turn off if I don’t like it. I think this urge has always been there, but now that digital media makes it easier than ever to be a compulsive completionist it’s far more commonplace. Now it’s not just a matter of deciding not to “catch” a show when it’s on but consciously choosing to take it off your DVR schedule, to not order the DVD box set, to tell Netflix no, you don’t want to “Continue Watching” after you get to that point in your streaming binge. Especially on a streaming service like Netflix you can see the unsatisfying ending to the show there, like a tumor, mocking you with its canonicity.

The emotional investment in TV extends to the nonfiction world too. It can’t possibly be the case that that many people were fans of Conan O’Brien’s stint on "The Tonight Show" or it wouldn’t have been in ratings trouble in the first place, but the way people reacted to Jay Leno’s “betrayal” and “sabotage” of Conan by trying to call backsies on his retirement, you’d think a dispute between two millionaire TV personalities was the labor issue of the century. Everyone who bought a Team Coco T-shirt in 2010 is going to have to explain to their kids why they cared so much about this core ethical principle that when a late-night talk show host retires he has to stay retired; he’s not allowed to undo his own ending.

Look at the immense attention David Letterman is getting for retiring, and the praise he’s getting, unlike Leno, for retiring at the “right time.” Yes, I’m excited about his passing the torch to Stephen Colbert and I’d be pissed if Letterman somehow “sabotaged” it the way Leno’s torch-passing to O’Brien was sabotaged--but mainly because I like Colbert as a host and I think his hosting "Late Show" makes good TV (whereas the main problem with the Coco-vs-Leno drama was that network-politics inside-baseball isn’t, at the end of the day, very good TV).

But it shouldn’t be that important. This last week of Letterman-hosted shows shouldn’t affect his legacy much one way or the other. Would anything negative in this last week actually “tarnish” a 33-year-long career? And would anything positive in this week be capable of “redeeming” the negative things about that career?

I mean, I think he deserves a good send-off as much as anyone. But people seem to be investing a lot of meaning in Oprah coming on the show to confirm the nonexistence of a feud that was already declared settled in 2005 and that was never that big a deal in the first place?

And to the extent that “feud” was caused by Letterman’s admittedly assholish and, at times, creepy behavior toward women--well, does that somehow go away because of Julia Roberts officially forgiving him for intimidating her back in the day and officially smooching him to prove that his handsiness with pretty female guests is okay? Does Roberts’ appearance--clearly intended to provide a positive capstone to Letterman’s long history of quasi-antagonistic flirting with actresses--negate the experience of guests like Amy Schumer who were clearly less okay with it?

I think the problem is, as always, our problem with ambiguity. We have a tough time dealing with the fact that every TV show is made up of good and bad episodes, which are themselves made up of good and bad moments, and that summing up any work of art with an overall grade is impossible to do without oversimplifying so much you might as well be lying. (This is especially true in the gaming world with its obsession with review “scores,” but it’s true everywhere.)

So a ton of pressure gets put on beginnings--to draw the viewer in--and, most of all, endings, the bit that’s freshest in the viewer’s mind when they sit down to think about their “retrospective” on the work as a whole.

We do this with our lives, too. The fable says Solon told Croesus to count no man happy until his death--as though once he is dead we can finally breathe a sigh of relief and pass our judgment on his life. We look to obituaries and eulogies to sum up a person’s life; we dream of a well-lived life, like a well-written story, having an appropriate ending. (Orson Scott Card made a huge splash among science fiction fans by propounding the conceit of a wise man who’s able to sum up a life in a well-told story.)

This despite the fact that all stories and all lives are, to quote Anatole Broyard, “mostly middles”. Very few of us will get satisfying endings to our story that somehow define our lives, unless we are (un)lucky enough to die violently while committing some heroic act. Most of us will continue to live lives that are just “one damned thing after another” until our bodies slow down and eventually fail.

We’ll end up eulogized by friends who cherry-pick the events of our lives to be a positive story of triumph--but that story won’t negate any of the individual days we were cruel or callous or incompetent, not for the people our cruelty or callousness or incompetence harmed. Don Draper may think if you write a good enough ending, all the bad middles “never happened,” but he’s wrong and "Mad Men" is about how he’s wrong. Just like if we’re unlucky enough to become historical villains eulogized as monsters, the evil we committed doesn’t cancel out the kindnesses we performed and the friendships we made. (And that fact, that villains can genuinely love and be loved, seems to be the fact we find hardest to accept in our quest for tidy answers.)

As I get older I come to think that it’s better to take everything, both life and art, moment by moment. Some of the best works of art in history were never finished, but the lack of an ending doesn’t diminish what is there. Yes, it’s in vogue right now to go back to every abandoned franchise from our childhoods and give them the proper ending they never got, but it’s not the healthiest impulse nor the one most likely to make good art.

When it comes to TV endings I have a soft spot for endings that dismiss the “reality” of everything that came before--controversial endings like the ending of "St. Elsewhere" or "Newhart" that remind you that all stories are made-up artificial constructs that begin and end only when the storyteller chooses to start and stop talking, that what you choose to interpret as “canonical” is entirely up to you.

But the two big series finale episodes that stick in my mind most are the endings of "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under."

"The Sopranos’" ending touched off a ton of chatter about whether or not Tony Soprano lives or dies, but to me the sudden cut to black is about how that doesn’t matter. Maybe he dies after that moment. Maybe he keeps on doing what he’s doing. Tony Soprano’s ending might be a sudden bullet to the head, or it might be forty more years of being a ruthless mob boss, or it might, improbably, be a sudden redemption where he forsakes crime and devotes the rest of his life to charitable works.

It’s irrelevant to the story being told. Tony’s life is mostly middles. It’s been one long series of middles consisting of sitting around in seedy joints with his seedy colleagues plotting murder while having murder plotted against them. That series of middles makes a redemptive ending very unlikely, but even if it did happen it wouldn’t somehow erase what’s already happened. For many people--the people whom Tony has already hurt--that middle is the ending and will always be the only ending that matters.

"Six Feet Under" makes that same point differently--it makes the point that unless a story brings in the religious or the supernatural, it’s ultimately meaningless to ask whether a character “survives.” In the world we live in, nobody survives in the long run--the only question is whether the storyteller stops talking before the long run happens. Death, the core theme of "Six Feet Under," is the great equalizer. We watch every single character in the cast die, sometime in the future, the full details of their lives up to that point unknown--but whether those details were good or bad, the ending is the same. The body fails, the mind fades to black, then nothing.

We can work as hard as we want to try to create the “perfect ending” in fiction; the outcry and backlash that comes out after every fictional ending shows we’ll never fully succeed. But in real life there’s no such thing--stories don’t wrap up in a little bow. Life just keeps on going until the story you thought you were telling segues into a different one.

Maybe we’d be happier with our art, and our lives, if we learned to accept that.

By Arthur Chu

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