TV Club

TV shows don’t end anymore; they just pause.

Is it still possible for a TV show to have a satisfying ending—or end at all?

Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, P.J. Byrne, James Tupper, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz in Big Little Lies (2017)
P.J. Byrne, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, James Tupper, and Zoë Kravitz in Big Little Lies.



I mentioned earlier that the most interesting thing about a show is hardly ever whether it’s good or not, and I want to talk about that a little more in the context of Game of Thrones, the only collective fictional viewing experience that can currently compete with the jolts of our shared nonfiction. If Game of Thrones began at a steady world-building lope, it is sprinting toward its end with disregard for the rules of time and space. I’m not complaining, though I do think the pell-mell dash to the payoff does make some of the more leisurely aspects of the show (and our obsessive dissection of them) seem, in retrospect, like a waste of time. But what was I just saying? Oh right! Complaining about Game of Thrones is a scold’s game. Things are finally happening, and who cares if we knew they were going to happen: Ice dragon! Jon Snow’s tush engaged in swoony maybe-incest! As far as the battle for attention goes, Game of Thrones is already sitting on the Iron Throne, and fealty is not just the easier, it’s the more fun option.

What I’m really interested in is how Game of Thrones ends. If this sounds like a subject for TV Club 2018 (and it will be!) bear with me. Here is a show that’s oft-stated major theme is that happy endings are the stuff of other fantasy books, that the good do not survive, that heroes do not thrive, that turmoil is constant. How can this show end with either Jon, Dany, Jon and Dany, or their offspring as the ruler of Westeros? It cannot! Right? (The possibility of cruel, female Cersei triumphing becomes more crazily apropos every day, but she’s got a date with a bad prophecy dedicated seers seem to think.) Game of Thrones is setting itself up to be the ultimate “were you watching it wrong?” show, wherein what we want to happen—peace! A benevolent ruler! Jonerys forever!—is so at odds with what thematically should happen, the only outcome is a battle royale in the comments section.

All of this is supposing, of course, that Game of Thrones “ends” in any long-term way. Chaos is forever and so are lucrative entertainment franchises. Tara, you have already carped about Big Little Lies transforming itself from a miniseries into a series, and I couldn’t feel you more, except that I worry this is like complaining about TV being in color. Once upon a time, TV was in black and white, and once upon a time, TV shows ended. Will & Grace wiped away its last episode. The forthcoming reboot of Roseanne will wipe away its last season. The perfectly contained American Vandal is coming back and so, somehow, is 13 Reasons Why. (14 through 26 Reasons Why, coming soon.) Amazon is about to do a TV version of Lord of the Rings because it wants its own Game of Thrones. And what will HBO do when it no longer has Game of Thrones? Oh, that’s right, it has four spinoffs of Game of Thrones already in the works!

Is my aggravation at this trend just because I don’t like change? Because I would rather all these creative people put their energy into something new? The answer to these questions is yes and yes. Still, there is something more nebulous about the end of endings that gives me the heebie jeebies: This is a little inchoate, but what I hate about it, is that it makes us even more slavishly devoted to the imaginations of the people making those shows, as they themselves are ever more financially tied to their old work. In the year of the critically beloved Twin Peaks: The Return it’s pretty contrarian to argue that revivals can’t be wildly original. Obviously, they can be, and who am I kidding: I will be watching Bigger Littler Lies with everybody else. But, thank God Damon Lindelof didn’t feel compelled to make a new season of Lost and instead made The Leftovers. A hit the size of Lost, if it came out now, would be running until 2100 (if we make it that far).

I used to take pleasure in thinking about how, after a show was done, its characters could be doing whatever I wanted them to be doing. Dylan and Brenda, after a couple of divorces, are swanning around the Amalfi Coast and have been for years and no one can tell me differently! One of the wildest things about the debate about “what happened” at the end of The Sopranos is our intense discomfort with just making it up for ourselves! If it makes you happy, Tony lived! If that’s too facile, face reality and accept that he got popped! This is fiction not math: How it feels to you matters. This may be heresy, but even the people who make TV shows don’t know everything about their TV show. The guys making Game of Thrones don’t know if they filmed a rape scene or not. Louis C.K. definitely didn’t have all his thoughts neatly ordered when he filmed Louie. The Duffer brothers didn’t give a hoot about Barb. At the end of a show there are loose ends that are meant to hang off like the strings at the end of a friendship bracelet: Those loose ends are freedom, for the characters, for the people making the show, and for us.

Guys, I went on a rant when I meant to talk about Master of None, and how I found it to be in incredibly good but shallow taste, a show that knows exactly what is cool, but then has nothing deeper to say about it. I also meant to talk about the looming Disney/Fox merger and whether this is yet another serious sign that network TV might really collapse, along with the NFL ratings that have been keeping them afloat.  This is our last round, and there is still so much TV. What are your favorite examples of peak TV largess? Are their episodes and characters who have stayed with you that you haven’t praised already? Shows that fascinated you that we haven’t gotten to yet?

My ultimate comfort show in 2017 was Grantchester, a period procedural about a crime-solving vicar in love with a divorcee. Watching it feels like you are wearing a cozy sweater.

Almost there,