Televisions New Problem With Endings
The new wave of anthology serials – True Detective, Fargo, American Horror Story – has presented television writers with a problem they have never truly had to face. The problem of endings.
Up until recently most television series operated in a type of timeless vacuum, described by David Auerbach as a 'steady-state' model. This type of formula allowed a show it set up its framework and then play with different variables either through episodic story-lines or longer multi-episode arcs. When a series inevitably came to its final episode there wasn't a great responsibility for the writers to resolve anything in particular. Television for the most part functioned in a state of the perpetual second act. We lived in the middle of a story with gradual sideways transitions but nothing finite.
Twin Peaks in 1992 was one of the big game-changers. Here we got a show that structured itself around a single mystery – Who killed Laura Palmer? Despite co-creator David Lynch's intention to actually never solve the mystery, the audience obsession with that central puzzle forced the writers into a corner resulting in the show hitting a wall in season two after the reveal of the murderer simply sent the narrative into an insane tailspin (a tailspin that I actually am quite fond of).
The idea of a television series holding back secrets to be slowly revealed began to catch on ultimately leading us to mythology heavy shows like The X Files and Lost. Different creators dealt with their mythological frameworks in their own varyingly successful ways but we still had a paradigm where television series began their lives with indeterminate futures. Ultimate series lengths were unknown so even with central driving mysteries all these stories primarily existed in the perpetual middle.
The new “big thing” in television currently is the idea of the anthology series. A clever variation on the old fashioned mini-series, the anthology series allows networks to still build a brand while offering viewers a single closed narrative. The new challenge the anthology series is bringing writers is one that film writers have faced for a century – how to satisfyingly close off a narrative. Suddenly, television endings have become important in ways that they never have before.
Much of the joy of watching a television series comes through the temporal nature of following a story and characters over a long period of time – weeks, sometimes years. The journey is what holds the value and I would argue that even with mystery driven shows such as Lost it's the fun of the plate spinning and not the comprehensiveness of the ending that marks a series' quality.
Watching True Detective and Fargo we find the viewer is placed in a new and somewhat different position. We know these series are finite. We know they have 8, 10 or 13 episodes to tell a single story. Our enjoyment is still of that classic temporal televisual nature but it's also tempered with a newer hesitation. A more significant weight is placed on the endings of these series. Because of their finite nature we approach the stories with the expectation of a more classically structured type of engagement. We want a beginning, middle and end and like a movie or a novel, the ending can determine our ultimate reaction.
The zeitgeist juggernaut of True Detective takes a incredibly classical path through its 8 episode story. To its detriment the conservative nature of this structure results in an oddly disappointing frustration by the end. The first two thirds of the series seemed to promise something much more interesting than what first time TV writer Nic Pizzolatto ultimately delivered.
Pizzolatto tweeted at the beginning of show's run: Ep 1 -3 = Act One. Ep 4 – 6 = Act Two. Ep 7,8 = Act Three. It could be argued that his signposting of the show's conventional structure was a mistake. In hindsight this segmentation of his story allowed us to easily see the problems with it. True Detective was two-thirds of a brilliant television series and one-third a frustratingly conventional serial killer thriller. The bravura weirdness of the show's middle stretch promised something truly new and different but the ultimate wrap up gave us everything we feared: a bland conclusion reminiscent of countless similar stories.
Watching True Detective over 8 weeks was like experiencing the highs and lows of a great television series at hyperspeed. More classically conceived, True Detective could've easily been a multi season series experienced over 3 or 4 years/seasons. The first season would've had us talking about how it's a quality show with promise but wondering if it was gonna break out of the standard cop/serial killer format. The second and third seasons turn it into the best show on television – weird, unpredictable, with internet profilers digging into crazy literary references. Here the show transcended all its conventional frames. The perpetual middle of True Detective would've been glorious. Of course everything needs a conclusion and disappointment dawns when the final season wraps things up. Story possibilities are closed off, audiences grow frustrated and arguments abound over how it should've ended.
This spectatorial narrative would usually span several years but with True Detective it lasted 8 weeks. Pizzolatto's insistence on a traditional three-act structure to his 8 episode story dangerously missed the true heart of televisual enjoyment – that perpetual middle with all its wonderful unfulfilled possibilities. But how can anthology shows deal with the inevitable disappointment of endings?
Noah Hawley tried a different take with his 10 episode series Fargo. Hawley was bold from the outset with this project, a brash re-imagining of one of the most definitive films of the 1990s but he also played around with structure a little more than Pizzolatto. The ten episodes of Fargo again proved strongest in the middle with an astonishingly strong run of episodes building to a jarringly exciting time jump halfway through episode 8.
With Fargo again we faced the problem of diminishing engagement with the final act of a story. Here we got a time jump of one year offering considerable excitement but as the story negotiated a resolution we felt the narrative becoming smaller and smaller. Ultimately resolving with a discordantly odd “happy ending”, the final two episodes of Fargo offered a mildly unsatisfying resolution to the epic promise of possibilities the middle stretch delivered.
For several episodes in the middle of its run Fargo offered an almost religiously epic range of narrative outcomes. Billy Bob Thornton's villain Lorne Malvo was presented with angel of death styled mythic overtones. Episodes 5 and 6 especially presented a world enveloped in such a sense of existential dread that it felt like literally anything could happen. So it of course came as an anti-climax when the final episode resolved itself with a traditional conclusion. Bad guy gets shot by the good guy (including an uncomfortably problematic sublimation of a female character who had previously presented herself with an exciting agency). Everything returns to normal. Malvo's preternatural presence is simply shrugged off into a comic book sociopathic frame and several intriguing earlier plot lines are left unresolved. Of course the anti-climactic sensation of this final episode could easily be interpreted as a riff on the Coen brothers recent tendencies for more experimental endings but that reading is a cop-out. The flatness of the final resolution in Fargo read much more as a fundamental reflection of television's problems with endings.
The more time you spend with a single narrative the more investment you will have in its ending. Up until recently television series have been able to evade this fundamental narrative paradigm by sitting in the perpetual middle but the anthology series changes the game. As audiences become more and more invested in where these stories are going writers are faced with huge challenges.
The joy of television is in the way it creates expansive worlds where the viewer co-mingles with the characters over a period of time. Limited run anthology series offer writers new frameworks to tell stories but it'll take a lot more experimentation before the problematic nature of endings is resolved.