26 May 2005

Putting on my critic's hat for a moment...

After years of watching TV, I’ve realized that good season finales—the kind that actually live up to the word “finale”—are few and far between. Of course, I’m segregating here between scripted shows and reality shows. Most reality shows are designed to build toward a finish. Someone becomes the Survivor, or the Apprentice, or the next American Idol, or gets the final rose, or whatever. If you have a good editing team, compelling casting, and some creative minds at work behind the scenes, a reality show will naturally have a decent season finale (I’m thinking Amazing Race and Survivor in particular).

With a scripted drama, the task becomes much more difficult. At least, this is what I would guess based on what happens with most shows. There are great pilots everywhere—heck, even Eyes and Blind Justice were sort of catchy this season before dying a horribly boring death. But a lot of shows fall into a rut (or I guess a “groove,” if ratings are high) after a few episodes. The sad thing, however, is that there seems to be this trend in all media toward not caring so much about being formulaic. The CSI and Law & Order franchises are basically procedural dramas that, ironically, follow their own set procedure. They’re designed to be bite-sized. Everyone can be replaced, basically. Honestly, who would really miss William Peterson from CSI? I’m sure any number of character actors could handle that role.

Season finales, of course, also fall into the abyss. Writers try to do different things to ramp up ratings, which usually means someone will unexpectedly leave, return, have sex, get injured, or die. Or a guest actor is brought in (and we all know how successful that usually is). And this is all entertaining, but it’s so out of context that you couldn’t care if you tried. Besides, you know that any lingering problems will be conveniently fixed, more often than not, in the first five minutes of the next season’s premiere.

A great season finale has to have three things, in my opinion. First, it has to be consistent—whatever happens should feel like it fits in seamlessly with the characters’ motives and personalities. I’d say that this is where most season finales are most likely to fail. Second, it has to resolve something—a few lingering questions should be answered, to keep the audience satisfied that the people writing the show know exactly where it’s going. Viewers don’t like to be kept guessing on every front for more than about 15 episodes, or else it just doesn’t seem realistic. And, finally, it has to leave you hanging. I would also call this the “shock and awe” factor, to borrow a Bushism. Something unexpected needs to happen, something that makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. Something that leaves you thinking, wondering what will happen to your beloved characters next season.

With that in mind, here is my take on four of the big ABC finales, in no particular order:

(1) Desperate Housewives
I’ll admit that I was not one of the faithful devotees of this show. Being a guy in his mid-twenties might have something to do with it, but I think it’s more fundamental than that. I found it sometimes entertaining, but at times a little too over the top and unbelievable. Too often, I think it used hyperbole where subtlety might have worked better. That being said, it was unique, well cast, and really had something for everyone (suspense! romance! scandal!). The writing also seemed to sharpen and become less soapy feeling as the season went along; usually the reverse is true. But the narration by Mary Ellis was consistently nauseating and stuck out like a sore thumb, right until the end. Overall, I’d give the show on the whole a solid B.

The season finale, I’d rate similarly, even though it obviously tried very hard to accomplish a lot. It just was not that fantastic. Revelations were made hastily, in a show where the pace was sometimes numbingly slow. And some of the big surprises were just not that surprising, even for someone, like me, who was not an avid viewer. I found myself having this “okay, so what?” feeling a lot, and that’s not something one should feel during a season finale. So, the episode didn’t feel like it fit the overall show—it felt like too much, like it was somewhat forced. Luckily, it redeemed itself by leaving you hanging not just on one or two threads, but leaving the fate of every major character genuinely up in the air. Because of that, and because I’ve heard that most fans were very satisfied and I feel the need to discount for this, I give the finale a B+.


(2) Grey’s Anatomy
I really enjoyed this mid-season replacement, when I thought I would hate it. The pilot didn’t overwhelm me, but it hooked me enough to make me want to watch more, and I’m glad I did. The regular episodes were surprisingly engaging, and managed to capture the wild vacillations between the good times and the tough times that everyone lives through. I liked the characters; a few of them, I even cared about. The chemistry seems authentic. Even the patients and medical subplots (which I usually find to be distracting in medical shows) fit in like nice puzzle pieces—they served a purpose, or taught a lesson, or just simply helped provide some transitions. Also, Desperate Housewives could take a lesson on how to do a decent voice-over from this show. For finally giving a voice and a setting to the stressful life of twentysomethings diving into the deep end of adulthood, I give this show an A-.

What kept it from earning a straight A were these weird, fluky moments when things just didn’t fit right. It typically happened in the first ten or last ten minutes. Either the music was wrong, or the dialogue felt really contrived, or there wasn’t even an attempt to segue between storylines. Unfortunately, the whole season finale was like this. A really lame running joke about syphilis, a patient with an ovary who it turns out is sterile, students doing an undercover autopsy, and then—gasp!!—the revelation that Mr. Perfect Mystery Man (the one that the main character is engaged in a serious love fest with) is married. Totally not consistent with the rest of the show, and didn’t really leave you feeling a sense of completion or a sense of wondering what might happen next. Ouch. Overall, and I’m being generous because of the shorter season, I give the episode a C+.


(3) Alias
This is the only veteran among the shows I’ve listed. I was definitely feeling it through the first two and a half seasons. All the goodness of the spy underworld (sweet gadgets and nifty get-ups), plus some major family and friends drama (“Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream” still gives me chills to this day—if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the season two finale), and the undeniably likable Jennifer Garner (to be fair, others in the cast are great, too). But then this Rambaldi plot line started to bleed through more and more, and the show became increasingly inaccessible. I’ll admit that season three witnessed some growing pains, and that I kind of lost touch with my weekly viewing of it. And, despite a really fun season premiere, this season felt sort of uneven, too. Especially this one weird episode with a vampire undercurrent. O-kaaayyyy. But it improved toward the final episodes. Lena Olin returned (thank you!) as the imperious and enigmatic matriarch. More of the family drama stuff came back in, and there were fewer missions that left you really questioning what the point was of getting whatever device or serum was the flavor-of-the-week. Thankfully, Alias seemed to get most of that Rambaldi stuff out of its system, and I’m hopeful that next season will return more to the roots of the show. But still, this season felt for the most part like something only a loyal fan would be willing to get through, at least until the last few episodes, so I give the season (not the show) a B- with a prediction for a much-improved next season.

Now, the season finale presents a difficult problem. It was definitely consistent with the show, and it was definitely among the best two or three episodes of the season (maybe the best, I’ll have to wait for DVD to decide). However, the heart-pounding factor wasn’t quite as high as it could have been. I never bought into the giant red ball of death. But to the extent I could overlook the big conclusion of the Rambaldi prophecies, which was kind of “eh” after building over too many seasons, it was a fun, intriguing ride. And, a lot of stuff was satisfyingly resolved. In a lot of ways, it felt like the writers were trying to return us in a very natural progression to where we were midway through season two, with some juicy Mommy and Daddy issues firmly established and the partial redemption of an arch villain. But with fifty-eight minutes of the show elapsed, there was no big “wow” moment yet, and I was leaning toward giving the episode a satisfying B+. Then, the big “wow” finally arrived, at it was really, really well-done. Thank God that J.J. Abrams has figured out how to make our jaw drops. I refuse to do a spoiler here, but let’s just say that the “First of all, my name isn’t Michael Vaughn” line is right up there with the coffee ice cream comment, and that the last ten seconds provided as good a hook as any I’ve seen in years. Awesome. For the last scene alone, I bump up the finale to a solid A.


(4) Lost
So I lied earlier when I said that this list had no particular order—I clearly saved the best for last. At the outset, I should point out that I have never liked shipwreck or plane crash stories. Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Lost in Space, and Cast Away just never hit me the way they did other people. But this show—this show is something special. I came really close to crying during one of the episodes (and I never do that). There’s the episode where Charlie gets over his drug addiction. There’s the episode where Boone dies. There’s the episode where we get the surprising back story on the Korean couple. The flashback technique doesn’t work often, but here it functioned perfectly and effortlessly. In fact, it made the show. That, along with good writing, solid acting, a clever understated soundtrack, and excellent pacing. Of course, this was J.J. Abrams, so there was plenty of mystery and suspense and oddity. Polar bears, unseen monsters, “the others,” a crazy French woman, this big white pod with a hatch that can’t be opened, a boy with potential psychic ability, etc. And even the staple of all trapped-on-an-island shows: raft building. But, miraculously, it all made sense, because there was such a strong, underlying current of humanity and emotion. Like I said, it almost made me cry a couple times. It wasn’t quite television perfection, but the first season of Lost ranks among the top three single seasons of any TV show in any genre that I’ve ever seen. Simply beautiful: A.

The season finale had a lot to live up to, therefore. My expectations were really high, especially since the last episode was a “Special Two Hour Event.” There were just a couple moments that I didn’t love. The flashback on Hurley’s attempts to catch the plane was a little overextended, despite providing needed levity. And the guy who literally blew up in the first ten minutes could have blown up a little sooner, in my opinion. But this is nitpicking. Overall, my expectations were met and surpassed. The last twenty minutes were especially sublime. A swell of hope followed immediately by a crushing defeat. The end of one mystery but the beginning of a potentially much bigger one. And my favorite moment: an extended montage—without words—that in a few minutes managed to bring an entire season of emotions full circle. A creative team that can make you care that much in one season about that many characters, especially in television, deserves high praise. As a stand-alone episode, I might give it just an A, but for being a true season finale to an already-outstanding show, it gets an A+.

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