Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ending a Story is Difficult

Recently my wife and I finished watching Seinfeld, a series that, despite loving and having grown up watching reruns of, neither one of us had ever actually seen the ending. In spite of that, I was somewhat familiar with how the series ended. For those not in the know, it's...rather controversial, as Seinfeld and his friends are arrested in a small town called Latham, Massachusetts and end up going to prison. That in itself wasn't exactly a surprise, considering the fact that throughout the show's nine year run, the main characters all committed various crimes and showed a general pattern of antisocial behavior, or at the very least a lack of empathy towards others. In fact, defenders of the ending and detractors both agree on one simple point, that the main characters generally made life worse for those around them and should face consequences of their actions, but the main issue that many, myself included, took with the ending was the way it went about it, by being indicted by an interpretation of a law that doesn't really work in real life, with people they've wronged throughout the series brought on as character witnesses to show just how bad they are to varying degrees, relevance to the case at hand be damned.

I saw what the show was going for, as it's the capstone to the general mantra behind the series, "No hugging, no learning," a pretty scathing critique of family sitcoms of the era that felt the need to moralize to their audience. I can see something similar happening when It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia comes to an end, whenever that happens, as it's a show built on a similar idea. However, the way it was handled here was really messy and didn't pack the satisfying punch the creators thought they were going for, which brought me back to something I've been thinking about for quite a while: why do so many tv shows botch the ending? Is there something about writing an ending that's inherently difficult? And for those stories that ended well, how did they manage it?

Seinfeld's failing was mainly that it wanted to have a specific ending but didn't really go about it in a way that makes sense, something that can also be seen in Game of Thrones (whose problems are numerous and well-documented, so bear with me). While it is true that the showrunners ran out of book material to adapt around seasons 4 and 5, they were given an outline of how the author George RR Martin wanted to finish the story, even if Martin himself had completely failed in his promise to have book six, The Winds of Winter, out on shelves by 2016. And I get it. Sometimes you have an idea of how you want a story to play out and you just can't get it to come together the way you want it to. Regardless, Martin has an idea of how he wants the books to end, and he gave his plans to the showrunners at a time when their own writing chops were being called into question as the pacing ground to a halt and the story began focusing on less consequential sideplots (personal note I think season 5 is the worst part of the series because nothing happens and entire characters just stop existing). Even with those notes in hand, the showrunners struggled getting the story out in a way that was satisfying to viewers, leading to a brutal backlash that has more or less killed any hype people have for the upcoming spinoffs or anything else the showrunners have to work on.

Which sucks, because it was a massive, groundbreaking show that won a lot of awards, but it was struck down by an ending that even defenders of it (such as myself) declare as shruggably all right (to use a term I just coined), which isn't the way such a grand piece of work should end by any stretch. To be honest, though, I blame Game of Thrones' ending woes on the lackluster seasons 7 and 8 as the showrunners blitzed through important plot points to get to the ending rather than using the time that the network was willing to give them to properly set up the conclusion that was already at hand. It's kind of astounding how they managed to go from "Nothing is happening for an entire season" to "Okay slow down, things need to breathe a bit" in a couple seasons, but here we are.

So having the broad strokes of the story might not have been enough, fair. We can see something like that done extremely well in Avatar: The Last Airbender (the tv show from Nickelodeon, not the movie, and probably not the live-action series that Netflix is apparently working on). They only planned for three seasons, they had a specific plan for what plot points each season was to cover, and they ended the story when it was time to end. This isn't to say that there wasn't behind-the-scenes drama, which is also well-documented, but the gist of it is despite that drama, they had a very clear plan going in and they stuck to it, something that cannot be said for the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which was initially planned as a single-season miniseries before growing into a much bigger show. But I haven't watched all of Korra so I'm not going to comment on it beyond just noting that reception of its four season run is mixed.

I praise Avatar for sticking to the plan, but admittedly even that can backfire, as we can see with How I Met Your Mother, an otherwise fantastic show with a pretty widely-panned ending, but there's actually a pretty easy culprit to point out for this one: the show's framing device. For those who are unfamiliar, a framing device is the story within the story, in this case, Ted describing the events of his 20's and 30's to his children in the future as a way of detailing the events in his life that put him on the path of meeting their mother (with many details being questionable as to how relevant they were, but whatever, it's a sitcom). However, because shooting something with actual youth actors presents its own very real cosmic deadline, that being the children growing up and being unable to be used for future shots, the "ending" was shot way back in season 2, the same season where Ted would get together with Robin, who was explicitly not the children's mother. The ending, by the way, which reveals that the children's mother passed away some time ago and that Ted has been more or less secretly asking his kids' permission to get back together with Robin, something that would have made sense for the story arc for the first two seasons with Ted falling for Robin and finally actually starting a relationship with her.

There's a problem though. The story was about how Ted met the kids' mother. Who wasn't Robin. And there was to be another seven seasons of television exploring how their relationship ultimately didn't work, and how both of them moved on into other relationships that were better fits for their personalities, and  the show's slavish devotion to the initial vision ended up hurting the storytelling for the rest of the series as almost no focus was given to the mother (who didn't even show up as a named character until the final season).

So what's there to be done? Well, it sounds like striking a balance between having a plan for how the story is to go but also being flexible enough to alter details or throw out the initial vision for something that works better is the way to go, which takes a lot of skill as a writer/crew, as audiences are perceptive enough to notice when some things are written by the seat of the author's pants, though that works for a lot of stories as well (Dragon Ball is a prime example there). I certainly don't have all the answers, and as people have noticed in my D&D campaigns, I struggle massively with coming up with an ending. Heck, I disliked the way The Epiphany Colony's ending came out so much that I completely rewrote the second half of the story to keep it grounded, and even then there are ways it could have been improved. It's even worse when dealing with a long-running story like a tv series that asks a lot of time investment from its audience. It's also a problem that sitcoms in particular seem prone to, as the stories usually come to an end because the show itself is getting cancelled, rather than reaching a natural conclusion, with said cancellation usually coming after a decline in viewer interest as can be seen in shows like That 70's Show, whose finale, if I'm being honest, was actually really good, even if it came at the end of a season that was just...not. I dunno, it's an issue that I don't have the answer for. It's just something I wanted to reflect on.