End of Season Report: Fargo, Season 3

19 Jul

There’s nothing new under the sun. Or at least under the sun beating down on the wide and snowy plains of Minnesota, or so you might be led to believe after watching the third season of Fargo. Unlike its two excellent predecessors, season 3 started out okay before being bogged down in fits and starts, with flashes of characteristic filmic genius underlain by fundamental character flaws which prevented it from reaching those previous seasons’ heights.

The start was promising, but in hindsight, that might have been because I had faith in Noah Hawley, and because frankly, beginnings are easier. Soon, the show had two primary fatal flaws; it too closely resembled the first season, but with all of the elements inferior, thus highlighting its lesser status, and primary antagonist V.M. Varga was an absolute swing and a miss and a mess of a character which tainted the whole season.

Let’s start with the antagonist, V.M. Varga, or whatever his real name was, who was the biggest single reason the season broke down. It might well not have been great with a more consistent, more charismatic villain, but it sure would have been better. Here’s the problem.  The logic of his villainy was inconsistent at best, snaking from episode to episode depending on what individual scene’s dramatic monologues called for, without actually making any sense in the broader picture. At first, Varga was played off as a certain type of antagonist. The silent killer, who is brilliant and only cares about the money; without ego or drama, he does exactly what he needs to do as simply and under the radar as possible sliding in and out without you ever knowing his name. This is a scary type of villain because he’s smart and he’s least likely to get caught and he’s always a step ahead. Then, later, he played the loud, talky, arrogant, brutal villain, unafraid of bloodshed. This is a scary type of villain because he’ll kill you or your loved ones if you make the wrong move, sometimes impetuously without thinking through the consequences. But it’s a different kind of scary villain. The quiet, efficient, sly villain doesn’t offer more and more brutality when less flashy steps would be more efficient. The show kept acting as if Varga was the first type of villain when he increasingly became the second, taking more and more risks, and inflicting more and more violence for absolutely no reason. This guy flipped over a fucking prison bus and shot federal guards – is that the kind of action of a man who wants to keep himself under the radar takes?

The show mistakenly through that Varga was so charismatic, that he oozed that cinematic magic that would make his character work, despite the underlying flaws because he was simply so magnetic on the screen. He wasn’t. This was doubly so for his quirky two primary henchmen who were intentionally idiosyncratic and odd, as if purposely Coen-ing them up would make them interesting. It didn’t. Characters aren’t compelling simply by being odd. Those idiosyncrasies have to work part and parcel with the characters and the wider plot and they simply don’t here.

I’ve not wanted a villain to get his just desserts more than Varga in some time, and while that can often be the sign of a deliciously evil villain, here it was merely because I was so frustrated at the sheer incompetence of the folks chasing him. Sure, that police incompetence is an important part of the Fargo world, but surely higher powers would be called in after a fucking prison bus was overturned?

This season of Fargo mirrored season 1 in several ways, to its detriment. Gloria Burgle, though played about well as the part could be by the wonderful Carrie Coon, was a less interesting version of Allison Tolman’s season 1 character Molly Solverson. Varga was an inferior and worse used Lorne Malvo, and Ewen McGregor’s Emmett and Ray felt almost like a split take of Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard. Obviously these are loose analogues but they were showing up in the back of my head while I was watching. The only character there’s no straight analogue for is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Nikki Swango, who unsurprisingly was the best thing about the entire season. Lorne Malvo in season 1 was also crazy and dramatic, but season 1 worked because he wasn’t the antagonist; he was chaotic neutral, a man on the side who was the catalyst for Nygaard to break bad and become the true antagonist of the season.

This was also the most on-the-nose season. There was a theme, right from the first scene in Communist Germany, which was premised around the idea that truth is relative and malleable; it’s whatever who has the power says it is. There’s nothing wrong with this theme (I was simultaneously reading the Orphan Master’s Son, which was great and worked very much around this theme), just the way that Fargo decided to shove it down our throats in unsubtle ways having Varga and other characters more or less repeat that premise word for words in situations where surely us intelligent viewers would pick up on the subtext without having it explained for us.

There were heights. The cinematography was gorgeous as always and the acting was excellent, but in the age of Peak TV that’s not enough. The third episode, “The Law of Non-Contradiction”  in which Gloria Burgle visits California, chasing a red herring about the killer of her step grandfather was the highlight of the season, its separation from the main plot insuring its excellence remain untarnished. Within a bubble, this episode was everything great about this show and a window into the Coen’s world. Within less than an hour, it told a story that was both weird and charming, interspersed with animated scenes from the novel; a beautiful mini-movie whose ending may not have been final or satisfying but which told a story in and of itself. This red herring felt like it contained more of the truth than the rest of the season. For a show that was so unsubtle about what the truth is and isn’t this season, that episode was a perfect antidote.


The Americans it the Direct Answer to the Great Male Antihero Show

6 Jul

The first generation of Peak TV was ruled, at the very highest levels, by the white male middle-aged antihero. Personified by three of the titans of the genre, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, these shows starred a singular man above (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, respectively), one who was, for the most part, very competent as his work, while correspondingly often neglected his family. These shows were so good that they allowed all the lesser characters surrounding these leads to flourish as well, and the characters were complex and fascinating, the writing sharp and insightful, and the direction illuminating. That said, these three spawned imitators which highlighted their limitations of the mini-genre, and many, myself included, while revering the triumphs of these shows, tired of this formula centering around the difficult woe-is-me man who faces existential mid-life crisis problems.

After the end of Breaking Bad, the era sunsetted, and a number of other TV trends have dotted the landscape, on an entirely separate plane from that antihero model. A show like Orange is the New Black – a wildly diverse dramedy ensemble might be the most direct opposite of these show, or the biggest rebuke to what they represented. The Americans, however, starts with the male antihero formula and turns it inside out.

The stars of those shows – Soprano, Draper, White, are narcissists, who are volatile, can’t control their anger, and are uncomfortable being vulnerable or open about their emotions. They are usually selfish assholes who are charismatic but time and again make you angry that people constantly crave their respect and love. Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Sopranos are not good guys or good people; two of them work in illegal enterprises, and Don Draper cheats on his wife with abandon and doesn’t really understand how to deal with his children or coworkers. They’re larger than life, magnetic and we’re drawn to them in spite of their flaws. All three have family life on one side, work life on the other, and keep a firm separation between the two.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings turn this dynamic exactly on its head. Like all three of those antiheroes, they have a hard line between their home and family lives. Unlike the three, their home lives are loving both between each other and their children. They’re model parents who put in all the time and effort we would expect and whose relationships with their children, work difficulties aside, resemble more of the family relationships in a laugh-tracked suburban comedy than a typical prestige drama.  The attention, love, and understanding for their kids, and really Paige in particular, is so much more intimidate than any of the parental relationships in those other shows.

On the flip side, what they do in their jobs is far worse. Philip and Elizabeth don’t merely commit crimes; they kill not only spies and other military figures but also many many civilians when they’re in the way of the necessary goals and objectives they’ve been given, and ruin many others’ lives with blackmail and manipulation.

That said, they’re not doing it for greed or for profit or for fame or their own self-indulgence and ego. To them, even these terrible things are for noble ends; they’re patriotic. More than that, and especially for Elizabeth, they’re altruistic methods whose ends justify the means. Not only are they for her country, but they’re for the world. She truly believes that Russia cares more about people than the US does, and helping her country helps the most people, in a John Stuart Mill utilitarian sense. They’re not profiting at all form their work; they live in relatively modest circumstances, and in fact it’s making life very difficult for them. They only do it because they believe it’s right, and in Philip’s case, out of love for his wife.

Philip and Elizabeth are incredibly likable doing incredibly terrible things, much more likable than Soprano, Draper, and White, while killing many more people and ruining many more civilians lives; which creates a set of scenarios which is so different from those of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, but with similar echoes, making The Americans one of the best shows of this second generation of peak TV.

The Five Worst Series Finales of the Last 10 Years

5 Jul

I ranked my top 10 series finales since the Sopranos ended ten years ago. Now for my five worst. The top three are the worst in a tier of its own, and four and five are also bad for their own reasons. Let’s start it up with the most infamous.

1. Lost

The only saving grace for the Lost finale was that I had given up on Lost long before so expectations were low; and yet it still blew those expectations under the water. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the final season; I read recaps and Wikipedia entries to keep up on the goings-on (and it gets crazy – remember that Japanese other who gets killed by Sayid? That’s what I thought), but decided I had spent enough time and energy on this journey to be there for the finale. And it was every single bit as awful and stupid as I feared. Let’s move past the Jack on the island bit, which was rife with problems (the explanation for Desmond’s doings in that stone chamber just seem invented on the spot but everyone acts as if they obviously make sense) but even that isn’t really the reason this is here, it’s just a nice bonus. This is at the top because of the awful conclusion to the awful idea of the flash-sideways, which really started as a sliding-doorsesque fake out after Juliet set off the nuke at the end of season 5 (even this sentence follows my iron-clad rule that you can’t talk about Lost for more than 30 seconds without sounding like a crazy person). They’re in magical purgatory. Why are some characters here and not others? Who knows? Who cares? I know this is supposed to give you all the feels but it was mindbogglingly ill-conceived and the details break down after any amount of thought. This is on top of the fact that Lost led us to believe they were at least going to try to answer some questions asked early on, almost none of which they did. This was the ending a show this disappointing deserved.

2. Battlestar Galactica

There are so many things wrong with this finale it’s hard to catalog them all and I’ve gone back and forth many times between this and Lost. It’s really 1 and 1a. I never liked BSG as much as I once loved Lost. On the other hand, I never became as fully disillusioned with BSG even though the ups and downs as I had with Lost, possibly because I never quite cared as much. I knew I was going to be disappointed with this finale before it aired, because I knew they telegraphed the fact the planet they reached was Earth, but I still hated that decision because it was just incredibly stupid to bring the BSG world into ours and it just made no sense. So they had sex with cavemen and thus propagated modern humanity? Shouldn’t we have found their bones? What about the English language? They just got rid of their technology because all technology bad now? Lee suggests they do it and everyone agrees like that’s obviously a great idea. Oh, and Kara’s an angel because of course that’s a thing that obviously requires no explanation whatsoever and she just disappears off the face of quite literally the Earth. And just when you think it’s all bad, which you do, there’s one last, possibly most terrible part. Ghost or angel or whatever they are, Baltar and Six appear in OUR TIME, look at all the TECHNOLOGY we’re using and declare IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN!

3. Dexter

This might actually be the worst finale, minute-for-minute.  It’s quite possible that other shows had a finale this bad but I simply stopped watching those shows long before those series concluded. But, for reasons which I can’t quite fathom at present, I stuck it out with Dexter to the bitter end no matter how utterly execrable the final three seasons were. And that, ironically, is one of two reasons why this isn’t number one. The expectations was just so low by this point, the show was already so awful, that the finale caused me merely to laugh and laugh and laugh rather than be angry or disappointed. The second factor was the lack of series long plots that needed to be dealt with. Dexter was generally an extremely seasonal show, so that the first four seasons were not affected at all by the terrible finals seasons and the finale itself. They attempted to wrap up a bunch of stupid shit with a bunch of terrible decisions, but there was nothing I really cared about that had to be dealt with at that point and for that I just hate the finally rather than resent it with all my heart like the first two. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least offer a reminder of what was so awful about this finale rather than a mere explanation of why it’s not higher on the list. Dexter steals his dying sister from the hospital with nobody noticing because of hurricane, honors her remains by dumping them where he dumps the bodies of the killers he kills, and then fake dies before returning as a lumberjack. Fantastic.

4. Entourage

Entourage dated worse than almost any other show in the last 15 years, seemingly coming of age when many people my age were growing up and slowly coming to terms with the line between light male escapism and misogyny. Entourage straddled that line often, to be generous, but by the final season, it was way past it, and extremely ridiculous to boot. This finale follows the Dexter rule of having already been a pretty lousy show by the end (albeit not as laughably lousy as Dexter because the gap between the best Entourage and worst Entourage was never quite as wide). But the finale definitely was more than just the cherry on top of an already lousy season; it put in the work to be an offensive finale above and beyond what came before. This was highlighted by the absolutely absurd engagement of Vinny to a journalist played by Alice Eve, playing on the absolute worst tropes of female journalists sleeping with their subjects, and having this allegedly smart and confident woman who was just about the only woman previously to be able to refuse Vinny’s charms become engaged to him on a whim felt like adding insult to injury. Entourage had some genuine merit over the life of the show, but those positives seemed long gone after watching the finale, replaced by laughs at how ludicrous the show had become.

5. Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation will always be one of the best comedies of our time, a Hall of Fame show, and by all means the final seasons were much better than, say, The Office, always good for a laugh. But the show started losing the sense of scale that had made it so charming towards the finish line. That’s not to say Leslie shouldn’t be shooting for more; she can and did, but maybe when she moved past a certain point that was a good sign it was time for the show to end. The show was very much about Pawnee Indiana, and it being a small (well big enough to have an airport and its own television programs) town. This seemed odd when the National Parks Service decided to move an office there and a billion dollar tech company decided to come to town.  The Parks and Recreation finale was a classic case of more is less. I wanted to see all our friends warmly having a good time together, feeling good about their relationships with each other. That was the essence o Parks and Rec. The finale should be happy and have all the feels, that’s what the show was about, and true to its core. But I don’t need to see Leslie maybe become president. It’s not that I don’t believe she can but she can do it after the show. It’s too much. I didn’t need to see Andy and April disagree for about 30 seconds about having children, only to come around a scene later, defeating the point of having any interesting conflict, which, when you think about it, was emblematic of the final season. Tom becomes a nationally successful author for writing a book on failure. Not everyone has to have everything ever for a show’s ending to be happy.

The Best Series Finales of the Past 10 Years: 5-10

22 Jun

I listed my five favorite series finales of the past 10 years here. Here’s a little bonus coverage of entries 6-10. These are less revelatory than the first batch; these mostly consist of very good shows that wrapped up with very good episodes that weren’t mind-blowingly brilliant but managed to wrap up all the loose ends in a satisfying way which is less exciting but still quite difficult. Still, I wanted to get these down on the record with a few notes so I can look back at how crazily I changed my mind in a few years. A more fun list of the worst finales coming soon.

6. Breaking Bad

Mad Men and Breaking Bad occupy the same exact rung and I could have easily flipped them and might have if I did this tomorrow.. Both were all-time great shows whose finales were satisfying if not spectacular, which sounds like faint praise, but considering the bars set by their respective series and the expectations and hype surrounding the finale, it was no small thing to come away smiling and not disappointed. Breaking Bad managed to hit the bullet points on the finale checklist nicely. Breaking Bad did a great job over the run of the series of leaving questions that could later be returned to, or could be forgotten about entirely, with either result being equally plausible, but the one question that did feel like it needed to be dealt with was the use of the ricin, which presumably is used on Lydia. There are final moments for supporting characters as important as Skyler along with nice goodbye nodes to fan favorites Badger and Skinny Pete. The dying Walt doesn’t quite get redemption, but he does get a chance to make a baby step in that direction that makes sense within the show, and he most importantly gets to share a final scene with Jesse, and the two of them were the core of the show. Walt dying was no surprise; him living would have been, but there was still suspense in merely seeing how his plan was carried out. The finale only suffers due to some lack of surprise and the fact that it was simply always impossible to recreate the Walt-Gus dynamic that ended with the brilliant season 4 finale with the Neo Nazis, who didn’t have the same charisma or the same sense of rivalry. (The otherwise excellent and enjoyable final season suffers from that as well). But overall, it hits all the notes it has to and left me feeling as great about the series as I had when I came into the episode.

7. Mad Men

See the Breaking Bad entry.  The Mad Men slowly wrapped up storylines to all of the most important characters, giving everyone (except Pete and Betty, who. got their time in the penultimate episode) to a satisfying point of ending. This is exactly what I mean when I say closure – character arcs can recieve endings, like poor dying Betty, relationship milestones, like Roger, new beginnings, like Joan, or something in the middle like Don. There’s no one way to finish out with a beloved character, other than leave the viewer in a place that we feel comfortable and feels appropriate for the character giving the developments over the seasons; like Potter Stewart’s famous pronouncement on obscenity, I know it when I see it. There wasn’t that feeling of absolute breathtaking perfection that The Shield or Six Feet Under left with but spreading the screentime around and feeling like everyone got the ending they deserved without being shafted is still an impressive achievement (with the possible exception of the Stan/Peggy ending, which I didn’t super love but have come around on a little over time.) The ending montage could feel trite, but didn’t, and the last moment in particular is inspired; the choice of an iconic campaign which so seamlessly blended marketing with depth of emotional appeal wasn’t a bad way to end the story of Don Draper.

8, Justified

Another on the Mad Men/Breaking Bad tier. I’m hopefully not making these out to be lesser achievements than they are, rather that should just demonstrate the difficulty of constructing memorable finales. This wasn’t the best episode of Justified, but it wrapped up nicely every story line and hit on worthy resolutions for the primary characters. Like Breaking Bad, the otherwise excellent final season suffered just a very little bit by the last bad guy because one that we had relatively less investment with. Like Mad Men, the season ended with a particularly satisfying moment, Raylan staring at Boyd, the protagonist and his foil, wtith Boyd reminding Raylan of the connection that binds them and each of them to this setting that was so important to Justified; “We dug coal together,” Earlier in this season I might have thought that ending without a major character death would have seemed like a cop out, but it didn’t play out that way. Eva’s last two season arc which had some serious ups and downs paid off well with her finally escaping the cycle of shit that surrounds Boyd, and getting away from the very location which seems to encourage it, Raylan, likewise, physically moves on as he seems to finally move forward while Boyd, fittingly ends up back where he started at the beginning of the show.

9. Friday Night Lights

This shamefully took me too long to get to as I finished the fourth season and then took long break before getting to the fifth. Friday Night Lights is an extremely sentimental show, so much so, that it can overdo it at times, and while it’s a great show, that’s probably one of the issues I don’t quite like it as much as some people. In the finale, though, the sentimentality is unleashed perfectly for a thoroughly moving finale in which every character gets his chance to shine, and the heart of the show, the relationship between Connie and Eric, maybe the best marriage in television history, is at the forefront. Part of what made Friday Night Lights excellent, was its constant emphasis on the ideas that people fight, people disagree, but they come to solutions and decisions and make them work. Eric Taylor knows it’s time for his wife to take the lead, and his hesitation due to the enormity of his offer from Dillon only makes the final decision that much more powerful; the decision at the heart of the final episode is emblematic of the kind of show Friday Night Lights is. The final game is played as well as any game on the show, and leaving the final outcome up in the air until we discover it later in the episode could be infuriating but instead is inspired. Friday Night Lights ended with me remembering the best parts of the show, which is a high compliment to any finale.

10. Hannibal

I’m honestly still not sure if this was a great or terrible finale or something in between or most importantly even a finale, but I have room for one what-the-fuck finale here which could only fit for such a what-the-fuck show. For a show that lived season to season, the finale was one that wsa intended to potentially serve as an ending and potentially not, and for ninety percent of shows on TV this would have been considered an utterly unsatisfiying ending but it was so in tune with the spirit of Hannibal that it was surprisingly easy to make my peace with it. Not one, but two Hannibal season finales end with the great question of who survived, and the finale is an ultimate demonstration of the show’s filming style, where style matters, or maybe more accurately, is, substance. The fight scene between Graham, Lecter, and Dolarhyde is equally intense, bizarre, and at times hard to follow, yet the beautiful violence is one of Hannibal’s hallmarks. This is the one finale that could potentially be on the list of worst finales, depending on your bent, and it’s possible I’ll feel that way when I come back to it with time, but at the moment I appreciate just how insane the show was willing to be in a world where shows don’t do that.

The Five Best Series Finales of the Last Decade

19 Jun

The Sopranos ended 10 years ago, as of last Saturday, with the most talked about and polarizing series finale of my lifetime (Seinfeld is the only other serious contender). To mark the occasion, here are the five best series finales since.

Before I get into the criteria of what makes for a great series finales, a few quick notes on the my digging through past generally. I expected, going through the years, to find more really memorable series finales than I did. The list drops off fast, and most of the better series finales are ones that were very solid, did their job, and closed what were excellent shows in very satisfying and satisfactory ways rather than absolutely blowing me away and leaving me stunned and amazed, but there’s something to be said for how difficult it can be just to meet the hype of ending a beloved show properly, let alone exceed it.

The best series finales are not merely the best final episodes; as shows that were cancelled and finished with a typical last episode that didn’t feel special or different or have a sense of closure or finality are unlikely to qualify.

What else does it mean to have a great series finale? Obviously, this depends heavily on the particularly show that’s wrapping up but there are some general rules that travel across all shows in one way or another.

  1. The finale has to feel appropriate for the show. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get away from, especially in shows that have been on for a while and may have lost their way a little as the seasons pass. In tone, in sensibility; this is your last impression on the viewer, it should feel true to what made the show great in the first place.
  2. Solve any unresolved plot points, and answer any questions that need to be answered. Some shows come into the finale with lots of unfinished business that needs to be taken care of, some are either less plot-centric, or take care of much of their plot wrapping up before the finale. Obviously depending on circumstances, some questions are best left open, but some aren’t, and leaving viewers feel like essential questions weren’t dealt with is a serious knock against a finale.
  3. Provide closure for your characters, and memorable final interactions between important characters.

To the list…

1. The Shield

As action-packed and suspenseful as a finale gets. Its breakneck speed allows it to pack in climax after climax before ending on a resolution that has a sense of ending but feels exciting right to the end; a combination many finales strive for but few reach. Most finales have, by the time they get there, at least some sense of inevitability, even if we don’t know the exact details, but The Shields leaves so much open and swerves left and right and then left again. The finale brilliantly calls back to the very beginnings of the show; the tight bonds of loyalty that bond together the strike team. Though Lem’s death at the end of season five started events in motion, in dramatic fashion, in the finale, the Strike team comes apart at the seems, with every last shred of togetherness broken. Shane and Vic sew seeds of each other’s misery, .Shane kills himself, his fiance, and his son after Vic declines a last plea for help, while Shane informs Vic that Corrine is working with the police because she doesn’t want Vic to ever see his children again. Ronnie discovers that Vic has betrayed him at the station, calling out as he’s arrested. And Vic, having gotten his immunity deal, avoids jail, only to be placed in his other personal hell, the office, safe for now, but knowing that with one slip up, his deal would go up in flames. Brilliant, exciting, perfect for the show, dealing with every story line that needed dealing with (Dutch and Claudette make up, for example, in non-strike team business), leaving you catching your breach afterwards, and packing an incredible amount of story. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days after watching. Just thinking about it now makes my heart beat. A fantastic finale to a fantastic show.

2. The Leftovers

I did not come around easily to Leftovers. I was hesitant to watch from the first. I frankly didn’t want to watch anything associated with Lost’s Damon Lindelof and everything I heard about the show turned me off. I largely didn’t love the first season, but I like each of the next two seasons, the third and final more than the second, and if my decision to watch wasn’t justified yet, it was by the finale. I never expected especially a finale this brilliant; that looked hard at what Lost’s finale did wrong, and did exactly the opposite. I don’t like the Leftovers as much as the other shows on this list, but its finale was likely the best episode of the entire series and that’s a very impressive feat. The finale was the opposite of The Shields. It didn’t and didn’t need to wrap up a lot of storylines or feature great suspense or pace. It was extremely narrow in scope, focused almost entirely on the two best characters of the entire show and highlighted by stirring monologue delivered outstandingly by Carrie Coon’s Nora which just brought everything that was good about the show together in just a couple of minutes. That scene, magnificently acted and written, was stirring and heartwarming with well-earned emotion that grounded everything the two characters had been through over the life of the show and left me on a high. A finale that demonstrated that the Leftovers recognized what worked and what didn’t over the life of the show and pulled out everything that did for the last moments that truly counted the most.

3. The Wire

The Wire, possibly the best show of all time, had a bizarre final season. It aired a couple years after the fourth (which wasn’t as common then as it is now), and it, for all of its positives (it is after all the fucking Wire) has the two most confounding parts of the entire show – the journalism angle which never quite works, unlike The Wire’s foray into teaching the previous season (probably because David Simon is too close to the actual industry and the self-righteousness and indignation runs too high), and the invented homeless killer, which is ludicrous and one of the rare moments The Wire really feels like all other generic television. However, almost unfairly because the fifth season is so weird, The Wire’s finale felt relatively more necessary and more satisfying. The show does not end on a strange note but instead returns back to the fold of classic Wire and takes care of all its characters for good and ill. As befits a Wire finale, with only ten episodes in its final season, it’s very plot heavy; a lot is resolved, and while, as would be expected, much of the resolutions are overly depressing, unlike the fourth season finale, there are plenty of notes of positivity to offer some balance. There’s a sense of full-circleness and that the more changes, the more stays the same same which gets to the heart of one of the central themes about the Wire. Still, Carver gets promoted as Daniels is forced to resign, Bubbles makes it out clean even as Dukie succumbs to addiction, McNulty and Freamon somehow escape jailtime. The only major lack for me was that I wanted a little bit more of a juicier final moment between Kima and McNulty, two of the most important characters who both followed their trajectories as far as they thought was best, even in diametrically different directions but this is ultimately a satisfying way to say goodbye to dozens of memorable characters, leaving almost no one behind.

4. 30 Rock

Comedy finales are an entirely different animal than drama finales, and as different as the above three are from one another, 30 Rock is another step away from all three. Comedy finales don’t generally require plot execution or surprises; just a sense of closure and a way to remember our characters, along with a last opportunity to provide the essence of the show in just one episode – why it was funny, what we liked about it, why we kept coming back. 30 Rock’s finale is similar in many ways to a regular episode of the show, with the meta-hook of the last episode of TGS being filmed. The Jack-Liz relationship is the beating heart of the show, and the recurring thread of the episode is Jack and Liz both realizing where they’re unsatisfied in their lives and trying to fix those areas, fighting with one another, and then reuniting and realizing their importance in each other’s lives. This only takes place in a few total minutes of the show but its built on years of chemistry and the scenes work. Jack’s leaving on his boat only to turn around immediately is a perfect 30 Rock moment. Every cast member gets a last couple of moments to shine, and more than anything it’s funny, chockful of the type of silly wordplay that 30 Rock does so well. The only thing that really needed doing was a remarking the Liz-Jack relationship. There’s a short flash-forward montage at the very end, but it’s very quick and very silly, and not like one I’ll complain about in a similar show shortly.

5. Flight of the Conchords

My most out of left field choice. The shortest show on here at just two seasons and 22 episodes, it can be debated if this even really counts as a finale like the others as it wasn’t even obvious it would be the final episode at the time (I’m still holding out hope for an eventual movie). It definitely has elements of a finale though; there’s definitely an obvious sense of finality to it considering the fantastic ending, and there’s the classic finale looking-back as the duo perform in a musical about their lives. Like the other finales on this list, this feels so in tune with the show it’s ending. And the result is, as often in Flight of the Conchords, hard luck in oddly good humor. The boys put on their very meta-musical of their story, which is whimsical and stupid, and a perfect round-up for the series. And, yes, Jemaine and Brett do get sent back to New Zealand thanks to Murary making a colossal fuck up, and end up back on a sheep farm, which would be very depressing in a different kind of show, but the Jemaine and Brett always seem to just take whatever comes in stride. Flight was never a serious show; it was a dry, absurd one, and this was a masterpiece of the qualifies Flight had in spades at all times.

The Sopranos’ Finale Set The Standard for the Potential Power of a Peak TV Finale

12 Jun

Ten years ago, The Sopranos set the standard for what it means to be a Peak TV series finale. I don’t say gold standard; although I somewhat liked it overall, The Sopranos’ finale “Made in America” was famously polarizing and certainly never reached the universal acclaim of the finales of Six Feet Under and The Shield, often considered (and with good reason) to be two of the best, if not simply the two best of all-time. But regardless of merely a silly thing like quality itself, The Sopranos set expectations for what a Peak TV finale was. The hype was unparalleled at the time. Sure, Friends and Seinfeld (the only finale I can ever remember being as talked about as The Sopranos) had much-hyped finales in the relatively recent past, but as network comedies the requirements were somewhat different.  The Sopranos was a show on HBO, a premium network, that could never have the audience figures of Seinfeld or Friends and yet it felt like everyone in the country was watching when the finale rolled around. The Sopranos didn’t have the pressure of a question-and-answer show like Lost, but there were still season and series long plots to be touched upon, as well as the need to reach some sort of closure with the main cast, and particularly, with of one of the legendary characters in TV history, Tony Soprano.

I was returning from out of the country the morning after the finale and I had to be on total media lockdown to guarantee I wouldn’t hear any spoilers, as if I had just missed the Super Bowl. Media outlets entirely unrelated to television or entertainment brought it up, it was THE topic that otherwise sleepy spring morning. Even people who didn’t want, felt the need to know, to simply be in on the national conversation (again, like the Super Bowl). What happened mattered, and people cared virulently. To some it was a brilliant ending, to others a cheap cop out and ploy. But there was no question people talked about it, and even more so because of its bold unorthodox ending. The family in the diner. The black screen with nothing definitive (though David Chase would disagree about that). Don’t Stop Believing playing in the background.  This on top of , of course, some more traditional finale ingredients. Meadow engaged, AJ attempting to join the army, a last major character death as Tony’s associates finally finish off Phil Leotardo.

In the decade since, even with the rise of Peak TV and the many many wonderful and popular TV shows, there haven’t been many finales that have even come close to generating the amount of buzz and excitement. Mad Men and Breaking Bad have come the closest; both truly being event season finales. Rare is the show able to keep the hype up over several seasons; often in the most initially hyped shows, interest dies down as the years go or the show is unable to sustain that initial interest (shows like Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy (which is still on, somehow), Scandal, Lost). There’s often some rallying back around these shows for their finales, as the last chance to see characters viewers remember caring for years ago, but those finales don’t have the same high expectations. When The Sopranos ended, there were fewer critical juggernauts and especially when The Sopranos started, it stood out in a way that it’s almost impossible to do now where so many more channels and shows.

There are a few upcoming finales that will be the absolute talk of TV and entertainment blogs and outlets, but Game of Thrones is the next best hope for the type of epic finale people will be talking about on mainstream outlets, speculating about for days and weeks beforehand and setting up viewing parties. Perhaps in a year and a half we’ll revisit this discussion and see whether it could come close to reaching the heights of “Made in America.”

End of Series Report: The Leftovers

7 Jun

The Leftovers started with a central mystery, but unlike that of Lost, also co-written by Leftovers scribe Damon Lindelof (created along with The Leftovers book author Tom Perrotta), this one was never meant to be solved, which ultimately made all the different to what the show was and why the finale was so successful (relative particularly to why Lost’s wasn’t). Two percent of the world’s population immediately disappeared three years before the first episode in what has become known as the Departure. If this were Lost, theories would abound about what was behind the Departure, and fans would expect a payoff on that question before show’s end. Why the Departure happened, however, was never a subject of The Leftovers. Characters within the show puzzle at it some, though more specifically in the earlier seasons than the third. But us viewers had to accept that the Departure just happened, because, well it happened, accept it as true, and move on from there. The Leftovers, from its tone to its decision to start three years after the Departure, never baited us into thinking that we would ever know more than that and that let us focus from the start on its true concerns.

The Leftovers is about dealing with mysterious loss, loss without cloture, loss that no one understands, that no one knows how to reckon with. No one understands death either; but there’s are established rituals built in our society over thousands of years to deal with it. For the Departure, everyone had to reckon anew. The Leftovers is also about living in a world in which after the Departure, every belief, no matter how superficially unlikely has to be taken with at least a degree of seriousness, because we no longer have the grip we had before on what was true and what wasn’t. When John or Matt or Kevin have ideas about what they need to do prevent the oncoming second apocalypse, we can tell their ideas are probably as delusional as Laurie thinks they are, but after the mystery of the Departure, we can’t say they’re 100 percent wrong with the certainly we could have before. Mystery, and some gradient between belief and reality, is alive.

The critical scene in the finale brought us back to that important distinction in The Leftovers. Solving the mystery for a fact doesn’t matter. Making your own peace with it is what does. It didn’t matter if what was said in the scene was true or untrue as much as its literal truth was simply irrelevant, beside the point to the moment. In the brilliant final dramatic monologue that proceeded the end of the show, Nora shared the story of where she had been in the intervening years since she had last seen Kevin. She claimed that she really did go where the Departed went. After arriving, she went on a long trek back to New York and found her kids.  They, she realized, were the lucky ones there, who still had other members of their family around. She realized she didn’t belong there, tracked down the scientist who had constructed the machine which took her there, had him construct a reverse machine and went back.

Was her story true? Did she really do that? We’ll never know, and more importantly it doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s going on in the moment between Nora, and Kevin, her telling, and him listening. What matters is that when pressed, Kevin believes her without question and tells her so. Kevin shows Nora in this final moment he believes her, that he has faith in her, and cements what had become the central relationship between the series. The struggle both characters have gone through throughout three seasons leads to this one moment of overwhelming catharsis where Nora and Kevin, rather than being the two troubled souls clinging on to each other to prevent themselves from drowning (no pun intended, in Kevin’s case), are at once on the same page.

The Leftovers is an overtly earnest series. What little humor exists is present in absurdity from afar (see: Frazier the lion and his pride in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World” or or crazy Dean’s appearance in “The Book of Kevin”), rather from the characters themselves. These characters desperately want to be better; but they don’t know how. They’re suffering and even their occasional friendly banter is quickly frayed; they don’t have the type of flippant and humorous arguments that characters from, say, Transparent, might.

What made the show’s third season its best is the shedding of the broader scale that enveloped the first season and some, though less, of the second. The third season was in many ways The Leftovers’ most batshit season. It did feature a lion eating a human after getting off of an orgiastic ferry from Tasmania, after all. But it was also it’s slimmest, it’s barest, and it’s most focused its best assets, its core characters. When pared down to this smaller essential group, the show thrived. Some shows excel with a larger sense of scale, but The Leftover best succeeds in the exact opposite scenario, as its most narrow and most personal.

The third season featured no more Guilty Remnant, or Holy Wayne; no broader conspiracies or groups, no tertiary characters who had impure motives. The Leftovers’ shorter third season and relative lack of funds left it focusing on its main characters only, especially Kevin and Nora, but also Matt, Laurie, Kevin Sr., and John. Each has grand opportunities to embark on a search for their own personal truth that needs to be fulfilled (a quite literal search; it takes them all to Australia). Whether it was always by design or not, the final episode in particular showed that The Leftovers is one of the rare shows to learn from its own strengths and weaknesses, concentrated almost wholly on the two best characters of the entire series, Kevin and Nora.

Everybody desperately wants to believe that their lives matter; that there’s something bigger than themselves as a way to make sense of their own suffering. Matt is convinced he is needed to stop the second apocalypse, using Kevin, and convinces John to come along for the ride (and to some extent Michael, the only character who appears in any significant screen time this season without really feeling quite like Lindelof and co. know what they’re doing with him). Kevin’s dad is convinced he’s the true prophet, and Kevin, while he tears up the Book of Kevin, clearly has all that prophet talk deeply embedded within his head. They’re all deeply damaged people who are living their own fantasies; still ravaged by events stemming originally from the Departure they’re having trouble getting over. Nora, of course, lost her kids, and she acts like the most skeptical of all our protagonists, but when she is offered the chance to possibly see her children again, no matter how unlikely, how slim, how speculative the odds, she drops her act and jumps at it.

Matt is dealing with the abandonment of his wife and son, John lost Evie, and can’t quite get over her death, or what she traded her life into beforehand with the Guilty Remnant. Kevin still has his kidnapping and almost-killing of Patti Boyd on his conscience, in additional to his incipient mental illness. Kevin Sr. has the voices inside his head, and if they’re not right, if they’re not meaningful, he’s just plain crazy. Laurie is the only one of the major characters still around for this season who is centered and seems relatively well-adjusted (Kevin and Laurie’s kids both have moved past their battles to some semblance of normal lives, as has John’s ex-wife Erika – they’re a step ahead of our remaining characters), but she’s only that way because she went through her own trial and period of questioning as a member of the Guilty Remnant. Laurie serves a straight woman, so to speak, for the remaining characters this season. She knows their struggles, having had them herself, but through her background as a psychiatrist she’s additionally qualified to work them through it. She can’t solve their problems; they need to do that themselves, but she can serve as a listening board as she does for Kevin and Nora, she can talk Matt down from the edge, and she works with John giving fake psychic readings, which helps ground him after his loss.

And in the last couple of episodes, everyone begins to face those ultimate personal changes; to confront their doubts, their beliefs, their on-going and open battles with the world and themselves. Kevin’s submergence and the following lack of flood, seem to satisfy John and Kevin Sr. and push them to move on. When Kevin wasn’t able to come up with the missing song and the world carried on, Kevin Sr. finally submitted, as when Kevin told John that he passed the message along to Evie. It didn’t really matter whether John truly thought that Kevin spoke with Evie; he needed to convince himself to reach his own closure. Kevin Jr.’s episode-long hallucination, dream sequence, or submergence into the mysterious underworld if you will, offers him a final chance to put his mistakes behind him, his trauma with Patti, and his regrets with Nora. Matt’s goodbyes to Nora makes him realize what he needs to do. He finally agrees to go back to his wife and son, and attempt to face his illness even against long odds; to put aside his fears about saving the world and admit his real personal fears.

And then, finally, Nora. The Leftovers offers a fantastically heartwarming finale which never feels overly sentimental, or saccharine. It feels well-earned through the struggles of the characters, and, even the gimmick, the unspecified time jump, which would probably have drawn my ire in Lost, feels perfect here. There’s an air of mystery; of importance that doesn’t feel cheap, because we know what these characters have been through. Whatever happened to Nora, whether she went to where the Departed were, or she didn’t; whatever happened to her in those intervening years, which we’ll never know, she seems to have finally made a kind of peace with the loss of her children that couldn’t be achieved any other way. To find that peace is no small achievement and is what The Leftovers is ultimately all about.