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Why Sitcom Finales Are So Hard to Pull Off

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | April 4, 2014 | Comments ()


himym_finale_hug.jpg

Backlash to the series finale of How I Met Your Mother started pretty much the moment the credits rolled. (Spoilers ahead, obviously.) After nine seasons and more than 200 episodes, it was revealed that Ted (Josh Radnor), who had ostensibly been telling his kids the story of how he met their mother, was actually telling them about how much he also used to love the woman they know as “Aunt Robin” (Cobie Smulders), and further, that he was looking for their approval to pursue a relationship with her. Their mother, the mystery figure of the show’s title, dies a few years before Ted begins recounting his tale. The show’s protracted story becomes, then, not one about a man’s search for a happy ending but his self-governed therapy as he decides to rekindle things with an old love. This was a lame, somewhat tone-deaf ending (and one that some fans are already rewriting), and a bit of a narrative cheat, since the pilot episode seemed to drive a permanent wedge between Ted and Robin that the twisty ending promptly undid. Radnor even offered a mild defense of the show’s resolution later in the week. Yet there was something inevitable about the fact that things would end in such a disappointing way. It’s not any one person’s or series’ fault, either. It’s baked into the way we tell a lot of comic stories now: as lighthearted serialized dramas.

It’s easy to think of serialization and episodic structure as binary opposites — one’s all about long-term arcs, the other’s all about self-contained stories — but it’s more accurate to think of them as ends of a spectrum. Individual series find themselves moving back and forth along that spectrum as they grow, and within each series, individual episodes can slide along the continuum, too. Usually it’s a mix. For instance, Bob’s Burgers will often return to series-long conflicts like the main character’s feud with a competing restaurateur with a shop across the street, or reference character quirks that grow over time, but just as often it’s an exercise in telling 22-minute short stories that can be viewed in almost any order. Closer to the serialized end of the continuum, there’s Parks and Recreation, which has cycled through several smaller arcs throughout its run (the harvest festival, Leslie Knope’s campaign for city council) but constantly builds on those old stories for new ones. If a new viewer were to start watching the show now, toward the close of its sixth season, they’d probably pick up pretty quickly on character dynamics and the immediate story, but they’d be in the dark about a lot of other plot lines. (They’d also have missed the show’s funniest years.)

For years, most sitcoms lived a lot closer to the episodic end of the spectrum. They’d make room for character growth and major story arcs, sure, but they were also designed to be enjoyed one week at a time. A friend of mine referred to these types of shows as “set-em-up-knock-em-down” comedies: driven, direct, workmanlike. The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, The Bob Newhart Show, most of Seinfeld, Frasier, The Cosby Show, most of Cheers, The Simpsons. They’re all designed to invite you into a comic world where you can spend half an hour and come back whenever you’d like. You can jump into them at almost any point in their runs and catch up pretty quickly on the major storylines. You don’t need to know what happens in, say, the third episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show to enjoy the fifth, or the twenty-fifth: within a few minutes, you’ll see that Rob Petrie is a comedy writer working to balance his personal and professional lives. After that, you’re off to the races.

More serialized comedies, though, behave a little differently. Community is a densely layered meta-comedy, as was Arrested Development before it. For all its one-off bits, Friends relied just as heavily on season- and series-long relationship and career stories. The Office grew its style and story so much from the first episode that you have to watch from the beginning to appreciate the later payoffs. Louie is a dark, often absurd comedy about modern life that charts one man’s work over time. Eastbound & Down. Archer. Soap. Veep. All strong and textured comedies that draw a lot of their strength from telling specific stories over several years.

Again, all of these examples fall along that continuum of serialized to episodic. They aren’t fully one or the other. When it comes to their series finales, though — the resolution-filled episodes meant to send them out on a high note and often act as a kind of summary or mission statement for the show itself — the more serialized shows are going to have a harder time. The reasons are obvious. For starters, television is a fickle business, and no creator or showrunner ever knows who long their show will last. Sometimes you get 500 episodes; sometimes you get 13. There’s no guarantee you’ll get to tell every bit of story you want to, which is why a lot of series leave possible exit ramps or ejection points in case they need wrap up earlier than planned. In the first season of How I Met Your Mother, Ted met a woman named Victoria who very likely would’ve been penciled in as the titular mother if the show hadn’t been renewed. It’s impossible to know if a show will be a hit, or if it is a hit, how long it will last. Accordingly, it becomes that much harder to plan a designated end and time your approach, especially when you consider the tension between a storyteller who wants to lay out their ideal narrative and a network that wants to keep a hit show alive as long as possible, even at the expense of quality. Making a TV show is like publishing a novel one chapter at a time. You don’t get a chance to go back and change something once it’s out there.

Additionally, serialized sitcoms promise a dedicated end to their narrative, while more episodic shows only have to introduce one in the home stretch. (Part of what made Arrested Development such a masterful hybrid is that its intricately serialized story was in many ways just padding until the final few episodes, when the Bluth family fell apart for good. It could’ve ended any time.) In the case of How I Met Your Mother, the goal is set from the start: this is a show that will ultimately be about one very specific story, and it will end only after its central mystery is revealed. That’s what this show is all about, and if it doesn’t happen, we’ll feel robbed and the show will feel incomplete. More episodic shows circumvent this by being more general in the way they deal with their characters lives and jobs: their men and women putter along, fall in and out of love, work here and there, and then one day we get a plot that suddenly pulls them apart or sends them to a new city. Seinfeld resurrected its arc about the in-show pilot Jerry as a way to trot out old characters and lock up its main foursome in a perfect summation of their insular little world; The Cosby Show simply focused on Theo’s graduation, played some old clips, and went out with a dance number; Frasier’s title character got to choose between a relationship and a job, both of which sent him packing from Seattle; most of the newsroom staff on Mary Tyler Moore got a new station manager who fired everybody, forcing them to move on. Cheers ends with a bittersweet punch, almost sending Sam off into a new life before bringing him back to the bar that’s been his only real home for years. None of these abrupt endings felt like cheats, either, because the series themselves weren’t trying to tell narrow multi-year stories but rather create comfortable, ramshackle worlds where their comedies could play out.

Serialized shows ask for an investment over time for a specific payoff, while more episodic shows tend to offer a place to unwind and spend time with characters. Neither style is inherently better or worse, and they both have strengths designed to do different things. When it comes to endings, though, it’s a lot harder for serialized shows to execute them well because there are so many more variables that are often out of their control: the amount of time they’ve been on the air, the need to provide closure on their main story, and in cases like How I Met Your Mother, adherence to a plan laid down years earlier. It makes sense that some fans felt misled or just confused when the show ended with a head-fake before returning to a relationship it had already played out years before. Going out with a bang is hard enough; lighting the fuse years in advance is almost impossible.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.







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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Temmere

    "Going out with a bang is hard enough; lighting the fuse years in advance is almost impossible"

    That's all that needs to be said. If you're building towards a specific endpoint, not just a good climax but something you've been working towards for years, you'd better really, really know what the hell you're doing. More shows fail (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, HIMYM) than succeed (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).

  • competitivenonfiction

    You know, I could have definitely handled it if the mother died, and Barney and Robin divorced. I think it would have left a very beautiful Ted monologue about how some couples go the distance, some don't make even even though they desperately want to and start out with good intentions and some succumb to tragedy, but the point is to love anyways.

    It would have been bittersweet, but it would have fit more with the tone of the series and fit well with Ted's nostalgia and attitude.

    But this? This just didn't work and it really goes to the whole "kill your darlings" concept.

  • Allijo

    YET ANOTHER article about the HIMYM finale, and not a damn one about the Psych finale (which was awesome). TRAVESTY! I feel better now.

  • meadowdancer

    I am kind of upset that they didn't recap The Mindy Project's return. Seriously I was fangirling and squealing Tuesday night at my house.

  • Three_nineteen

    We'll have to agree to disagree on the Psych finale. Shawn gets everything he wants without changing at all, while Gus regresses and ends up alone, a third wheel to Shawn and Juliet (or Juliet is the third wheel, depending on how you look at it, but at least her career is doing well). I liked a lot of the jokes, though.

  • Cree83

    I actually liked the HIMYM finale better than the finales of a lot of the other earlier sitcoms listed. The only real problem I had with HIMYM was how rushed it was. I wish they had spent the whole season on some of the plots dealt with in the finale; if they had, it wouldn't have felt so tone deaf because the mother's death and the end of Barney and Robin's relationship could have been dealt with in a way that gave viewers time to process everything. But the ending made sense because looking back over the arc of the show, Ted and Robin's really was the central relationship. In really episodic shows where there is no central arc, there's no theme to tie the finale to, so there's not so much emotional payoff for me. Seinfeld's finale, for example, just seems like a non sequitur. Which I guess I guess fits in with the conceit of the show where nobody experiences any growth or change in any way. But even if it makes sense, it's just not as satisfying to watch.

  • TQB

    All of this makes perfect sense EXCEPT when applied to HIMYM. Unlike many shows, they got 22 episodes' notice that the end was coming. If you can't wrap up your serialized plot in an entire season in a coherent fashion, go home, you're drunk.

  • meadowdancer

    Go home plot, you're drunk.

  • Bee

    I'm still angry with the picture they drew of Robin. Careerwoman, unable
    to have children, bad relationship choices and waiting for years for
    the one man she was supposted to be with? So that's everybody wants? A
    family? Even Barney?

    Sorry, but this is the most conservative
    picture of woman I've seen in a long time. And I loved the
    Robin-Character for all the cursing, sports and cigars loving and
    putting her career a proiority (not her first! rembemer that episode
    with the joboffer, which she took not, but her boyfriend?).

    And it all went down the "she was supposted to be with Ted and have kids s**t".
    I'd
    would have been all better if we would have seen what Ted&Tracy and
    Robin&Barney were up to all those years between the wedding and the
    last scene...

  • Pippa_Laughingstock

    I very much agree about Robin's character, but I think the undercurrent of sexism was already there if you compare the treatment of her to Barney. Barney is HORRIFIC to women. Horrific. It is never portrayed as anything but charming; the women he treats horrifically are treated as dumb sluts. Robin has a totally normal libido but is sometimes slut-shamed (The Naked Man). And she's supposed to be the female Barney, but there's no way they'd let a sympathetic female lead have his libido. Shenanigans.

  • You are on to something there. For the ending the showrunners wanted to fly, the final episode needed to be more about Ted. With the first half about his romance and life with Tracy and the second half showing how when his life fell apart Robin was the one who, despite their history together and her life trajectory, was always there for Ted despite the others in the group's good intentions. While still not the best solution, it kind of eliminates the whiplash effect of the last two minutes.

  • The problem continues to be the tone deaf way they went about it.

    "Hey kids, mom's dead and I want to move back onto Aunt Robin, whose failed marriage I've been describing and telling you about. But I'm going to wrap it around a conceit of me telling you how I got to meet your mom, who is still dead."

  • meadowdancer

    I like how a lot of critics are calling it tone-deaf. It really was tone-deaf. The entire idea was that he was going to be telling his kids (as standins for the audience) about how he met the mother. To find out that we had been lied to and this was always about him getting permission to date Aunt Robin was just a poorly thought out twist.

  • meadowdancer

    Thanks to pajiba for all of the writers who have written so many well thought out articles explaining why the finale for HIMYM did not work. I really did use to love that show and it just started to backslide and then just got downright unwatchable in the last three seasons. I often wondered if the writers were keeping of track of things that were said or done and all of the flashforwards (sadly we find out not so much) because I thought it was so clever the way that they would work things in and kept hoping that the finale would bring back some of the awesomeness that used to be the show.

    I will say that the change.org petition to re-write the finale to me is kind of silly. I hate the way they ended this show too but all of the actors, writers, creators have moved on (though the creators appear to be in hiding like the Lost creators were after that show's finale) so there is no way for anyone to undue this mess. Just pretend the show ended with Ted meeting his soulmate under the yellow umbrella and ignore everything that happened after the fact.

    To all writers out there please let this be a lesson on how to not write a finale for your t.v. show. If your characters change and grow (they should) from the first season setting them back to page one at the end is going to be a cheat to you, the actors, and to the audience. You write for you of course but to throw away any goodwill that the audience had for your show in 60 minutes will take some time to undue. Especially if you are trying to create a spin-off on the same type of premise (How I Met Your Dad) and hope that the fans of your first show follow you.

    I did want to add that I loved the finale for Six Feet Under and next to Breaking Bad I have not watched a series finale that in my eyes was perfectly done.

    SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
    I did feel for Nate's character because he did just go back to square one before he died but I got why Alan Ball did that just to show that Nate was still Nate no matter who he was with no matter what he would always screw up his relationships looking for the grass that is always greener. Breaking Bad was just flawless to me and I and a group of friends just marathoned the last season again this weekend. So to me, there are excellent series finales out there and there are bad ones and there are just ones that will go down as the worst series finales ever. Sadly HIMYM for me is going down as the worst series finale I have ever watched.

  • Yocean

    I'm a writer who wants to be a show runner and as much as I get where all dissatisfaction come from and I feel it too, it's like you did not even read this specific article. It is one is about how HARD it is to bring a good ending for a more serialized sitcoms because of all the unpredictable variables. Yes they probably did make a mistake but the alternative is always playing safe and that won't please the Audi ce either. I do lean towards respecting and pleasing the audience, especially if you have something you want to say. Because if you really care about your message (rather, intended message) you wanna put it out there in the manners people wanna listen; ergo the importance of entertainment and distraction. However this article was about how difficult it could be (and near impossible sometime). So your comment, especially the way you ended it, is completely tone-deaf.

    Wait, does that sound familiar or what?!

  • meadowdancer

    Reading comprehension is your friend:

    "This was a lame, somewhat tone-deaf ending (and one that some fans are already rewriting), and a bit of a narrative cheat, since the pilot episode seemed to drive
    a permanent wedge between Ted and Robin that the twisty ending promptly undid. Radnor even offered a mild defense
    of the show’s resolution later in the week. Yet there was something inevitable about the fact that things would end in such a disappointing way. It’s not any one person’s or series’ fault, either. It’s baked into the way we tell a lot of comic stories now: as lighthearted serialized dramas."

    The writer says this was a lame tone-deaf ending and the writer links to the change.org petition where people are petition the showrunners to re-write the ending. So that is what I am speaking of when I reference that in my comments. And to me what was written above is saying that yes we should have known that the finale was going to be a disappointment because the way that tv has turned comedies into lighthearted serialized dramas works rarely.

    "In the first season of How I Met Your Mother, Ted met a woman named Victoria who very likely would’ve been penciled in as the titular mother if the show hadn’t been renewed. It’s impossible to know if a show will
    be a hit, or if it is a hit, how long it will last. Accordingly, it
    becomes that much harder to plan a designated end and time your approach, especially when you consider the tension between a storyteller who wants to lay out their ideal narrative and a network that wants to keep a hit show alive as long as possible, even at the expense of quality."

    Go to those links and look at the expense of quality specifically. It links to Justified for a reason. It's better for a show to go out at top when it is still creative, keeps fan guessing instead of plodding along and earning disdain among its audience. This show became a hatewatch for many viewers the past couple of years. And it pained me since I used to recommend this show to everyone and stopped after season 6 ended. This show dropped in quality through the years and it suffered because CBS had a hit and didn't really care that the show had lost the heart of what it was supposed to be about, how meeting the Mother was going to be worth it to Ted to get over all of the things he had been through before.

    "When it comes to endings, though, it’s a lot harder for serialized shows to execute them well because there are so many more variables that are often out of their control: the amount of time they’ve been on the air, the need to provide closure on their main story, and in cases like How I Met Your Mother, adherence to a plan laid down years earlier.
    It makes sense that some fans felt misled or just confused when the show ended with a head-fake before returning to a relationship it had already played out years before. Going out with a bang is hard enough; lighting the fuse years in advance is almost impossible."

    That to me reads yes finales are hard to write and in the cases of Frasier, The Cosby Show, they wrote finales that made it seem like it was just another episode of their show and that things didn't really end up in a nice tidy bow. HIMYM failed for the simple reason the showrunners which apparently you want to be kept up a ending that no longer worked for their show. That was a massive fail no matter how you look at it. Of course it was a nice twist and would have worked when the audience still wanted Robin and Ted back together 5 seasons ago. They stopped paying attention to their show and only thought about the ending and did not wrap things up. They got a bonus season to fix all of the mistakes and could have made it make sense to all of us why Ted was going for another round with Robin and why Robin decided to pine for him for 13 years.

    So to me this article is saying yes ending a series is hard but the way that HIMYM went about ending its series was not the right way for a show to go out.

    Reading comprehension is your friend.

  • Yocean

    Here's one more tidbit while we are on the subject. While ago I was talking with a writer friend who we worked together on a VH1 pilot that did not get picked up. I brought up grievance on shows like Two Broke Girls and Two and Half Men. And he told me that by the virtue of being on the air, the writers are doing great works. It is hard enough put something on the air, with all the variables, let alone not have it canceled, with all the variables, and it is yet harder to write a finale that satisfies, WITH ALL THE VARIABLES.

    We can still hate the shows we don't like, but putting that on writers are not necessarily fair or just. It could even be the case of killing the only person who is working for you, against all odds and adversaries. Writers just get blamed so much so easily, because of how basic our art is and how powerless we are. Sure, for Television, we are the kings. But we still need to answer to studios/networks and producers, who could be, like I said, idiots, as much as writers. the people who's jobs are supposed to be knowing what will sell/be liked when, in actuality by the very inherent nature of the entertainment, NOBODY FUCKING KNOWS.

    Also, the title of the article is Why Sitcom Finales Are So Hard to Pull Off for crying out loud. How is it that I am the one who misread that?

  • meadowdancer

    Man/Woman seriously let it go. Keep posting if you like I'm going to just ignore it. No one says writing is not hard but yes the writers and showrunners do take the blame when they failed to tell a story so that the finale made sense. There were continuity errors galore and yes a total fail on the storytelling front. Enjoy yelling at your cloud.

  • Yocean

    You could have just said your interpretation was different and just that, but you had to make it conceited and condescending didn't you?

    You are making a lot of assumptions here, like what you get out of the article is same as what others get out of. Frankly it proves whatever message a writer would put in, a reader/audience/receiver will bring in their own color and meanings and that's part of what's cool about writing.

    I am not gonna belabor my point (too much) about what I saw as the spirit of this article. I just had problem with the part you told writer to make this a lesson, when in my interpretation, the article explained how it could have been unavoidable and maybe we should stop assuming what was going on, cause we don't know. As a writer, I do know that all it takes for your story to suck major ass is for one executive/producer to be an idiot. One out of like 20 involved in the series. And while this maybe the case where the writers could not kill their darlings but that was not the point of the article.

    That's what I got from my reading. And I have been reading since I was four years old, FYI. So maybe let this be a lesson to you and you stop making wild assumptions about other commenters, writers or what have you.

    or not. who cares what i think right?

  • meadowdancer

    Did you read what you posted to me in a post that 100 percent had nothing to do with you? I love how when people are rude in response to someone else's comment they get all outraged when they are treated the same. I clearly articulated in my first post what I read into this article. All you had to say was well I didn't see that and go about your business. And thanks for once again ending your comment with being nasty per usual.

    You made a lot of assumptions about who I am and what I was saying without READING what I wrote. You are sensitive apparently if anyone critiques anything to do with writing and since you hope to be a showrunner one day think that audiences just don't get how hard that job is. Being a writer does not equal you having a free pass on putting out something that is definitely not high quality. I get that screenwriting for movies and tv must be hard to do but I took away from this article is that it becomes doubly hard when you have two showrunners who stuck to an ending that they wrote 7 years ago.

    Seriously they stuck to something that they wrote 7 years ago and did not use any of the time in between season 2 and season 9 to make sure that the audience had enough clues to understand what they were going to pull out of their hat. You don't have to write a twist ending. No one who watched BB thought it was going to end well for freaking Hank. They made sure with all of the foreshadowing that was done, with episode titles, etc. that we as an audience got what was going to have to happen in the finale to be true to the show. This series finale (HIMYM) was not true to the show at all. I have DVDs (God help me) from seasons 1-4 of this show and have no problem with not continuing to add to my collection or watching this as a re-run. The finale ruined the show for me that much.

  • The series finale for M*A*S*H was brilliant. I was pretty young, but it left a definite mark on me, because I think of it years later.

  • meadowdancer

    Ahh yes it was well done. I remember watching that as a kid with my dad and he loved that show.

  • BWeaves

    I agree about M*A*S*H, but they had the benefit of the ceasefire so they could all go home. They had a built in ending. It's still a fantastic episode, but they didn't have to invent the reason for the ending.

  • Three_nineteen

    HIMYM had a built in ending too, but the creators decided to mess with it, thus creating most of the controversy. We should probably credit M*A*S*H for knowing to play is straight.

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