Why Sitcom Finales Are So Hard to Pull Off
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.