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How Should Audiences Interpret TV Shows and Finales?

By Seth Freilich | TV | November 20, 2017 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | November 20, 2017 |

More from the Damon Lindelof and Mike Schur discussion from this weekend’s Vulture Festival LA! At one point, the topic turned to finales (no spoilers here) and Lindelof was asked about where he was with The Leftovers a year after turning in the final script. He said he was in a good place, in no small part because he wasn’t on Twitter (author’s note: also in no small part because they fucking killed it and stuck the landing). The host then asked if he had, in his own head, answers about the questions from the finale or were the answers whatever the viewers wanted them to be.

It’s not whatever you want it to be. It’s whatever you want it to be as long as you agree with what I think.

Lindelof said this in jest. But also not in jest.

Schur has a bit of a different take on this issue. First, he noted that with The Sopranos finale (“probably the most thrilling finale TV moment, whatever you want to call it”), questions about whether Tony lived or died are silly to ask, because David Chase said what he wanted to say on it and it’s for the viewers to interpret from there. Turning to one of his own shows and using the example that he’s frequently asked whether Leslie Knope became President (which he would not commit an answer to): “I don’t think there’s a right answer. … It’s a little bit of a Rorschach test.” He then gave a couple different ways he thought that piece of the Parks & Recreation finale could be viewed, and Lindelof jumped on this:

Allow me to push back slightly, though. It is up to you, inside certain thresholds. So you offered up a couple scenarios that were sort of acceptable thresholds to you. Shouldn’t you be empowered to essentially say, if an audience member came up to you and said “I have a theory, Leslie and Ben were dead the whole time,” [huge audience laugh] … you could say, “WRONG! WRONG!”

The conversation ended there, which is a shame, because this is a fascinating topic, the notion of audience interpretation of a writer’s intent. However, Schur revisited the topic in talking about his deep-dive love of Mad Men and its rich layers and metaphors.

…it was like homework, where you had to really study it and figure out what was happening. And there was this episode — this is about the late Harris Wittels … One of my favorite Harris exchanges, I came into work one day and was complaining about Mad Men, even though I loved it, and what I was complaining about was just how dense the metaphors were and that everything was layered, eleven layers of shellac, of meaning on every line and every moment.

And it was that episode where Don got a toothache. And I was like “god damn it … OK he’s ignoring and that’s because he’s psychologically this thing, or he hasn’t taken care of it and it’s rotting and the dentist said, he used this word, he said it’s “decaying” not rotting, and that means …

And I remember telling this to Harris and he went “I just thought it was a fucking funny story about a toothache … I loved it, I thought it was great.”

Schur said this was a good reminder that people watch TV for different reasons, and you can’t just write to the rafters for the people watching like they have an MFA degree. “Harris was a very sophisticated person, a very funny person … he just accessed the show in a different way than I watched the show.”

While Lindelof didn’t say, I’m sure he agrees with this premise, that audiences should enjoy a show at whatever level they want. But enjoying is different than interpreting. But when it comes to interpreting, it’s interesting to think about their different stances. Using The Leftovers, for example, there is a big question left unanswered by the finale. I have my own answer to it, and I obviously have no idea what Lindelof’s thoughts about it are. If I’m “wrong,” in Lindelof’s estimation, does that make my love of the show and the finale any less legitimate?

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.