Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Great Buffy Rewatch: David Kociemba

Understanding How “Chosen” Went Right When So Many Series Finales Go Horribly Wrong
David Kociemba, Emerson College

Jason Mittell’s influential article, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” suggests that the past two decades of television has seen a new approach arise: narrative complexity. This approach spans network hits (ranging from Seinfeld to LOST to West Wing to The X-Files), premium cable breakouts (The Wire, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Battlestar: Galactica, Mad Men), and cult hits (Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, Firefly, Angel, and, of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) This shift was sparked by shrinking audience sizes sparking an appreciation for boutique audiences, DVD and download sales providing an economic incentive for Most Repeatable Programming, a talent influx of writers fleeing the empty-headed blockbuster-dominated film industry of the last 30 years, and the internet permitting audiences’ to work together to document and critique the narrative’s evolution, convolution, and involution. The spectacle that stuns the audience in TV is increasingly the narrative, as more narrative lines are more intricately woven together than the classical A-B storyline structure. A complex narrative series’ range of genres, rebellion against episodic conventionality, and evolving and deep ‘verse demands more out of its audience, who must not only be invested emotionally but analytically to fully understand the program.

So why do so many finales to these shows stink? Is there something about this narrative form that makes it more difficult to end these complex shows than, say, M*A*S*H? And does “Chosen” stick the dismount where others failed?

The classic example of a series being unable to rise to the narrative challenge posed by the long-form series is Battlestar: Galactica, which never had a plan, according to series re-creator Ronald D. Moore. The last half season provided a variety of disappointing dénouements, culminating in a finale that managed to combine moral ickiness, an incredibly underwhelming resolution to a central prophecy, wholesale betrayal of social psychology, and a late pair of smugly-delivered nonsensical revelations. Other examples of audience betrayal finales include Roseanne and St. Elsewhere.

Networks not understanding how narrative complexity works is another cause. The X-Files and Babylon 5 got unexpected extra seasons, which meant either stretching out mythology long past its expiration date or coming up with a season-long coda. Some aren’t given the chance to develop an audience, such as Firefly, My So-Called Life, and Wonderfalls. If an excellent finale isn’t aired, does it make a sound? Dollhouse clearly went into hyper-drive to cram everything in its last season, somewhat successfully albeit haunted by the what-if scenario of what the show could have been on a better network.

Sometimes, it’s the loss of a key artist. The only thing the last half-season of Twin Peaks did right was its surreal finale after network meddling caused David Lynch to petulantly abandon the show until the last episode. (That last line still haunts me.) The loss of Larry David’s guiding pathology doomed Seinfeld to repudiate everything we loved about its characters in its prosecution of them for violating Good Samaritan laws.

But schadenfreude is bad for the soul. Let’s think about how to successfully end a show built on narrative complexity.

LOST’s solution was to make one of the most heavily-promoted clip shows of all time. This was not an uncontroversial choice, as what surrounded the clips was not well received. Hopefully future series will learn not to have the protagonists blindly follow a god-like jerk who ruins the lives of children and lets a woman get run over by a car. The fact that its underwhelming final fight consists of a 37-year old man punching a 48 year-old man (as played by a 59 year-old actor) means that the flashbacks take center stage. Surprisingly, the clip show stirred viewer emotion so well that the genre’s appeal to memory might be a viable model for future TV series dabbling in narrative complexity. Think of LOST as the shipper’s solution to the problem of narrative complexity: an audience sobbing over Sun-Jin, Sawyer-Juliet, and Jack-Vincent will forgive a lot.

Another solution is insanity. That’s really the only way to describe the finale of The Prisoner (and several of its other episodes too.) Steeped in symbolism and theatricality, the finale crams more surrealism into one hour than had ever been aired on the networks. You thought LOST fans wanted answers? Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof didn’t need to leave the USA to escape irked viewers, unlike Patrick McGoohan after The Prisoner aired in the UK. McGoohan’s bravery in creating such a difficult, complex finale at a time before VCRs throws the gauntlet down to today’s producers and audiences. Could this be the path taken by Community? Or Mad Men, if it lasts until LSD becomes part of the cultural zeitgeist? If the show’s based on complex plotting, characterization, visuals, and symbolism, perhaps the finale should be the most difficult one of all.

Which brings us back to good, old Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Honestly, I was just hoping for a dignified death when I watched the seventh season finale in broadcast, because its acting and writing had been so uniformly bad. (Seriously, how do you get a bad performance out of Nathan Fillion?! “Conversations with Dead People” and “Storyteller” are really the only two good episodes, and it’s not a coincidence that they both depend on meta-narrative rather than originality for their excellence.)

Yet, Mutant Enemy came up with a stunning series finale that provides a great model for how to end a complex narrative. There’s a final battle that’s epic in scale and while still having a small enough scope for us to mourn the soldiers lost. There’s two layers of trickery complicating the war against the First Evil: Willow evens the odds, tucked away from the melee, and The Senior Partners from Another Network provide Spike with a handy amulet because they’re working on their own apocalypse, thank you very much. There’s something nice about the script doctor of Speed having the great escape portion of the final fight consist of the protagonist literally leaping onto the last bus out of town. When it comes to romance, both warring parties in the biggest shipping debate in the series have scenes to warm their hearts, while the writers carefully refuse to ruin the fun with closure. They fill a major hole in the Buffyverse, just a few episodes after finally revealing the origin story of the Slayer line. Willow’s spell shows there’s genuine divinity in the Buffyverse, as it references the Wiccan drawing down ritual that channels divinity directly into the supplicant. That’s a pretty nifty payoff after they got so much wrong about the religion. Best of all, the protagonists change the world rather than saving the status quo, which every blockbuster would tell you is sacrosanct. Who doesn’t cry at the montage of women and girls empowered? And that final shot that goes straight into the TV canon of image-making: that enigmatic expression on Gellar’s face, which suggests everything from “It is finished” to “We are not alone.”

What “Chosen” shows future creators is that a series ends best that doesn’t end at all. Characters grow and the world evolves even as the show dies, which means that it never really does.


Christina B said...

I had to skim over some of this because I haven't yet gotten to the end of The Prisoner, Dollhouse or The Wire. ;)

And some of it I disagree with (I didn't mind the BSG finale and I loved the Lost finale). ;)

But I completely agree with your thoughts on Chosen and I couldn't have written it better myself.

Your last line is especially beautiful and oh, so true for me.
You see, even though I KNOW that my favourite characters are fiction, I do often wonder what they would be doing now...and that's easy to do with Buffy and friends!
(I have yet to read season 8)

Thank you, David!

Suzanne said...

Thanks for you great commentary on Chosen. I really love the way you highlight the great aspects of this finale. I knew that I really liked it both times I saw it and that it was one of my favorite finales, but I couldn't really say exactly why until reading this.

I agree with you wholeheartedly about BSG; I was very disappointed in the way that show ended after really loving it for the first couple of years and thinking it would be high up there in my great shows list.

As for Lost, I didn't see it in the way you did. To me the show was all about love and relationships, so I didn't see the ending as being any more shipperesque than the entire show was. I was very lucky this Christmas since my husband bought me the collector's edition of all of the Lost seasons. Of course, I am planning to dive in and do some serious rewatching this year (maybe not all of it since I already rewatched it before the final season), but I am going to really pay attention to the finale to see how I feel about it. My gut is telling me that I might like better than Buffy's finale.

One last point about Bablyon 5. Yes, the fifth year was one year too long; I hate some of the new characters introduced in that season much more than I hate Kennedy and Rona if that is possible, but the finale is one of my favorites. I thought it was really special and if memory serves me, I think it is a fan favorite.

As usual, David, thanks for your incredible analysis!

Marebabe said...

Wow, David! That was a pleasure to read, and I found myself wishing that I had actually seen all of the series you referenced.

Your final summing-up paragraph was a real zinger. “A series ends best that doesn’t end at all.” So true, so true. I instantly applied that to some of my favorite novels, ones that I have worn out by re-reading. Think of the ending of “The Lord of the Rings”, where Sam returns home from The Gray Havens. He says, “Well, I’m back.” Every time I read that, I mentally flash forward to all of Sam’s life that is still to come. I’ll share one more. Rosamunde Pilcher’s sweeping novel, “Coming Home”, takes place between 1939 and 1946, and carries our beloved characters through all of their experiences during WWII. At the end, a couple decides that they will be married, and the final bit of dialogue is something like, “What ARE people going to say when we tell them?” “Let’s go tell them and find out.” I LOVE that! It makes the end of a wonderful story bearable, because the reader gets to imagine the rest of their lives together.

There’s a LOT more to Buffy’s story. Even if there were no Buffy comics to look forward to, I know that, in a sense, Buffy’s life could finally begin with the conclusion of S7.

David Kociemba said...

Thanks for the kind words, Christina and Suzanne. They're very appreciated.

My commentary on the LOST finale is a little tongue-in-cheek--I adore the final moments for Sawyer-Juliet, Sun-Jin and Vincent lying down next to Jack. In my class on LOST, which just wrapped up, the students were surprised at how well the series finale stood up on second viewing, especially since they weren't looking for answers. I remain pretty disappointed with the final fight, however, especially in comparison to Chosen.

Quarks said...

I suppose in large part it depends how high you regard the different aspects of a TV series and a series finale. For me, the most important aspect is the characters, rather than the plot. So while I would probably consider the overall plot of 'Chosen' better than the overall plot of 'The End', I think 'The End' deals with the characters we've grown to know and love better, and thus I prefer the 'Lost' finale. Not that any of the aspects are bad on either finale, but that's just my opinion.

It probably also says a lot about how I view things that one of my biggest nitpicks of the 'Lost' finale was that Claire was underused, especially considering her potential (it's going to be impossible for me to use that word again without thinking of 'Buffy') in the final season, and by biggest nitpick with the 'Buffy' finale is that the Scoobies (Willow, Xander, Giles, Dawn, Anya) and their friendships were underused, particularly compared to the amount of time given to Buffy's romantic relationships.

Colleen/redeem147 said...

Try Quantum Leap for audience finale revolution!

One last point about Bablyon 5. ... but the finale is one of my favorites. I thought it was really special and if memory serves me, I think it is a fan favorite.

It's amazing. It's also from season four and held to be used later. (Hence Ivanova.)

Finales are hard. There's so much to deal with and so much audience expectation. Chosen is hit and miss. I could have done with less (no) Angel for one thing. :) But I guess UPS wasn't delivering to Sunnydale at that point.

I'm going to put in some love for the DS9 finale. And Queer as Folk. And, oh my goodness, best of the best, Six Feet Under.

Anonymous said...

It always comes down to Lost, doesn't it? Well, I could bring in BSG, but that show never really hit me the way Lost did, so I didn't feel any real highs or lows in the finale. It was silly in some parts and enjoyable in others.

But Lost, yeah - the bad stuff was infuriating, the good stuff was incredible - whereas the Buffy finale was uniformly...nice.

My main quibble with your critique and subsequent comment - the Lost finale fight. I loved it. I think your criticism is a little ageist, and beyond that, the fight was so well choreographed and cinematic, the only thing you can argue is that it was a little anticlimactic compared to buildup. I've only had two favorite shows in my life, Buffy and Lost - and Buffy's fights were always a little Xena-ish, and they felt obligatory, like every episode had to be padded with 5 minutes of crappy kung fu.

Suzanne said...

Colleen/Redeem 147, you are so right -- nothing can top the Six Feet Under finale! DS9 is one of my favorite shows, too, and I remember loving the finale. I can't remember it very well, but my son is having us watch it with him (his first time) now that it is on Netflix streaming. I look forward to seeing the finale again now that you mentioned it.

David Kociemba said...

Originally, my description of LOST's final fight read... spoilers!...

The fact that its underwhelming final fight consists of a 48 year-old man (as played by a 59 year-old actor) being punched out by a 39 year-old man (who then needs to be bailed out by his gun-toting not-girlfriend) means that the flashbacks take center stage.

As you can see, the sentence was getting too complex to have the joke on the unfairness of the final fight really work.

Anonymous said...

While I, too, disagree on the B5 finale, I think this is a great analysis of why "Chosen" works. Thanks, David!

Delvin Anaris said...

It's worth noting that B5 was originally intended to be 5 years long, but there was a serious threat of cancellation after the 4th year, which is why JMS had to wrap up everything important in season 4.

Also, as someone else has mentioned, the series finale was filmed during season 4, so that it could be used after that season if the cancellation did happen.

Aside note: What is it with these "J"s? J Michael Straczynski, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon, all high-creative-control showrunners, and all creating deeply memorable shows with strong arching story arcs...

The Rush Blog said...

Not everything in BABYLON 5 was wrapped up in its Season 4 finale. Most people like to believe it was, because that finale had a happy ending. But there were loose ends that Season 5 dealt with.

As for the STAR TREK DEEP SPACE 9 finale, I was not impressed. The finale's first half was well done. But I felt that the second half of the finale sucked. I felt it had the second worst finale of the entire TREK franchise. Only ENTERPRISE was worst.