Stories That Can’t Have a Good Ending

by wjw on April 4, 2012

I’ve been watching some of the new series that have premiered in this last season, and I’ve noticed one significant thing about a number of them— there is no possible good ending. The creators put all of their inventive energy into the series’ premise, and never thought ahead to how they were going to pull the various plot strands together for a satisfactory finale.

Why bother?  The system doesn’t reward such thinking.  You’ve got to dazzle the network brass with the brilliance of your concept.  The brass don’t care about how you intend to end the series, because it’s not you who gets to end it, it’s them.  They’ll pull the plug on your series on their timetable, not yours.  When the ratings fall, or when the series gets too expensive, you’ll get chopped.  And they won’t care about how the actual series ends, because if the ratings suck, the few remaining viewers don’t form a large enough bloc to worry about.

And once the series gets the green light, the creators themselves don’t have the time to think more than twenty seconds ahead.  They’ve got to get a dozen or more scripts together and get them shot and edited yesterday.  You reckon they’re thinking ahead to the end of the series?  Not hardly.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about:

Alcatraz: So back in 1963, the inmates and guards of America’s most infamous prison vanish— and the government coverup was so successful that nobody even thought to miss them.  And now, in 2012, the inmates, no older than when they left, are returning and committing crimes.  Some are clearly under orders, committing very specific crimes, with logistical support from parties unknown.  When captured, they don’t remember where they were or how they got their orders.

Turns out there was a whole secret organization who knew they’d be back and was waiting for them, complete with a Sekrit Underground Prison to put them in.  The person who seems to be in charge is a grumpy ex-Alcatraz guard played by Sam Neill— only you’d think he’d be too old for all that, insofar as Alcatraz closed damn near fifty years ago.  Anyway, you have reason to suspect he may be going senile, because this massively overfunded secret organization doesn’t have any actual police attached to it, an odd oversight considering its job is to apprehend criminals— so Grumpy Old Guy recruits Hot Detective Babe (Sarah Jones) and the owner of a comic book store (Jorge Garcia) to do his actual legwork for him.  (Comix Guy is also an expert on Alcatraz, so it’s not like just any comic geek can chase time criminals.)

So it’s basically a cop show, with one or more criminals in each episode that our heroes must track down, along with various clues to the Great Alcatraz Mystery.

The chief reason to watch the show would be Jorge Garcia, who is the most charismatic 350-pound man in history, probably.  Except the writers can’t find that much for him to do since he’s not a cop and can’t carry a gun and can’t chase criminals and can’t make arrests.  There is no chemistry between any of the cast, Grumpy Guy is a big downer, and Detective Babe keeps having to charge into dangerous situations by herself because the massively overfunded secret organization can’t afford to hire any more cops, apparently.

The premise is basically a Big Bowl of Stupid.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean an unsuccessful series— Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a Big Bowl of Stupid premise, and it ended up being a smart, successful, witty show that went on for years.

Here’s the main problem— there is no possible satisfactory ending to the mysteryWhatever reason the mysterious master villain had for transporting criminals fifty years into the future and sending them out to do his bidding in the present, it’s going to be disappointing.

(And look, if you want crimes committed today, and you’re a master villain, you hire today’s criminals.  You don’t want to depend on henchmen who are going to wonder things like, “So what is this ‘Internet’ anyway?”, or “You mean my victim’s girlfriend just took my picture with her telephone?”, or “What are those things on the rooftop that look like cameras?”)

The series is produced by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot productions, who specialize in keeping loyal viewers hanging on till the dismal, disappointing  finale.  Which will probably not be very far away, since the series has lost half its viewers since the premiere.

Ringer. Speaking of Buffy, here’s Sarah Michelle Gellar’s new series, in which she plays identical twins.  One— married to a fabulously wealthy broker— fakes her own death.  The other— a recovering addict and former stripper— has reasons to want to disappear, and so steps into her sister’s place without realizing she’s not dead. And then people start trying to kill her, and she realizes that people don’t want her dead, they want her supposedly-dead sister dead, and she has no clue why.

(Given that I wrote a novel in which one person substitutes for her lookalike, my guess is I can’t call this premise a Big Bowl of Stupid, now can I?)

Anyway, it’s all kind of silly, soapy fun, and everyone in the series has secrets on top of secrets, and many of the relationships are already so tangled they verge on incoherence.  (And I particularly liked the wannabe writer who’s trying to decide whether or not to commit $250,000 to self-publish his novel.  Dude, I just self-published a novel, and it cost me less than twenty bucks!  I totally want to be this guy’s publisher!  “Oh yeah, getting good cover art will cost you a hundred thousand dollars.  I’ll take a check.”)

The problem I’m foreseeing is this: how can they keep this up for more than one season?  The premise is based on Sister Two replacing Sister One without ever realizing that Sister One is still alive.  Through how many years of drama can you keep the twins apart from one another without Sister Two figuring out what’s going on?  And while I respect the abilities of TV writers to keep churning out melodrama season after season, if the melodrama strays too far from the Twin Plot, there’s no longer any reason for the Twin Plot to continue . . . and the Twin Plot is the whole point.

So I think the series has a natural end-point that’s going to come sooner rather than later, and every episode past that is going to get more and more unfocused and strange until eventually it’s about nothing much at all.

Missing.  This new series features Ashley Judd as a former CIA field agent whose son is kidnapped by Sinister Parties Unknown.  Each episode takes place in a different, totally glamorized European location.   (Sean Bean, as Judd’s husband, is killed just minutes into the first episode— you pretty much know, given the sad fates of Boromir and Ned Stark, that he’s going to die, but if this trend continues his lifespan in future roles will have to be given in microseconds.)

The series is very well done, with a large cast of well-defined characters.  And I have to give Judd kudos for looking more like a mom than a dolled-up TV star charging through firefights in spike heels.

The problem here is: how long can this kidnapping go on?  Will she still be chasing her kidnapped kid long after his temples have gone gray?  Sooner or later there will no longer be a reason to hold the boy (who after all knows nothing) after which he’ll either be set free or be killed, and when that happens the series’ raison d’etre will be gone.

(And by the way, I think Sean Bean will be back.)

It’s a pity that shows like Missing and Ringer can’t simply go their natural lifespan and then end. In British TV you’ll have a series run 13 episodes or whatever, and then it will be over.  In American TV, series regularly soldier on well past their expiration date.

Which is why I always try to know the ending before I write a single word.  Because that way you don’t lose your focus on your outcome, and the story doesn’t go off in wand’ring mazes lost.  Which is where every one of these series is bound, or so I predict.

Erich Schneider April 4, 2012 at 4:41 pm

This is one of the things that made Babylon 5, for all its warts, so unique – the end of the story, five years down the line, was planned out in advance (and bits of that ending were alluded to in the first episode!).

DensityDuck April 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Erich: Yeah, and JMS had to fight like a tiger to get that ending actually filmed.

The lesson learned over the years is to just not bother writing an ending, because:
1) If the people with money like the show then they won’t let you end it.
2) If the people with money don’t like the show then you won’t get the chance to end it.
3) The fans will bitch about anything you do, including nothing, so it’s no use trying to please them. (particularly since after a show ends the network executives will never see another dime from a show’s fans, because DVD revenue goes into a completely different money pit.)

As for the shows referenced…

“The problem here is: how long can this kidnapping go on? ”

As long as it needs to. Did Richard Kimball ever actually find the One-Armed Man?

Jim Janney April 4, 2012 at 7:21 pm

For some reason PJF’s Riverworld stories keep popping into my mind as I read this, even though they have nothing to do with TV.

DensityDuck April 4, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Eventually we will reach a point where Sean Bean is killed before the opening credits, meaning that he dies before his name appeared on the screen.

Then we’ll get to a point where his character dies before the movie even starts, and we only see him appear in flashbacks or “archival footage”.

wjw April 4, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Richard Kimball did indeed find the One-Armed Man in the final episode of “The Fugitive,” but the thing is, the One-Armed Man =killed= Kimball’s wife, not kidnapped her. And a lot of the episodes had nothing to do with the One-Armed Man at all.

You can search for a murderer forever. But there’s kind of an expiration date on kidnappings, dramatically speaking. The bad guys get what they want (or not), and the victim is killed (or not). There’s very little reason to devote massive resources to keep someone forever unless (1) he’s a criminal who needs putting away, or (2) she’s Typhoid Mary.

Ralf The Dog. April 4, 2012 at 10:50 pm

, or (3) he is an old man, hiding in a cave because he told some people to fly an aircraft into a building or two, or (4) he is a perfectly reasonable and sane man who thinks he is a talking dog, that uses science fiction authors WordPress sites to tell the public about the coming Space Marmot invasion. (They will never get me!)

Not Todd April 5, 2012 at 6:42 am

The set-up for Alcatraz reminds me so much of Brimstone, a fairly decent Fox show that only went a season. A bunch of bad guys from history escape Hell to present-day Earth, and the Devil sends a cop who committed suicide out to round them up one-by-one.

John Glover made a great Devil.

wjw April 6, 2012 at 2:06 am

John Glover was indeed a good Adversary. Though the series was so metaphysically depressing that I’m not surprised it lasted only a few episodes.

DensityDuck April 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm

“You can search for a murderer forever. But there’s kind of an expiration date on kidnappings, dramatically speaking. ”

Well, there’s Jaycee Dugard to consider.

And besides, “what happens when I find the kid and it turns out all along I was looking for the idea and not the reality” makes a good psychological storyline. It’s Moby Dick, only this time Captain Ahab is the good guy.

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