I posted this last week on the mediation blog (see my blogroll) and thought I would share it here as well; a few “televisionary” thoughts as we move into the summer…
Several recent posts on both mediation and The Other Journal have focused on the apocalypse and spectre of eschatological judgment. Indeed, the End of Days seems to be in the air at the moment, especially considering our recent cultural experience of the “delay of the parousia” when to the ridicule of North American news media the world failed to come to an end on May 21 (as claimed by otherwise obscure fundamentalist prophet Harold Camping). Despite the Rapture-less reality of June 2011, there continue to be signs of the apocalypse everywhere. Blockbuster Video is shutting down; Oprah Winfrey taped her final show after 25 seasons; and perhaps most importantly, we are now seeing in our midst the ominous occurrence of “season finales.”
What is the significance of the “season finale”? Some shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” use the final episode to gather all the mounting frustrations and dramas of its beloved characters into a deafening crescendo, culminating in a cliffhanger ending that keeps viewers waiting with baited breath for some kind of resolution come September. Other shows (eg. “Grey’s” lesser cousin “Private Practice”) take the opportunity to get rid of a few characters whose storylines have atrophied, opening the door for some fresh faces when the show resumes… although come to think of it, “Private Practice” also introduced a cliffhanger in the last few seconds. Shows like “Modern Family” pack a satisfying dose of allusions to earlier episodes into the finale, reminding viewers why they love the show and providing a compelling (as well as entertaining) apologia for its continued existence. Other programs are not so lucky, being retired or sent to the purgatorial fires of syndication. Artful HBO dramas “The United States of Tara” and “Big Love” will likely close off their multi-season runs with a bang; new shows that failed to launch such as “V,” “The Event,” “Off The Map” and “Law and Order: Los Angeles” will expire with a finale-less whimper and a frustrating lack of narrative closure.
In TV language, the “season finale” is to be distinguished from the “series finale,” the ultimate, anticipated final episode which promises a satisfying ending to a beloved world and its characters. The final episodes of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” in the 1990s were major events, watched across the world in baseball stadiums full of devoted fans; the finale of “Lost” took on mythic proportions. In retrospect, the dissatisfaction many felt at some of these ultimate endings was not so much that the final episode itself was lacking, but that it represented the end of an era, a kind of pop-culture death. Once these shows have crossed over into the afterlife, their vital spirit is gone. But what happens when the end never comes, when the story arc of a show (like ABC’s “The Event”) is prematurely terminated? What if the “season finale” is really the “series finale” – such as when the show is unexpectedly cancelled while on hiatus over the summer – leaving a world of events and people to linger in medias res?
Part of the appeal of narrative is the way it satisfies our innate longing for meaning. As Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar noted in his Theo-Drama, the structure of dramatic narrative corresponds to our desire to see our own lives as displaying some sense of purpose, of accruing a meaningful telos beyond mere cause-and-effect. In the theatre (as well as on screen) events and actions serve some kind of purpose that is revealed in the course of the plot. Seeing this take place reassures us that in our own lives things happen for a (narrative) reason, rather than being anomalous, meaningless occurrences with no legitimate connection to one another. We unconsciously see ourselves as protagonists in a play, and this helps us to make sense of our world and act within it; this self-perception is mirrored in the space of the fictional narrative.
For an engrossing television show to end abruptly, perhaps with no warning, thwarts our narrative expectations on a fairly basic level. Events, bits of dialogue, character development that was “leading somewhere” are suddenly revealed to be arbitrary, the product of some Hollywood writer who is now out of a job. However, this “penultimate” situation is much the way our lives play out most of the time. For most of us, there doesn’t seem to be an all-encompassing apocalypse on the horizon; things continue from episode to episode, from season to season, with little respite. Although we may have “season finales” from time to time – major events in our life that shape and redefine our story – things inevitably “pick up where they left off,” somewhat unsatisfying, not always that dramatic.
Perhaps the value of the “apocalyptic” is the way it vertically intersects the cyclical flow of our lives, interrupting the story just where it threatens to become stale. For those of us who subscribe to a less literal interpretation of the Last Things, it can sometimes become unclear just what shape a big apocalyptic “finale” would take. Perhaps this is only natural, considering the scope of the “story we find ourselves in.” Maybe the series will continue into spin-offs or be re-made by J.J. Abrams. All we can do is play our part as characters in the unfolding drama, trying not to lose sight of the joyous particularity of each “episode” or the narrative arc which propels us forward into an uncertain future.