This year has been full of planned final seasons. The Office, 30 Rock, and Spartacus came to a close earlier in the year, and now we're nearing the conclusions of Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Burn Notice. In a world where writers are more empowered to craft their chosen ending, we've grown accustomed to putting an otherworldly amount of pressure on THE END. Maybe it started with The Sopranos' fade to black, or maybe it goes back further—say, to Seinfeld or St. Elsewhere—but we definitely expect shows to have a path to those final moments, and it can get ugly if the final moments aren't well-received ('sup, Lost?). However, if a show's been awesome (or even pretty good) for a number of years and the finale doesn't work, that faulty conclusion shouldn't define a show's legacy.
Dealing with final-season disappointment
I've always been fascinated by the people who say that the final episodes of Lost ruined the entire six-year experience for them, or that Battlestar Galactica's series finale negated the show's excellent early seasons. If you step away from the idea that shows don't owe us anything—that if their endings don't match our personal desires, that isn't the show's fault—it's hard for me to process the notion that one disappointing final season or episode can overwhelmingly cancel out all the great, and even good, stuff that came before. Think about it: If we dislike a show's pilot, or the sixth episode of its first season, or even its entire first season overall, that doesn't mean that later episodes are guaranteed to be poor. How many shows improve in their second, third, or fourth seasons? (Read: Most of them.) But if it's the final string of episodes that doesn't work, there's so much hand-wringing about what went wrong and what's been ruined.
I understand the disappointment that final seasons can bring. As fans, we invest all this time into characters and worlds, and we hope they leave us in a satisfying fashion—it's human nature to want to see villains get their comeuppance, to watch heroes be redeemed, to have our burning questions answered, etc. These days, such feelings are exacerbated by the huge amount of discussion and analysis that takes place on the internet, where fan communities extract meaning from every corner of a show and make projections about what could (or should) happen. When you have 10 years invested in Smallville and the finale doesn't even totally deliver non-CGI shots of Clark Kent as Superman, it's understandable to not only be disappointed, but to feel like every possible outcome you had in your mind would've been better than what you saw, especially in the moment.
Nevertheless, "in the moment" observations shouldn't define a show's legacy and neither should perceived failings in a final season. I'll defend the end of Lost all day, but I can also acknowledge that its final season had a lot of problems. And yet, those problems could never invalidate the pilot, "We have to go back," "Not Penny's Boat," or the entire fourth and fifth seasons. Although the current nature of the TV business means that shows have more freedom to end when they want to, the great thing about television as a medium is that amazing things—or terrible things, or both—can happen in any given episode, only for the next one to deliver the completely opposite result.
Different shows, different types of endings
Let's focus on the two big shows that are charging toward their end this summer, Dexter and Breaking Bad. I've never been more confident in a show going into the final run as I am with Breaking Bad, and the (mid-)season premiere did nothing to dissuade me. This is a show that's been building to very specific endpoints for a very long time, and its writers have rarely strayed from that path. If the show suddenly goes off the rails in three weeks, with Walt just hanging out at Denny's for hours at a time or Walt Jr. starting his own breakfast blog, that'd be a bummer (maybe), and it would likely prevent us from experiencing the kind of catharsis we were expecting. But would that mean the show, as a whole, was a failure? Ditto for Dexter: I have fewer ideas of what should or shouldn't happen in the final four our five episodes, but I'm guessing that most fans don't expect those episodes to involve a whole lot of Batista and his hats, or Quinn and Jamie squabbling over new curtains. Speaking of which, Burn Notice is in full-on serialized mode, with some pretty dark stories going on right now, so I can the show reverting back to a lighthearted romp would seem kind of odd.
But think back, for example, to The Office and 30 Rock. I'd posit that fans were mostly happy with the way both series ended. But it's important to note that there was never really that much pressure to stick the proverbial landing. Meaning, not all final seasons or series finales face the same viewer expectations. With sitcoms, we tend to expect the more traditional conclusion—group hugs, new babies, bittersweet separations. And with procedural-y shows, even those that turn serialized like Burn Notice, resolution is pretty straightforward as well. Meanwhile, shows with big mysteries or plot devices (Lost, BSG, even Fringe), and shows that position themselves as "different" or "more than" (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men) are scrutinized much more closely. Some of that scrutiny is warranted (gotta answer those questions, bro!), but quite a bit of it isn't. Not all shows should be judged on the same plane, but we also shouldn't overreact when great shows don't totally blow us away in the end.
Ultimately, I keep coming back to earlier this summer, when James Gandolfini suddenly and tragically passed away. After a few years of fans and critics pushing The Sopranos aside—a shift that was at least partially brought on by the controversy surrounding the series' final episode—there were some great stories that basically said, "Hey, this show is probably the best ever, even if you forgot." Time (and an untimely death) has helped The Sopranos regain some of the luster it lost because of its series finale. The wounds are still raw for Lost fans, but I imagine that people will come back around on that show, too. But it doesn't have to be this way, and it doesn't have to take that long. So in seven weeks when Breaking Bad and Dexter are both over, let's try to remember that even if their final seasons didn't work out like we expected or wanted them to, their legacies (whatever they may be) aren't ruined. Deal?
What do you think? Are final seasons overvalued, or should we continue to consider them as highly important?