15 June 2009

finales without finality.

1 year, 8 months, and 14 days ago, Pushing Daisies premiered on ABC, introducing a show with bright colors and a quick-talking cast much in the tradition of Brian Fuller's previous gifts to television. Narrated by the guy who narrated those Walgreen commercials, there was a storybook feel to it, the cast speaking in overly-constructed, almost archaic structure spiced with modernity, like an adult fable minus the "adult" connotation. Positivity in a sea of bleak, saturated police procedurals. Unique. Original. Cancelled mid-2nd season.

Lots of shows get cancelled, especially in today's landscape (as Bill Lawrence said at the "Produced By" conference: "A hit is a show that you manage to keep on the air.") Lots of Brian Fuller's shows get cancelled (Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me). It's a scary landscape for television these days to hang on to a show that isn't performing as well as American Idol or The Mentalist. But the fans suffer.

Television isn't like a book or a movie, mostly because of the spelling. But also because television properties are generally episodic. Books and movies are self-contained; one sits and takes in the whole story within a specified unit. Television, on the other hand, has to deal with constant scrutiny as its story develops. If the investors think the story is underperforming (from a business standpoint at least), the story gets broken off in the middle. The justification is that no one is watching it so why not fill the space with something that people like?

And that's the industry. We've grown up with that mentality in television, even grown accustomed to its escalating brutality. When a sit-com gets dropped, some people are sad but accept the nature of the beast. It's just business.

Some shows, however, keep people involved not just with clever situations every week but a continuing storyline and developing characters. That's the power of episodic television, to create these sprawling worlds full of any number of endearing (or malevolent) characters for an audience to fall in love with in a way films are incapable of doing. How can a film compete with 22(ish) hours a season? Audiences become invested over years of living with a character. Great for business. But then, when statistics start to show audiences are dropping off and there's some negative feedback on the Greatest Though Slightly Inaccurate Feedback Engine Ever Conceived, the interwebs, studios feel forced to make a decision. And the fans who stick around despite the falling numbers suffer.

Using this same Feedback Engine, the fans have started to coalesce, starting movements to save programming that may be on the bubble. Chuck is a recent example that used Twitter (and the #savechuck hashtag), websites (renewchuck.com), and even lots and lots of boxes of Nerds candy sent to NBC. NBC ended up bringing Chuck back (on a limited budget and only buying a 13-episode slate for a show going into its third season). Other shows, like Pushing Daisies, aren't so lucky.

So the fans are deprived of the ending. Sure, there is an end in that existential, everything-has-an-end kind of way. But you look back on shows like M*A*S*H that had such an emotional ending and even Mad About You (seriously) with such a creative end to give the fans (or the fans they had left) some peace. Newhart did a great job, ending its show with a wink to Bob Newhart's longtime fans of his previous show. There are other shows that fritter that power away (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air comes to mind with its Will-turns-the-lights-out ending, or even The Cosby Show with its over-emotional Boyz II Men "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to the Cosby Show" ending), sometimes even on purpose (I'm looking at you, Seinfeld). But there are some shows that aren't even given the opportunity to fritter.

Carnivàle. The title alone should strike a "Yes!" chord in so many on this subject. Such lofty goals, such a driving force, a show finally getting its act together, HBO had trouble sustaining a show that traveled across the dust, setting up full, working carnivals all the time. But season 2 ends with what everyone has been waiting for only to see nothing come to fruition. There was talk for a while that the rest of the storyline would come out in comic book form (much like what Joss Whedon would do for Buffy, Season 8, later) but that never happened (that I know of ...).

But that brings up an interesting point. Should these cancelled shows with a fanbase be allowed to continue the storyline in an alternative format? Would it be feasible to bring that fanbase to the emerging internet television market? Put out a book, a graphic novel, a movie, a radio show, something to finish the story? ABC allowed Pushing Daisies to rework the last three episodes so that it could sum up every storyline in the last five minutes of its series finale, drastically different from the ornate storytelling to which viewers were accustomed. Would it have been better to release a book (a pop-up book?) to let the story finish naturally instead of this unceremonious sum-uppy coda? Media has become so diversified (stratified?) that there are more outlets than ever to push out a product. So, I suppose the real question is: is there any money in transferring a dying brand to a different medium to live out its last days?


Steven Averett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Averett said...

Last five minutes? More like last 30 seconds. I got whiplash from the Pushing Daisies "okay-this-was-a-normal-episode-but-let-us-just-add-one-more-thing-Chuck-comes-out-to-her-mom-and-aunt-as-alive-and-Emerson's-daughter-also-shows-up-and-Olive-finally-moves-on-and-starts-her-own-place-and-everyone-lives-happily-ever-after-and-oh-here's-Digby-running-flowers-in-slow-motion-ok-gotta-go-now-buh-bye!

Still, better than nothing, I guess.