‘Endings are hard. Any chapped-ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning, but endings are impossible.’
–Chuck Shurley, Supernatural
‘Take it sleazy.’
-Michael Realman, The Good Place
The last time Michael Schur delivered a final episode to one of his own shows, it was the beautifully crafted ‘One Last Ride’ for Parks and Recreation, a brilliant final hour for an equally brilliant show that flashed forward to the future to let us know the characters that we had come to love were going to be alright, but which settled on the present day for its final words and left us with Leslie Knope hoping that things would in fact be okay in the end.
While Brooklyn Nine-Nine shows no signs of ending just yet, Schur’s other famed series of the last few years has come to an eagerly awaited conclusion. The Good Place began life as a pretty straight forward afterlife comedy, cast to perfection with already established performers such as Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, and making stars of William Jackson Harper, D’Arcy Carden, Jameela Jamill and Manny Jacinto, while having a colourful style and surreal tone that reminded one of Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies; both shows had a surreal touch that could be simultaneously fluffy and dark while also being very concerned with mortality and death.
That first season was a delightful piece of surreal fluff, and seemed as if it was going to settle into a groove that we usually expect from Schur, but in a move worthy of some of the best prestige shows from this century, such as Lost, the rug was pulled from under the viewers and the characters’ feet with a season one finale twist that proved not only a major shock the likes of which a twenty two minute comedy series seldom goes for, but with a brilliantly delivered line from Bell, summed up the feelings of many on the direction the actual world had taken.
As each season of The Good Place has continued, it has done so with an increasing sense of philosophical self, posing notions and stories that will give books with titles such as ‘The Good Place and Philosophy’ a rich vein of material to mine for several volumes. It was American sitcom as delivered by Jean Baudrillard, and while the last two seasons came in for criticism from some quarters, especially in their first halves, they’ve always managed to stick the landing, but given that Schur had cited Damon Lindelof heavy hitters such as Lost and The Leftovers as major influences on the type of show he was looking to produce, it left one imagining how good or disappointing an ending The Good Place would eventually deliver given that both Lindelof series has given us endings that ran from on audience extreme to the other.
The answer was simple; it amazing, and then some.
The history of television is littered with classic series but many of them have been left with endings that have left viewers with a range of conflicting emotions, and not all of them positive. The Sopranos and Mad Men are two that particularly come to mind, with one climaxing with the most sudden and unexpected smashes to black in television history, while the other left many pondering the meaning of what it all meant, not to mention the significance of Coca-Cola commercials.
Then there’s the finale to Lost, which many feel ruined the overall love and respect they had for the series. That finale was in the works since around season three/season four, when Lindelof and co-showrunner Carlton Cuse went to the ABC network and told them they wanted to end the series at a certain point, which ended up being season six, so as to work out a concrete way to end a story that had ensnared both a cult fandom and massive ratings. The appropriately titled ‘The End’ is still debated to this day and usually is mentioned in the same breath as the final hour of The Sopranos as an example of a disappointing or bitter ending to a series, especially ones which are held up as an example impacting on the nature of television itself.
At the complete opposite end of that debate you have Six Feet Under which ended with one of the greatest pieces of editing a television series ever accomplished and which might very well be the most satisfying end to an hour long television drama in the current golden age of television. While the likes of Mad Men and The Sopranos are still talked about highly, Alan Ball’s darkly comedic and tragic drama about The Fisher family and their undertaker business has seemingly fallen through the cracks, and is never mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos or The Wire, series that were incredibly important in the development of HBO as the behemoth as we know it today, and yet, its finale was acclaimed as one of television’s very best endings, with a snapshot of every character’s death at the very end of the show set to Sia’s ‘Breathe Me’. It was as powerful as television has gotten and came at the end of a final season had already proven memorable what with it killing of a key character three episodes before it even gotten to its final hour.
Of the big hitters of the last few years, the one finale that seems to be agreed upon as having worked was Breaking Bad, which even after ending took the risk of doing a continuation movie, last year’s El Camino, which managed to not only avoid ruining the ending that everyone agreed worked, but which managed to actually work as a brilliant epilogue to a series that ended perfectly and which accompanies it superbly.
Crafting television shows can be tricky in regard to structure and when to end it. If you have a hit show then you’re off to the races, but sometimes that means either continuing beyond the point of absurdity and ending too far past the point when you should have ended (Dexter), or being cut off at a moment just when you’re either mid-groove (Firefly) or just when you got your mojo back after having lost it for a while (the original run of Twin Peaks).
Sometimes a cancellation can work out regardless of how terrible it makes us feel as fans. The way a finale is structured and written can serve as a good as ending as anyway, while other times a life or death cliff-hanger is where we’re left hanging forever, with only our own imaginations or fan fiction to be the only way to decide where the story might have gone (the recent revival of The X-Files left several fates up in the air and yet it looks likely we’ll never get back to it, at least until the franchise is rebooted as Disney Plus show when Disney goes chasing those potentially lucrative X-Files dollars).
The decision to cancel Angel came at a time when Joss Whedon and his writers could have fashioned a different ending to the one they were planning, but the cliff-hanger they concocted ended up being as much a statement on the series’ themes and ideas of heroism in any event, so the life or death moment that was supposed to carry the series into a sixth season ended up being a call for fighting the good fight and ending the series on a note that summed it up perfectly while also feeling like a glorious tribute to the all or nothing ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
While there have been several comic book continuations of nearly all branches of the Buffyverse, for me I always want to imagine those characters fighting in that alleyway. In a way it was an ending hinted at as far back in season one in the tragic ‘Hero’, an episode that became all the more poignant given the actual death of Glenn Quinn not long after, but while that may not have been the planned ending, it still worked, and made for an interesting counterpart to the more concrete conclusion that came from Buffy and that enigmatic smile that sent it off nicely into the realms of syndication and streaming services.
Watching The Good Place finale was one of the most satisfying viewing experiences in recent television memory. Like Parks…and ‘One Last Ride’, the script to the final Good Place encapsulates the themes and ideas that made the show so great but remembers that it was the characters we really cared for more than anything. Like ‘One Last Ride’, each act of the episode is devoted to each character, with other characters coming and going in each segment, but then getting a little time to themselves when the episode fully catches up to them.
Best of all, the eventual destinations of each character feels earned, and genuine to where their journey seemed to be taking them, with moments of kindness, redemption and any decisions they make feeling genuine to where we expected them to be when the final credits roll. It mixes moments of beautifully played humour and poignancy that ends up having you crying tears of laughter and just plain tears.
Even more remarkably, the series ends up being a tribute to the act of kindness that makes it a gloriously brilliant companion piece to Parks and Recreation. Ted Danson’s Michael at one point ended up looking as if he was going to be a major antagonist, but instead turned into a symbol of hope that showed that even the worst of us were capable of tapping into the better parts of our humanity. That he ended up a real person capable of enjoying life in all its glory was as beautiful summation of everything the series stood for so it stood to reason that the final line, a brilliant line it is too, should be the one to finish the series.
Everyone gets their moment in the sun, and to see both Michael and Kristen Bell’s Eleanor become the people we know they always had it in them to be makes it a series that is not only a wonderfully satisfying one, but one which given the levels of smaller jokes and details dotted around it, makes for an enticing concoction to return to and rewatch.
At four seasons, it isn’t too long and thirteen episodes a season, it’s a series that while being produced for NBC also has the feeling of something designed perfectly for the streaming generation; no wonder it got snapped up internationally by Netflix where the series found a waiting and enthralled international audience.
As the landscape of television constantly evolves and changes, so too does it appear is the way that finales are being crafted and delivered. With the likes of Netflix most famously devoted to producing as much ‘content’ as possible, it leaves one wondering if potential end dates is something that is factored into the equations.
On going narratives and serials are not long just the domain of television in this day and age either. The biggest movie franchises in the world right now are ongoing in a way that reminds one more of the structure of television series; what is the Marvel Cinematic Universe but the world’s biggest television series, even though they are very much produced for the cinema screen (and contrary to what Martin Scorsese says, are very much cinema), but the way each installment, even if they are focused on a different character, somehow dovetails with another gives one the feeling as if they’re watching an ongoing narrative; the character movies are like stand alone episodes, The Avengers movies are the big mythology tales, while Endgame was the big finale, although we know it’s not the true end of the franchise.
Storytelling is a powerfully, brilliant thing, and it has in some ways kept the world going round as we consume ‘content’; films, television, books and even podcasts are open to the possibilities of world building, character development and the twists and turns that come from ongoing serialised narratives, and yet television is the one that can frequently fall apart when it comes to the elusive end and that’s just due to the nature of the medium, particularly as a commercial medium where, for a long time, the impetus was on keeping a show going until the point when people stopped watching and the series was seen as becoming unprofitable.
For all the high profile controversies over the finales of works as iconic as Mad Men, The Sopranos and Lost, the likes of Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation and now The Good Place prove that a great ending is possible by design rather than by accident. It’s ironic that one of the most spot-on observations of the nature of how difficult it is to craft an ending came from Supernatural, a series that would continue for another ten seasons after the episode where it made that point (and it will be incredibly interesting to see how that behemoth chooses to finish its story), and yet for all the complaints that endings are given, when it all comes together as amazingly as it did in The Good Place and seeing Elenaor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Janet and Michael make the decisions they do, the magic is tangible, the emotions are powerful and the moment the end credits begins are as powerful an emotion as one can get from storytelling. There’s nothing quite like it really.