Parting With a TV Show Is Such Sweet Sorrow
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In the most recent episode of “30 Rock” — there are only two more remaining in the series — Kenneth Parcell and Tracy Jordan discuss the reason behind Kenneth’s childlike love of television. Tracy guesses: “Despite cellphones, iPads and computers, they are still the most effective portals for poltergeists?” No, Kenneth tells him, It’s “because nothing ever really changes, the people you care about never leave.” This self-referential sentiment captures much of the tension in ending a long-running TV show: How do you send off the beloved staples of our televisual lives? Two of our favorite, decade-defining comedies will take their final bow this year: “30 Rock” and “The Office.” These finales will not only break many hearts, but also signify a rare opportunity to transcend the limited artistic creativity in the history of sitcom endings.
Does a sitcom owe viewers a sense of closure? Traditionally, it’s provided neatly tied-up bows, when the writers have had the opportunity (i.e., haven’t had their show canceled). But “Seinfeld” not only broke the mold of the traditional sitcom, it also changed what we would come to expect from endings. Before “Seinfeld,” most if not all comedies ended with an unnatural intrusion into the narrative so as to create a feeling of emotional closure. The shows answered those lingering questions of won’t they/will they, some characters got married, moved on, had a child, or died — something drastic to give the viewer something to hold onto, to send off these beloved characters (e.g., “Cheers,” “M.A.S.H.”).
“Seinfeld,” in its ability to end on its own terms, essentially flipped the bird to the idea of emotional closure. It used its finale to remind us of the show’s genius and irreverence. “The Office” and “30 Rock” now stand on the cusp of a similar challenge. Both face unique challenges given their distinct comedic nature and the trajectory of their shows, but they contain the creative talent to give us something on par with the ending of “Seinfeld.”
A reminder on the details of the “Seinfeld” finale: NBC decides to give Jerry and George’s pilot the green light and flies them out to Los Angeles. On a private jet with the whole gang aboard, Kramer, because he feels sand in his ear, hops around distracting the pilot thereby forcing him into an emergency landing. During the turbulence, as the plane dangerously descends, Jerry and Elaine almost confess something to each other. The plane levels out before they could make their declarations, and they land in Nowheresville for a few hours. The gang decides to take a walk around and see the town. As they do so, they see an obese man mugged and do nothing besides make snide remarks about his weight. This is captured on camera and used against them as evidence in a trial for their violation of a made-up Good Samaritan law. From there, the show devolves into pure absurdity as all of our favorite side characters testify as to the evilness of the four. We essentially revisit all of the episodes we loved as each character reminds the jury of his or her horror story with the dynamic quartet. Finally, the four are sentenced to a year in prison, and we see them in their jail cell, all together, doing what they do best: nothing.
“Seinfeld’s” ending faked us out: It looked like it was going to fork over a classic emotionally satisfying ending, but at the last moment took it all away. We thought George would finally succeed, that Jerry’s show would take off, and that Elaine and Jerry would profess their love for each other. That the creators did this served as a nice wink to the past, right before they shattered conventions, again. From there they turned the finale into a highlight show that reminded us of how brilliant these writers are, but they also achieved another unprecedented ending in a few ways. While they do create an absurd and unnatural intrusion into the narrative, nothing moves forward. The show ends exactly as every episode began and ended — with the four talking about nothing. In that sense it stayed true to its nature as a pure comedy, as a show with no pretenses to a narrative arc, just situational comedy, truly a comedy about nothing. Moreover, they offered a referendum on the show itself and us as the viewers. Instead of emotional closure it gave us emotional ambiguity, even discomfort. As it piled on the persistent narcissism of the characters, we came face to face with the hilarious realization that these people indeed are selfish assholes (and yet we miss them to this day). “Seinfeld” broke open the scope of comedic endings, allowing shows to push past the need to pander to the real emotional needs of the audience in this moment.