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Parting With a TV Show Is Such Sweet Sorrow

"Seinfeld" broke every sitcom convention, including the series finale. Can "30 Rock" and "The Office" do the same?

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But it didn’t necessarily inspire other sitcoms to follow suit: Most comedies still opted to end their series with a melodramatic send-off, often at odds with the tenor of the show itself, like “Friends.” The last seasons of “Friends” sputtered along on the goodwill of the audience until the incredibly saccharine and sentimental finale. The final episode erred on the side of comforting the viewers in creating a neat narrative through an unbelievable plot where all the friends move on at the same time to bigger and better things: Twins are born! Everyone leaves their apartments! And Ross and Rachel seemed destined to do this forever! It is a sort of a hug of a finale, almost a thank-you to the fans that doesn’t really care about staying true to a plot, and we can accept that, because it finally ended, albeit without much dignity.

To an extent, we all understand this need for a cop-out. We have weirdly intimate relationships with our TV shows — books end with the last page, movies end with the closing credits. But TV is different, in part because it is serialized and our relationship with shows is ongoing: We may refer to TV characters as friends, and during the off-season we may miss the characters so much that when they finally return, we feel more complete. We adopt their jargon into our conversation and we tend to think of ourselves in relation to them (e.g., I, for one, am a Samantha, of “Sex and the City”).

Consequently, it should come as little surprise that we relate to the ending of a show not just as the cessation of a long artistic endeavor but as a bittersweet death we all sort of mourn together. This phenomenon places a ridiculous burden on the creators and writers to provide a satisfying ending. We lived with these people for seven years, week in and week out. We grew to love them, to sometimes feel let down by them, but ultimately they became a part of our lives, and they require a justification as to why they will no longer. The highly capitalistic manner of entertainment exacerbates the situation. Our shows end not when the plot, or when the character development, runs dry, but when the show stops making money, and even then, if we can push to syndication we can settle for that. In other countries, shows run their natural course. They leave at their peak instead of languishing in season after season of monotony. (The British version of “The Office” lasted 12 episodes, and the Australian favorite “Summer Heights High” lasted eight episodes.) Our TV conventions don’t function in that way, which makes the situation of how to end considerably more challenging. “Seinfeld” bucked the trend, but it makes sense that most other TV shows do not follow suit. Yet, I think we can still hold out hope for this year.

“The Office,” despite having jumped the shark — more than once — has managed to continue providing frequent humor. The show first lost its emotional urgency after the resolution of Pam and Jim’s will they/won’t they romance, but recaptured it by refocusing on Michael Scott (Steve Carell), though he thankfully never carried the burden of normalcy. In fact, he thrived in his emotional awkwardness and sadness. But he needed to endear himself to us, because Michael Scott was not easy to love: The ratio of redemptive moments to cringing is too lopsided. (Scott’s tots, when Michael realizes he lied to underprivileged students about the scholarships he’s promised, made me want to hide under the covers.) But we did come to love him, because of his misguided but pure heart, his desperate need for the love of others, and his odd ability to succeed under pressure. Michael demanded redemption to complete his transformation from cartoon character to human being. If for nothing else, these extraneous seasons allowed us to watch Michael mature, ending in some of the most beautiful moments in the series, as when Michael proposes to Holly, in a Yoda voice,  and she responds back in a Yoda voice — you realize he’s found his true love. Or, on Michael’s last day on the job, he finally breaks down. Crying, he rushes to his office intent on calling Holly to tell her he cannot come to Colorado, and finds  he is wholly soothed by the sound of her voice. It’s an arresting moment to see the melodramatic Michael calmed by the voice of the person he’s spent his whole awkward life looking for.

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