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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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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.

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.

The writers chose the understated route and for the most part it worked. Most of the goodbyes are subtle affairs, and though a bit forced, the emotionality feels more than earned. When Dwight realizes Michael’s respect for him, I cried, but no moment felt as poignant as the final encounter between Pam and Michael: She misses her boss’s goodbye because she goes to a movie thinking he will leave the next day. Michael makes it through security at the airport, makes a self-referential remark about the absurdity of an eight-year documentary, and then walks away in what looks like an iconic ending shot. Pam, shoes in hand, runs Michael down. She reaches up on her tippy toes, in a scene reminiscent of the bittersweet ending to “Lost in Translation,” hugs Michael and watches him walk away. This calm and silent scene provided a pitch-perfect send-off to the loud, over-the-top, bumbling Michael while encapsulating the awkward,  loving relationship that emerged between the two. This is where “The Office” should have ended. If it had, it would not have broken any conventions or set new standards; it would have ended the show within the conventional framework, but in its own nuanced way.

This season, the writers try to get us to care about Jim potentially leaving for Philadelphia, but at this point it seems too much to ask of us. Ironically, though, given that “The Office” already cleared away all of its important emotional payoff, it retains the luxury of creating a much more playful and possibly absurd finale, one in line with its ingenuity, which challenges our expectations for easy closure. But I imagine a more saccharine one that perhaps lets us see Michael returning, or married, or Holly with child.

“30 Rock” faces a different challenge. Unlike “Seinfeld,” it partakes both of stories that intend to move along in life, and also the “Seinfeld”-esque timeless absurd humor. Characters develop, Liz Lemon loves herself more and more, Jack Donaghy softens as a father, Tracy tries to embrace stability, while the rest of the cast play up their zaniness. Most important, the heart of the show beats on, growing stronger each season: Jack and Liz develop that odd intimacy of unlikely close friends delivering numerous moments that elicit tears and strong emotions while exploring the nature of masculinity and femininity in the contemporary era. Yet, despite or on top of these more characteristic elements of a plot-driven comedy, “30 Rock” watches like a pure sitcom. So much depends on our love of these crazy people, on situational humor, slapstick and independent “SNL”-style gags, on meta self-reference, on persistent political, racial and cultural satire, and whole episodes feel so cartoonish as to veer into the wonderfully absurd. That the show succeeds despite all of its disparate parts signifies perhaps the most genius aspect of the show. Week in and out this show balances many clashing components to create the consistently smartest show on TV without falling into the traps of sarcasm and cynicism.

Not only must “30 Rock” end its series, tie up loose ends, provide comfort and a sense of closure for viewers, but ultimately the ending will force the question it’s never wanted to answer: sitcom or plot-driven comedy, cartoonish or realistic, satire or serious. Already distinguishing itself from “Seinfeld,” “30 Rock” consciously treats its last season as a last season. (The first episode was titled “The Beginning of the End.”)

All season long, “30 Rock,” in almost a swinging-for-the-fences mode, has taken all of its numerous components and ratcheted them up to extreme. The political satire is less subtle, but more scathing, the meta-commentary on TV and the show itself more insistent, and the characters engage in more introspection each episode than in any of the past seasons. The show chooses to go out on its own terms because of its ambitiousness. It inevitably misfires here and there, but this season has been hilarious and poignant. However, recent episodes appear to concede to the need for closure, albeit, like “The Office,” on its own terms.

Liz Lemon gets married. This felt like an unnecessarily forced and rushed concession to fans, but it did so in a wonderful episode that encapsulated everything great about “30 Rock.” We can argue about the consistency of Lemon getting married, but when it comes down to it “30 Rock” remembers it’s still a TV show, and while it destroys tropes it also just engages with them in a playful manner. I found the episode’s exploration of a strong, independent, career-driven woman’s ambivalence toward marriage smart and delightful. In a sense, the Lemon marriage feels like something the show needed to do before its final bow. The next episode continued in its precarious approach to balance tying up loose ends while staying true to its absurdity. Jack’s mother dies and he gains a modicum of comfort, Lemon congregates a roomful of women to unnaturally ask self-referential questions about feminism, Lemon and Jenna come close to a heart to heart with the requisite flashback, Jenna marries, and the show hints numerous times toward its end. That “30 Rock” continues to wrap things up while it make meta comments about the difficulty of ending TV shows leaves me feeling uncertain, yet still hopeful that the finale can live up to the boundary-shattering nature of the show itself. We still don’t know if Liz gets pregnant or will adopt, or if Jack will settle down, or what will happen to “TGS.” I, for one, hope the show takes a cue from “Seinfeld” and remains true to its artistic integrity, and yet, “30 Rock” never exhibited as much bite as “Seinfeld.” While “Seinfeld” feigned toward closure, “30 Rock” has already given us so much, but the show can still redeem itself with a finale that focuses on the show itself, that just allows the show to continue without the need for melodramatic goodbyes, or weddings, or deaths, just “30 Rock” doing its absurd thing, like “Seinfeld.” I could see “TGS” ending, which would allow “30 Rock” to end as “TGS” ends, but that still leaves open the question of closure or integrity.

Regardless, we know for sure that no matter what, some will remain unhappy, others will argue about the ending. Our emotional attachment to these series, our separation anxiety, places too much emphasis on endings that rarely, if ever, could live up to our impossible expectations. Seeing the difficulty of ending series like these, I don’t hope for anything better than just a great episode, and I expect a motley mix of trying to balance all of culture’s strange desires and expectations. I know that I will miss Liz, Jack, Jenna, Tracy and perhaps Dennis Duffy, Beeper King, most of all. We will say goodbye to something that has not only influenced the conversation, paved the way for countless shows and strong women characters, but has given us joy on a weekly basis. Now, we must resign ourselves to revisiting our past in the nostalgic world of syndication.

 

Joe Winkler is a staff writer for Vol.1Brooklyn, and a contributor to theRumpus.net, HtmlGiant, and Tablet Magazine, among other online publications. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephWinkler.

 
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