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Television & Radio

It's just hard to say goodbye

Sappy or surreal? When creators lay a TV series to rest, that's the question. And as 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld' show, the answer varies.

May 14, 2004|David Zurawik | Baltimore Sun

June may be the month of brides, but this is the month of television finales. Even as fans continue to debate the merits of last week's final episode of NBC's "Friends" and Thursday night's last episode of NBC's "Frasier," the next few days will bring the end of the WB's "Angel" and ABC's "The Practice."

For Kelsey Grammer, executive producer and star of "Frasier," which won 31 Emmys in 11 seasons, the goal of the finale was "to leave everybody in a place where they are hopeful, where there is something to look forward to."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 21, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
"Seinfeld" -- An article in the May 14 Calendar section about final episodes of TV series said that in the last installment of "Seinfeld," the show's principal characters, while in jail, were visited by people they had victimized over the years. It was while they were in court that the visitations occurred.

Grammer added the hope that viewers would feel "that these characters are going on to a life not necessarily better, but at least as interesting as the ones that we've shared with the audience over the years."

That's a lovely, though far from universal, thought. Just as readers may weep at the end of a favorite novel, many television viewers grieve as they say goodbye to characters with whom they've spent time each week.

Even the writers and producers who invent such beloved (or at least familiar) characters are divided over how best to lay their creations to rest. Whether it is better to go gentle into that good night of reruns as "Friends" did last week, or go straight over the top to surrealism and controversy, as "Seinfeld" did in 1998, is open to debate.

"That's the question: 'How do you end it?' " said Allan Burns, co-creator of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." "It's so tough to get any satisfaction out of an ending."

His landmark CBS sitcom wound up in 1977 with a new boss arriving at WJM, the fictional TV station at which Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) worked, and firing everyone except the bumbling anchorman, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). The episode is considered one of the greatest endings in TV history.

Calling the "Moore" finale the "gold standard," Marta Kauffman, co-creator of "Friends," acknowledged its influence on last week's "Friends" finale.

But according to Burns, he and the five other writers who worked on the finale didn't know how "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" would end until two days before the show was taped.

Burns says he liked the ending of "Friends."

"I think it carried on in the spirit of the show," he said.

Peter Mehlman, one of the writer-producers on "Seinfeld," disagrees.

"If you have this opportunity to end your show, and you know you are going to get these huge ratings, why not do something outrageous?" Mehlman said. "I saw David Schwimmer [who played Ross] the week of the 'Friends' finale and I said, 'Why don't you guys kill off Rachel?' "

That dark sensibility was on display in the "Seinfeld" finale, during which the characters were arrested (under a Good Samaritan law) for standing by and laughing while a fat man was mugged. While in jail, the characters were visited by people they had victimized over the years.

"I think the philosophy with endings is to try and top your show," Mehlman said.

While acknowledging that most shows aim for gut-wrenching finales, he was particularly critical of "Friends."

"One, it's just very easy to make people cry at the end of a show. Ninety-nine percent of the people are always on the edge of tears anyway," he said. "And, two, 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' went for a legitimate comedic feeling. It did not have a bunch of overly sentimental episodes leading up to the finale like 'Friends' did. For the last three years, it seems like NBC was promoting that finale of 'Friends' with mournful music by Enya."

In the end, relationships -- between the characters themselves and the characters and their viewers -- complicate saying goodbye to any long-running television series. Not only must writers send their characters off on new life passages, they also often struggle over whether to acknowledge to viewers the artificiality of the worlds in which those characters have lived.

One of the most imaginative finales in television history was the 1988 ending to the NBC medical drama "St. Elsewhere," which portrayed life at an inner-city hospital named St. Eligius. The series ended with a surreal scene depicting the autistic son of one of the doctors staring at a glass globe filled with snow.

The show ended on a close-up of the globe sitting atop a TV set. Inside the glass surrounded by snowflakes is St. Eligius -- suggesting that the entire six-year series was the fantasy of a child.

"We all needed to acknowledge that the show was fiction," Tom Fontana, one of the writers on "St. Elsewhere," said at the time. Easy to say; hard to accept if you're watching the final credits of a favorite show. Maybe it's better not to be reminded just then.

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David Zurawik is television critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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