Television is heartbreak

In a perfect world, good stories would never end. Wait—let me rephrase that. In a perfect world, good stories would always end gracefully. I don’t mean happy endings across the board. I mean good stories should always be allowed time to reach a conclusion after they’ve hit their narrative peak.

On television, however, the narrative peak often coincides with a peak in viewership—in ratings—and after that is reached the networks are just not interested anymore. A few months’ notice, if anything, and the show is gone. I will not delve into the historical implications of this. Current technology allows for easy storage of and access to all sorts of content, so it’s not oblivion I’m concerned with.

A few hours ago the world got the news that Ugly Betty, due to low ratings, will not have a fifth season, and that the current one—fourth and last—will have twenty episodes instead of the planned twenty-two. This means that there are only eight episodes left to air until the end of the series. It also means that they’ve either all been produced, or very few still have to be shot. I wonder if that will be enough time to give the show “a satisfying conclusion,” as ABC chief Steve McPherson put it. I also wonder what is satisfying in the eye of a network, and if that satisfaction coincides with giving the show a graceful ending.

In 2009, the ending of Pushing Daisies was not graceful. Neither in the way it was broadcast in the United States—at obscure times on three Saturday nights, weeks after it had been shown in some other countries—nor in its narrative implications. Fortunately, the season-two finale had been written in a way that provided a certain amount of closure to both the characters and the audience, so it was not as bad as I had feared.

The problem ultimately lies in the nature of the medium. Shows are often not allowed graceful endings because they are almost never created with an ending in mind. And it’s not like every show is like The Simpsons, where any episode could be the first or the last. Now the networks and the people expect narrative continuity probably more than they did in the past.

In this sense, the case of Lost is ideal. Despite being groundbreaking in many aspects, it’s very traditional in the way it was given a defined ending since the start. For a few years the viewers have known that in 2010 they would finally have all their questions answered—or, if not, that even those left unanswered would make sense in the general scheme of things. The sixth season, which is starting next week, just a few days away, has been planned so that the show would have its graceful conclusion.

Will it satisfy the audience? Maybe—or maybe not. The last time I gave a talk about Lost, I was asked something along the lines of “What if the writers decide not to answer the questions? What if they have misled the public? What if…?” In all fairness, these questions were asked by people who had never watched the show, and who were possibly not even big television watchers (what they were doing at my talk in such conspicuous number would be my question now), but they were still completely off the point.

Sure, each viewer has his own emotional attachments. Every one of us Lost fans has the ideal ending. Everyone has his own hopes about whom Kate should end up with, about whether or not they should leave the island, about who the real villain in the story is. On a slightly higher level, everyone has an idea on the whole Faraday vs. Hawking case—briefly, whether or not time can be changed, which affects season six and the whole meaning of the show. These ideas and hopes will determine each viewer’s reaction to the series finale, but they have nothing to do with the fact that, at this point, the show is exactly where it’s supposed to be—where it was planned to be—and that the final season will be all that’s needed to give meaning to the story, whatever that meaning may be.

When—something like three years ago—it was announced that Lost would end with season six, I think a lot of people were disappointed. Like I said, in a perfect world we’d never want good stories to end. That perfect world would imply that people never got bored, that no better stories would ever be written. It would also be a world without network television. In this sense the history of Lost is more ideal than that of Ugly Betty or Pushing Daisies.

Ultimately, I realize that if the news of Ugly Betty’s cancellation upset me, it’s not because I would want it to last forever. Betty would have to take her braces off eventually, right? What upsets me is that the concept of network television and traditional broadcasting is crumbling before the viewers’ eyes, yet networks still behave as if nothing were happening. The fate of a show is decided solely upon whether or not it performs well on first run (although the history of The Office, originally saved by iTunes sales and now performing very well, would beg to differ), with complete disregard for the idea that the world is changing—and it has been for a while. I wonder how long we will have to wait and what it will actually take for television to change with it.