Writers have the last word on problems with finales

Analysis

May 13, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

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, now comes the last episode of NBC's Frasier, one of television's most celebrated sitcoms. (Next week the prime-time runs of WB's Angel and ABC's The Practice also will end.)

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

In a teleconference, Grammer added the hope that viewers will 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. Grammer's Dr. Frasier Crane is certainly one of the medium's most enduring personalities: The persnickety psychiatrist came into being 19 years ago in a Boston bar on NBC's Cheers. (The last prime-time character that could boast that kind of longevity was Marshall Matt Dillon, played by James Arness in CBS' 1950s western, Gunsmoke.)

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. (For those not among the 52 million people who watched the final Friends episode: Rachel and Ross ended up in each other's arms.)

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. In the last days preceding the show, the producers bluffed cast and crew through a reading - and a rehearsal - by announcing that they knew the ending but didn't want to share it for fear it would be leaked to the press.

"We had this tremendous pressure on us not just to do something that was illustrative of the show that we had done for seven years, but we also wanted to do something that people would remember," Burns said. "Ultimately, we decided whatever happened, it had to be in character for everyone in the show - that was the most important thing."

Burns now thinks there were "psychological reasons" behind the difficulty the writing team had in creating a finale. "I think we just didn't want to end it. I think there was this psychology going at the end that made us delay until the very last minute," he said.

Citing a belief that the keys to a great finale are allowing the characters to remain consistent with their histories and easing the farewell for viewers, Burns says he liked the ending of Friends. "I think it carried on in the spirit of the show with the right mix of sentimentality that everybody wants in a finale. It had honest emotion. And if you can get that in your writing, you're halfway home" he said.

But that's not the way Peter Mehlman, one of the writer-producers on Seinfeld, saw it.

"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 plays 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. Nothing warm and fuzzy about the way Seinfeld ended, and you can still get a fierce debate going about whether it was brilliant or awful.

""I think the philosophy with endings is to try and top your show," Mehlman said. "What you're trying for is your show plus."

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

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