Every television series has an expiration date – like all the rest of us. And as much as we love and adore a program, ourselves or someone else – what is inevitable is that after the many joys, heartaches, exhilarations and disappointments it will be time for a finale. That time begins this week for Mad Men – one of the most unlikely, game changing and creatively successful shows in television history.
Tonight marks the first of its seven-episode final season so it is really, for lack of a better phrase, the beginning of the end. Yet like all culminations (Note: Death sounds so awful doesn’t it – as if the opposite never existed) it carries a myriad of emotions depending on how one chooses to see endings – especially the creative kind.
Two of my favorite people in the world – Stephen Tropiano and Holly Van Buren – are currently working on a book to be published at the end of the year on this very subject called TV Series Finales FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Endings of Your Favorite TV Shows. It will cover a broad spectrum of many of our favorite series and it is more than likely at least one or more of the programs you have enjoyed most over the years will be included.
I, for one, will never forget the ending of Six Feet Under, the HBO program that centered on the mortuary-owning Fisher family. It seemed so obvious it would all conclude with the flash-forward death moments of each family member since they spent their time with us having to deal with the expiration dates of all the rest of the various people (meaning the surrogate versions of us) who entered into their home.
Comedies like Newhart also gave us an equally creative finale – perhaps borrowed from The Wizard Of Oz, where in its very last scene Mr. Newhart wakes up from a dream in bed next to the woman he was married to from his previous 1970s series, The Bob Newhart Show. He then recounts to his 1970s wife, played by the deadpan and quite hilarious Suzanne Pleshette (Side Note: I met her at a Hollywood restaurant once through a mutual friend and she was down-to-earth and equally hilarious), the last eight-year synopsis of the other program as if it were some wild fever dream. To which Ms. Pleshette responds, among other things, Go back to sleep, Bob.
There are a variety of many other conclusions. The poignant M*A*S*H final helicopter departure; the more harsh, black comedy moment of the Seinfeld gang sitting in jail together, alienated from the world; and what will always seem like the pitch-perfect moment in Breaking Bad when Walter White’s reign of – shall we call it terror or victory? – finally comes to a close.
We all have our personal highs and lows and they’re often dictated by how and what we related to the entity that is ending – and even more so how we react when told by the Cosmos – or in the case of TV, a network or show runner – that despite what we might want there will be NO MORE.
Though perhaps some of us, myself included, are now thinking:
This metaphor doesn’t hold for TV anymore, Chair. What about all the sequels, reboots and reinventions? Maybe you should finally take a seat in your long overdue ROCKER!
Well, not quite. I know you’re all thrilled about the recently announced reboots of The X-Files with its original stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and the return of Twin Peaks with the always Agent Cooper Kyle McLaughlin. The same way I was jazzed for that second season of Valerie Cherish this year in HBO’s The Comeback 10 years after the fact. However, the simple truth is that none of these shows is or will ever be the same as they once were – or are truly a continuation of what we knew them as before.
In the case of The Comeback – for me it was better. I mean, I’m 10 years older (which in show business years is truly almost a lifetime) and I now have an infinitely better understanding of Val’s trials and tribulations as a creative person in Hollywood even though I thought I knew just about all there was to know about it before. Perhaps that’s why I thought the second season was far deeper and more effective than the first – though it still could’ve rested there anyway since even that end was pretty good at the time.
Though I can’t say the same about the original ending of Twin Peaks I do admit its resume scares me even more since the black comedy dramatic irony it first pioneered 25 years ago in prime time has now been adopted by about 75% of most creative enterprises across the board in 2015 – and for quite some time. On that note, I can’t even imagine what Mulder and Scully will be up to on X Files – though I pray it won’t involve an introduction of alien spouses (Note: Wait, maybe I do!) even as I hope it will finally reveal what the heck happened to David Duchovny’s on-screen, never before seen sister. (Note: Yes, I’m sure it won’t work and I’d regret it if they did, but, well, as long as we’re going there, can’t they….Yes, I know).
One can’t hold on to time today and pretend it’s 10, 15, 20, 30 or 50 years ago. This is something the governors of both Indiana and Arkansas learned the hard way this past week when they were forced to deal with the severe public, not to mention financial, backlash from new religious freedom laws that could make it perfectly legal for businesses to choose not to serve gays and lesbians purely on religious grounds. This goes to show that even if one tries to recreate and build on something that once existed but doesn’t anymore it is impossible to get back to that moment of the first ending – or become overly nostalgic about that time in the past in this age and as the person you are now at this moment in time.
As for impending endings and how best to deal with them – it would behoove all of us to simply revel in the final moments we have with ourselves, our friends and loved ones, as well as our favorite stories. (Note: That’s what my Mom used to call her soap operas). This is not a morbid thought because, well, many endings can go on for quite a long time. I mean, the final season of Mad Men has actually lasted more than a year due to AMC’s prescription of stretching it out that long to make more money and build audience ratings. And not to get too heavy (too late?) it can also be argued that we all are in the process of our own endings even when we think we are just beginning – given the constraints of existence. A pretty heady thought – especially for a Sunday blog. Or well, any day for that matter.
Though this seems appropriate for a show like Mad Men, which was, if nothing else, extremely heady (some called it dense) even as it was hilarious, devastatingly dramatic, sad and ironic. This gave it many detractors, including one person very close to me who in the past has often noted that despite its brilliance it often felt interminably slow – like watching paint dry.
Okay – fine. But why say that like that’s a negative thing? Isn’t life like that more times than we want to admit – mixed in with the excitement, fun and everything else?
Well – who the hell knows? All I am clear about is that while I dread the time two months from now without one of my favorite programs ever, I also know in my heart of hearts the moment has arrived to say good-bye. A relationship I stayed with far too long in the 1980s taught me that when I actually thought that I could…well, we don’t really need to get into that here. As for Mad Men, think of it this way – do you really want to see Don Draper in the 1970s? Not to mention – the eighties and nineties? Now that would be sad.
More happy are the seminal memories from the past. That is what I try to remember about all the people in my life who are long gone and it is what I choose to recall about what I consider – the consistently BEST WRITTEN SERIES ON TELEVISION. In the spirit of that, let’s close with the five best scenes of seven seasons that gave us so much more – not to mention so much more to think about.
#5 – ROGER STERLING TAKES LSD
Season 5, Episode 6 Far Away Places
What happens when the middle-aged silver fox blue blood partner of an ad agency takes LSD with his much younger second wife? Well, the truth – of course. At least that’s what it felt like in the mid-sixties. Drugs had a much different connotation then – freedom, creativity, inner understanding and, most importantly, eternal youth. In that one moment, MM captured not only a key moment for one of its characters but a significant moment in the cultural zeitgeist that too often gets twisted into more – and less – than it really was.
#4 – JOAN F-CKS THE JAGUAR GUY
Season 5, Episode 11 The Other Woman
You can’t say they slept together because office manager Joan knew exactly what she was there for – a partnership in the business. In a desperate attempt to keep a luxury car account, it is suggested that savvy Joan literally prostitute herself in the name of the firm and in an ironic, almost pre/post-feminist moment she agrees to for promise of a financial future far beyond the wildest dreams – or possibilities – of a woman in her situation during that time period. What made the scene (Note: Which is really a series of scenes in the course of the episode) particularly harrowing was that in some strange way her character had always served as the moral conscience of the show. She seemed to have an innate understanding of everyone and everything and the ability to keep it together her way. WE didn’t want her to DO THE JAGUAR but Joan always makes the right choice for herself before we get there. Or does she? This moment still leaves us wondering – and wondering why we’re judging. Not to mention just what our own price of a partnership is or could be.
#3 – GRANDMA IDA PAYS A VISIT
Season 6, Episode 7 The Crash
Come over here and give a hug to your Grandma Ida, says the middle-aged Black woman (NOTE: She is later referred to as an elderly Negro woman) to Don Draper’s very White pre-teen daughter Sally. Say what??? Of course, this is right after Sally catches the woman rifling through her remarried father’s living room in one of those divorced kids visits, so she’s confused and doesn’t respond. But Grandma Ida does with a condemning stare and the words: Now don’t you be rude to me, You come over here and give me some sugar.
Well, that would have been enough for this kid of divorce and I was almost Sally’s age during that time period and just as snide and mouthy. This said more about what it was like to be young enough to be a kid but old enough to understand more than the adults thought you did (though not quite as much as you thought) than almost anything else I’ve ever seen on television. I mean, could Dad really be…or have been raised by….? Not to mention how it addresses the issue of race. It’s still uncomfortable to talk about and still gives me the willies.
#2 – PEGGY TELLS PETE SHE HAD HIS KID AND GAVE IT AWAY
Season 2, Episode 13 Meditations in an Emergency
If it was difficult to believe that a young woman in that era could be pregnant in denial about it almost the moment she gave birth, it was also liberating to know that same woman could figure a way to pull herself out of it and back into normality. Except nothing about Peggy Olson, the smart, ambitious but sheltered young 20 something woman of her time, is NORMAL. Of course, what is normal anyway? Certainly not the 1960s, in retrospect. If you’ve ever known anyone, including yourself, who successfully managed to explain away the unexplainable with twisted logic – well, you gotta love Peggy here. And fear her – and for her – just a little. This scene is not the showiest and won’t mean much to non-fans, but if you’re a regular viewer and/or binge watcher you’ll never forget it.
#1 – DON DRAPER: AD/MAD MAN GENIUS
Season 1, Episode 13 The Wheel
The heart of Mad Men is Don Draper – the handsome, square-jawed guy every woman wants to have and every guy wants to be. But it’s not Don’s looks, sexual prowess, success or reinvention that stand apart when one looks at the series of a whole – it his ability to deliver the goods when it counts. This is helped along greatly by brilliant writing delivered by the absolutely perfect casting/acting of Jon Hamm in that starring role. This scene more than any delivers the genius and heartbreak of this ad man and does so in the form of a faux advertising campaign pitch of a real product of the era in a way so personal to this character that we would have never imagined he’d go for it. Try doing that or acting it or writing it or even imagining it on your own some time and let me know if it’s a tenth as good. (Note: It won’t be). This is why Mad Men will endure and why its finale episodes – no matter which direction they go – will inevitably be worth watching.