Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Damn Season Finales

Damn season finales.” The finales of two of television's most talked about shows, NBC’s Heroes' "How to Stop an Exploding Man" and ABC’s Lost's "Through the Looking Glass," generated tremendous fan anticipation prior to airing on (respectively) May 21st and 23rd, but while the latter was almost unanimously well received, the former met with very mixed reviews, including such derisive scorn as Nikki Stafford’s. A few weeks later (June 10th) “Made in America,” the season- and series- ending episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, with its brilliantly inconclusive supply-your-own ending left many fans feeling short-changed. “Damn season finales” (the words are from Television without Pity's recaplet of the Lost finale). Though perhaps not deserving of eternal fire and brimstone, season-enders do present formidable challenges. If the season has been any good, the last episode before a long summer (or, in the case of a series-ender, a long forever) without a favorite show (especially a favorite serial) must clear a very high bar.

Asked (by TV Guide) about viewer complaints about credibility such as Nikki raises, in particular the question why Peter didn’t fly himself away from Kirby Plaza, Heroes' mastermind Tim Kring’s response is quite fascinating. While willing to “admit that there’s a very tiny window of logic there," he insists that doubting Thomas fans broke the rules: “theoretically you are not supposed to be thinking about that,” he gently scolds, and this man who, once happily cited Charles Dickens as an inspiration and a model, then evokes (with a laugh TV Guide notes) an even older 19th century British writer: "But what can I say? It's requires the proverbial suspension of disbelief."

The concept, of course, comes from the great Romantic poet, philosopher, and literary theorist Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and first appears in Biographia Literaria, where it is described as an essential “poetic faith” elicited from a reader by “a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure” it.

Kring, however, has left off an important word in the original formulation: for Coleridge was describing the “willing suspension of disbelief.” A writer (or filmmaker or television showrunner) cannot demand it of an audience. It must be established by “best laid plans.”

Unlike the unwilling, gagable Nikki, my disbelief was willing, at least at first. My “crap detector” (the original phrase was Hemingway’s) was registering inconsistencies and disappointments as the scene in Kirby Plaza unfolded. I didn’t understand why Jessica didn’t stay there and fight out with Sylar—why she lamely had to go tend to D. L. Only the needs of the script made that the right thing for her to do (she had to get out of the way, to make room for Peter and Hiro).

Nor did I buy (and never did) why Claire had to be the one to off Peter. Claire was the only one who could plunge a syringe into Ted Sprague in “Company Man,” of course, because only she could get close enough to the original exploding man, but could not Bennet (who seemed more hobbled by the thematic needs of the screenplay than by Sylar having tossed him aside) or even Mohinder could have shot Peter at a distance pre-explosion? Couldn’t Niki/Jessica have swatted him as well with that parking meter?

And yet when Nathan flew in—Nathan a character I had never been crazy about and who I believed, with Hiro, to be a “villain”—Kring had me at Flying Man’s arrival. At “You saved the cheerleader, so we could save the world,” I cried, as I was supposed to.

Now granted that I am, by admission, an easy mark (see Lavery, “The Crying Game,” I find it interesting that I, the scholar-fan (in Matt Hills’ terminology) was so much more willing to suspend, to respond as it was written, than was Nikki, the ultimate fan-scholar, as her first-rate books on Buffy, Angel, and Lost have demonstrated.

This wasn’t the first time that I was the one being less objective with a finale. When the series-ending “Chosen” completed the seven season, 144 episode run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was stunned to find fans carping over scores of questions regarding continuity, while I loved every minute of it despite its clear incongruities.

The unanimously praised finale of Lost’s third season, “Through the Looking Glass,” was, like those of its two previous seasons, a two hour episode, allowing ample time for its complex on-island and its flash forward off-island narrative to play out. Heroes’ was only one hour, though Kring and company conceived of the last three episodes—“The Hard Part,” “Landslide,” and “How to Stop” as of-a-piece (Weiland, “Heroes Post-Game”), but they were not packaged or promoted as such.

If they had been—if we had seen them in a single sitting (a hypothetical precluded of course by broadcasting needs and economic reasons)—would we have seen “How to Stop” differently? We will all have the opportunity to repackage when we are in possession of the Season One DVDs. Will Nikki still be gagging then?

Perhaps the real problem, however, was “Five Years Gone,” the episode which immediately preceded the closing three-parter. A sensational, bad-ass episode, complete with a too-brief face-off, all powers at-the-ready, between Sylar and Peter Petrelli, 1.20 created expectations for 1.23 that couldn’t be met. After “Five Years Gone,” “How to Explode” was probably pre-ordained to be anti-climatic and unsatisfying.