overthinking the idiot box

May 8, 2006

The Bitter-ish End

Farewell, Sydney Bristow and President Bartlet
by Liz Ball

This month is going to be a hard one. Sure, the sun is finally out and the birds are singing; it's the time of year to frolic and climb trees and eat salad. Things should be good. May sweeps is upon us, with the build-up of season finales, followed by the possibility, at least, of a good cliffhanger or two. But this year is a sad one in the realm of my TV; for two of my favorite shows, there will be no cliffhangers or even the promise of something better next season. Alias and The West Wing are ending after five and seven years, respectively. And now? I don't know what to do with myself.

The thing is, sooner or later, cancellation happens. Unless you're The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live — the Styrofoam of the TV landfill — nothing goes on forever, and it's probably better that way. However, not all endings are created equal. There's the "it's been a long ride, so let's all get together and cry" Friends model, which was so hyped that my mother asked me every week from February on whether the show was ending that Thursday. Then there's the "It's been half a season, and critics love it but nobody watches" Freaks and Geeks model, followed by the "Is that show still on?" Law and Order fade-away model. Sometimes, shows simply slip away into the ether, unnoticed and unmemorialized until they return as huge cult sellers on DVD ten years later. It's a broad spectrum, but cancellation is sort of the great equalizer of TV: eventually, no matter how good you are, you're going to get cancelled.

We hardly knew ye.
In terms of whether it's better to burn out or to fade away, to a certain extent, the former is probably preferable. There are exceptions here — obviously, it's better to be The West Wing than Wonderfalls — but a proper burn-out negates the chance for a show to become pitiful in any way. Burn-outs may waste the potential of episodes never aired, but they also miss their chances at losing steam and losing their audiences, and because of that they can do no wrong. They're also rare: if a show is viable enough to be considered a "burn-out," the network is probably still making money from it. Successful burn-outs include Seinfeld, Cheers, and possibly Friends, shows that were immensely popular and managed to quit while they were ahead. Burn out too quickly, and you get the Martyr Show: Dead Like Me, Firefly, and Arrested Development, among others — the show that was gunned down in its prime, followed by candlelight vigils and nasty letters to network executives.

It must be said that, both being a little long in the tooth, neither The West Wing nor Alias is up for legitimate burn-out status, and nobody but the faithful few is probably going for the "end of an era" angle. In fact, I'm sorry to announce — just in case we weren't all on the same page, here — that The West Wing is a classic fade-away show. There was a time when it seemed like everybody in America hung on Sorkin's every bantery word, and that time ended about the time he jumped ship and took Rob Lowe's pretty face with him. NBC let things continue for another three seasons, and... well, here we are, with a few old White House friends stopping by to say hello, and a reasonably quiet going into the good night of DVD-hood.

The way we all want to remember it.
It's a good, respectable show full of venerability and a certain lovability. I like the characters, especially the old early-season team — I'll miss Allison Janney being classy and sexy and yet weirdly girly, and Toby's particular brand of principled, outraged, cynical sadness — but the whole thing is turning sort of translucent already, even with a few weeks left. I'll wave goodbye knowing it was probably the best thing for everyone.

If The West Wing has gracefully accepted its fate, Alias is trying the opposite approach, and fighting it tooth and nail in hopes of becoming some kind of candidate for minor burn-out status. Things have never been the same for Alias, ratings-wise, since the appearance of a certain blonde Australo-British American senator's daughter and her fifteen pounds of eyeliner. There have been some tepid periods (early fourth season, due to ABC's meddling with the episode order) and some downright awful episodes ("Surprise! Sydney has a sister!"; also the Tiny Helicopter of Doooooom). However, the fifth season has been gaining steady speed: Jennifer Garner is back to fighting weight, Lena Olin is gracing us with her treacherous presence, and Sloane is caught in a web of corruption and general badness exacerbated by his silly green glasses. The final episodes are poised to deliver some real punch in terms of storyline continuity, suspense, and a few final plot twists before the (bound-to-be-ridiculous-and-yet-heartbreaking) ending. Whether a strong home stretch can redeem the mushy storytelling of the last three seasons remains to be seen, but at least Alias plans to go down swinging.

There is one other, less-talked-about category of finales: the show that makes us wonder, "Will I miss this show, or am I just so glad it's over that I don't even care?"
There is one other, less-talked-about category of finales: the show that makes us wonder, "Will I miss this show, or am I just so glad it's over that I don't even care?" These are the shows we can't quite let go of, but we can't explain why. It's a loyalty thing: even though no X-Files viewer in his or her right mind thought that anything good would come of the last two seasons (I'm being generous, here) of the show, we continued to gather in the living room week after week after week, either out of habit or out of the na´ve hope that somehow, this week would be satisfying in some way. Either that, or we simply couldn't handle not knowing what happened after all those years. It was a sad thing when X-Files ended — it was a great show, a groundbreaker in terms of complexity, story arc, and general creepiness, and we were sad to see Mulder and Scully for the last time ever — but if you listened carefully that night, you could almost hear the collective sigh of guilty relief from TV geeks everywhere.

People are sad when TV shows end, not because their show kept a particular balance on the network or brought in ad money. People are sad when their shows end because it's the end of something personal — shared with millions of other viewers, maybe, but personal nonetheless. It's a change of routine. It's losing a few friends; it's the fulfillment of suspense; it's not having anything to watch on Sunday night and discuss the next day. By definition, anybody who watches a TV show faithfully cares about that show, about the characters and where they're going and whether they finally get what they want out of life. As an Alias viewer, I wouldn't care about a Renaissance-era philosopher and his uncanny ability to draw Jennifer Garner's likeness had I not met Sydney Bristow, seen her suffer and triumph, and build relationships only to have them destroyed. Now, Rambaldi is personal: I want to see Sydney overcome everything she's been through and win. I can only assume that she will win, and maybe I'll be satisfied, and maybe I won't. Either way, I'll miss Sydney and her world.

Once a show is over for good, there is one final life-or-death question to be answered: what will we do when it's over? I've been planning life after Alias since before the end of the show was announced; around the same time the fifth season began, I started auditioning shows to take its place. It's sad, I know. I'm parading a younger, sexier show around in front of my regular Wednesday-night appointment, and it feels a little dirty. But I need to be prepared for the days when it's just me and Gilmore Girls, and the yen for some non-Stars Hollow intrigue overtakes me. The search for a replacement is what brought me to Grey's Anatomy and Veronica Mars — out of the current TV landscape, These are the current frontrunners — and I have to admit that I haven't found anybody to replace the fun of Sydney one-lining her way through alias after short-dressed alias, or the satisfaction of Jack being the scariest dad on television. Maybe I never will. And I'll get over it and find another show, and some day it will end, whether I'm ready or not. But thank goodness for one thing: TV is transient, but DVDs lasts forever.

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