There are certain things in life that only those who have experienced them can fully understand: fighting in a war, walking on the moon, and successfully wrapping up a popular serialized television drama. The TV event is especially daunting; all the accelerating hype and anticipation leaves fans convinced that the entire validity of the series retroactively rests with the decisions made in the final moments (see: those people who hate The Sopranos now). Lost executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse now face this impossible challenge, and it feels like the sanity of the Internet rests in their lap. To help them feel less alone, we called four people who can feel their fan-fearing pain: Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere), Chris Carter (The X-Files), Shawn Ryan (The Shield), and Josh Schwartz (The O.C.), each of whom helped to craft momentous, memorable, and controversial wrap-ups to beloved shows. We asked them to reflect on their own finales, and see what advice they can give from the love and hate they received when it was all over.
His finale: The truth Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) have been looking for: that aliens will take over the world on December 22, 2012. The good news? Mulder and Scully end up together!
His approach: “We were mindful of all the major characters. I remember being on the set when we were shooting the finale, and there was a moment that I thought was going to be passed by, which was the final scene with the two added characters — played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish — and I remember talking to the director and saying, ‘This is the last time we see these characters, you've got to treat them lovingly.’ We really wanted to give everybody the most rewarding ending we could give."
His Warning: “You want to reward the fans for their fandom, if you will. I had something that I wanted to do, which would be more of a surprise and a shocking ending, but I was talked out of it by cooler heads. I think in the end, the best thing to do is reward them.”
His Advice: “Knowing how television series work, any advice I would give them now would be after the fact because they've already made up their minds But it is an opportunity to give one of those ‘holy shit’ moments.”
His Finale: After years of murder, brutality, and just plain badness, Detective Vic Mackey is sentenced to life behind a desk — though the series ends with Vic grabbing his gun and walking out into the unknown.
His approach: “We knew what we were going to do for a while, but because of our production schedule and because of the writer's strike — which happened in November of 2007 — we only had about a week to write our finale. And I think in a way that probably benefited us. We didn’t have too much time to overthink things or question things. We were able to write that script very instinctually what felt right to us, right from the get go, was what ended up on paper and what got shot.”
His Warning: “I found that there’s a fine line between not giving enough closure to the audience and giving too much closure. You don’t want your finale to feel like you shoved everything in the world in there. And you don’t want, conversely, to feel like you have to get away from the storytelling to answer every question the audience might have. So the balance between telling a dramatic, interesting story in those last couple of episodes versus giving the audience the answers to questions they’ve had for a while is a tough one It’s going to be a very high-wire act for that show.”
His Advice: “The great thing about finales is that you don’t have to worry about doing something in it that will make people not want to tune in next week. And in that regard, I anticipate they’ll do something pleasing to the hard-core fans I just hope they don’t overthink it.”
His finale: The Cohen Family returns to their Berkeley roots, Seth and Summer get married, Ryan helps a mini-Ryan. The series comes full circle.
His approach: “The emotions we were feeling for the show we tried to pour into [the finale]. We really wanted to make people feel like the journey was worth it. And that the emotional journey that they had taken with these characters was something we were trying to honor. We were trying to look forward to the future, but leave it open ended enough so the story could continue to play in your imagination as well after it was over.”
His warning: “I never miss an episode of Lost. And I just feel like they should be true to the vision that guided them through this incredible series.”
His advice: “There is no advice that I can give to those guys. What they’re doing is on its own level. Anything goes, and I’m along for the ride. I will watch any way that they want to end the season at this point. No rules apply to this show.”
His finale: St. Eligius Hospital — the Seattle Grace of St. Elsewhere — is revealed to exist inside a snow globe in the possession of Donald Westphall’s (Ed Flanders) autistic son. The entire series was just a figment of the boy's imagination.
His approach: “St. Elsewhere was so low-rated that every year we would sit around and come up with these incredibly bizarre scenarios as a way to end the show. And when the show would get picked up again, we would put these ideas in a file. We got out the file during the last season and started pitching [executive producer] Bruce Paltrow these ideas. And he was horrified by the stuff we were pitching. We had one where Donald Westphall confessed to Jack Morrison (David Morse) that he was the second gunmen on the grassy knoll, and said, ‘Now that I told you, I have to kill you,’ and he did. Crazy stuff. When we got to the snow globe, Bruce was so happy that we gave him something to relate to. We never took the show that seriously, so we were always coming up with insane things to do.”
His Warning: “We thought that was, at the time, kind of a funny and unique way to end the series. What we didn’t anticipate was that half the audience wanted to cut off our balls. Back in the day — when we got actual mail — we got hate mail from people that felt we betrayed them. Half the audience hated us. That’s the danger that any show that takes a risk has to face. If they’re going to try something different, they should prepare themselves for a negative reaction.”
His Advice: “First thing to consider: whether they ever want to write the reunion movie. My suggestion is if they don’t ever want somebody doing a reunion of the show, they should figure out a way to blow up the island. Kill everybody. Defoliate the entire island.”