From the moment it debuted on April 15, 2012, Lena Dunham’s coming-of-age comedy-drama Girls became a crucial fuel source for the internet’s think-piece-industrial complex, and it kept that machine chugging along for six seasons. As the date of Girls’ finale drew nigh, after an arc that saw Dunham’s heroine, writer Hannah Horvath, getting pregnant and deciding to have the baby, a wary consensus settled in: Whether they love-watched or hate-watched Girls, anyone who’d so much as sampled it wanted to see how it would end. Right after the finale, in which Hannah had maturity foisted upon her, the recaps and cultural thumb-suckers began to appear. Everyone had their say. And then: crickets.
By the following week, it was almost as if Girls had never existed.
This was no reflection on the validity of the finale or significance of the series itself. It’s an indicator of how the importance of the ending has faded in scripted television in recent years. Not too long ago, the ending was everything. It put a frame around the entire seasons-long adventure of watching a show. It made viewers argue, sometimes angrily, about whether the finale “stuck the landing” or just stunk. TV shows used to have to end on a note that satisfied everyone or risk being tarred as crushingly anticlimactic (Lost), incoherent (Battlestar Galactica), incoherent and pretentious (The Sopranos), or a violation of the spirit of everything that came before (Seinfeld). The arguments would rage on for weeks, months, even longer. In the case of David Chase’s gangster saga The Sopranos, which ended ten years ago this summer, the arguments have still not stopped.
Now, however, the ending is no longer the be-all and end-all of TV storytelling. With the final episode of The Leftovers, you may have wept grateful tears or thrown something at your screen in angry disappointment — but what you likely won’t do is carry the show’s ending around with you for years like sweet vindication or a festering grudge. You won’t do it when Twin Peaks: The Return ends. You won’t do it for The Americans, or Better Call Saul, or This Is Us. You might not even do it for The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, ongoing hits that probably get closest to capturing the ride-or-die tribal factionalism of programs like Lost and The Sopranos.
Nor are we ever likely to see anything like the big-tent fascination that greeted the finales of classic series from the broadcast era, such as M*A*S*H (106 million viewers), the Cheers finale (94 million), or the granddaddy of all big-deal endings, The Fugitive (78 million in 1967, when the population was a third smaller than it is now). So what happened? Why did the ending end?
For starters, the TV universe became not just fragmented but atomized. In 2017, a medium-budget new drama is considered a success if it draws 3 to 4 million viewers across a variety of platforms. Notwithstanding a few cable outliers like The Walking Dead and a handful of network series such as Scandal, we don’t all watch things at the same time the way we used to, and we don’t watch in large enough numbers to slam the brakes on the national conversation.
Second, storytelling on TV has changed, in ways that make the power and perfection of the ending less crucial. Super-producer Ryan Murphy’s fiendish send-off to the first season of American Horror Story derived its shock not just from the bloodshed that claimed most of the principal cast’s lives, but from the realization that we weren’t actually watching an ongoing serialized drama but an anthology that would restart itself every year. Other series, including True Detective, American Crime, and Fargo, followed suit, sparking arguments about their artistic and intellectual seriousness but not so much about whether the entire experience of watching a season of these series was “worth it.” The anthology format shifts focus from the neatness of the structure and the focus of the storytelling in any given season to the characters and performances and overall vibe.
Just as important: Television has moved away from the Sopranos–Shield–Breaking Bad model of storytelling that centers much of the audience’s interest on whether the anti-hero will be caught, killed, or otherwise punished for his misdeeds. You could call this type of storytelling “the Fuse.” The storytellers lit the Fuse in the first episode (Dr. Melfi realizing that her new patient is a gangster; Vic Mackey killing a fellow cop; Walter White finding out he has cancer and deciding to cook meth to enrich his family); after that, the big question was how long the Fuse would burn and whether it would end with an explosion or with somebody snuffing it out. Serialized television now seems increasingly inclined toward world-building and character psychology and not hanging everything on the question of whether the main character will get killed or caught at the end, which means, of course, that serialized TV is not as serialized as it used to be, in the sense of being a glorified Saturday-morning serial with cliffhangers. The very premises of Lost and other shows that were centered on anti-heroes put undue pressure on those series’ endings. Would Tony Soprano or Walter White or Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson wind up dead or in jail, or would they literally get away with murder? Would the castaways of Lost escape the island, or at least figure out what it was? Would Sex and the City’s Carrie end the show single or married — and if the latter, to whom?
Some of the most fascinating new shows are not inordinately interested in the endgame. They constantly sabotage our sense of where the story “must” end. Going into Mr. Robot, we might reasonably assume that the series would be about its hacker hero trying not to end up in jail; the show sent him to jail at the end of season one and got him out in season two. Ditto HBO’s Westworld, which you’d expect to end with the robots rising up against their masters; that happened at the end of season one. Other series give no indication that they’re interested in traditional big-bang endings. The ending of Girls prompted a couple of days’ worth of sedate discussion among fans, probably because the show always had an open-ended, observation-driven, rather bloggy feeling. How will Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or You’re the Worst or Atlanta or Silicon Valley end? Is anyone fretting over whether they’ll stick the landing? Probably not, and this might be the healthiest thing about the state of TV storytelling right now. It really is about the journey, not the destination.
*This article appears in the June 12, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.