What Makes a Good Season Finale? As we say goodbye to favorite TV shows until the fall, guests on the program explain how to write an unforgettable season finale.
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What Makes a Good Season Finale?

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What Makes a Good Season Finale?

What Makes a Good Season Finale?

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It's been five years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer left her viewers shocked, moved and utterly confused. To save her sister, and the rest of the world for that matter, Buffy leaped into the portal to Hell.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”)

Ms. SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR (Actor): (As Buffy): Now, listen to me. Listen. I love you. I will always love you. This is the work that I have to do. Tell Giles that I figured it out and I'm okay.

CONAN: Well, Buffy came back to life on another network, though she was confused for a little while. It was a classic example of the TV phenomenon known as the season finale. Can anybody top it? Well, now's the time to find out.

Lost, Grey's Anatomy, CSI: New York, just a few of the shows that are wrapping up with a bang in some cases, and a whimper in others. What makes a good season finale? What's your favorite? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is npr.org. Joining us now by phone is Jonathan Storm. He watches television in Berkeley, California, and reports on it for The Philadelphia Enquirer. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JONATHAN STORM (Columnist, The Philadelphia Enquirer): Thanks a lot, Neal.

CONAN: Well, before we get on to the greatest list, talk about what's coming up. What finales are you waiting for?

Mr. STORM: Well, I'm waiting very patiently and expectantly for the finale of Alias, which is the finale of the whole show.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STORM: It's a show that has - it's one of the more complicated and goofy TV shows of all time, and there's so many questions that are hanging out there. The producers have promised to ask them all. In the show finale, which is now very different from a season finale, in the show finale, you want to wrap it all up and answer all the questions. In the season finale, you want to make a whole bunch of new questions.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, in the show finale, they had the benefit of knowing it was going to be the show's final episode. Sometimes producers don't have that luxury.

Mr. STORM: No, and sometimes the networks really dis' the viewers by taking a show that's supposed to have a long run - there was a show this year, somebody got murdered and there was a flashback and each year was one episode, and then at the end we were going to find out who murdered the person and everything, and they just canceled the show after about six episodes, so nobody knows who got murdered or who did it. Nobody really cares.

CONAN: Well, that was kind of the problem with those shows to begin with, I suspect. But basically, it seems that there are two different kinds, as you say, the show finale, that's sort of separate. But if it's a series that is either definitely coming back or hopes to come back for next year, there seems to be two different kinds of approaches: one of which is, well, for Survivor, or something like that, there's not a lot of suspense. We know who won.

Mr. STORM: Yes.

CONAN: But on a lot of these scripted series' you want to have that cliffhanger, and I guess everybody's trying to channel, who shot J.R.?

Mr. STORM: Well, exactly. The all-time classic cliffhanger that people got so crazy over the summer to figure out who shot J.R., and when Dallas came back that fall, it was an even bigger phenomenon than it had been.

Of course, the only show that was really capable of totally channeling that wonderful cliffhanger was The Simpsons. And somebody in 1995 shot Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear power plant owner. And you had to wait all summer to find out who it was. And even when the show came back, you didn't find out. You had to watch very closely to learn that it was the little baby Simpson, Maggie.

CONAN: Oh, you're giving it away for some people who weren't tuned in and haven't seen it on the 87 times it's been repeated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And I think, wasn't that the occasion on which they issued that poster of every character in the Simpsons, because everybody was a suspect?

Mr. STORM: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. STORM: Exactly. The Simpsons is beyond television. It's a national institution.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners on the line. If you have questions about what makes a good season finale, or perhaps even a series finale, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address: talk@npr.org.

Brian(ph); Brian's calling from Syracuse, New York.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good.

BRIAN: I'm a big fan of Grey's Anatomy. A big fan. It just seems to me that it's a showcase for people acting badly, especially in the season finale, where Meredith and Dr. McDreamy can't keep their hands off each other, even though they've made decisions to go in other directions. Dr. Stevens, of course, is ready to throw her medical career away to save the guy she's in love with. And Dr. McDreamy's wife, whose name escapes me, you know, throwing a fit in front of all those people that she surely could have seen if she just took a took a look to the left.

CONAN: Well, moved by the situation and no doubt the script, Jonathan Storm, I guess Grey's Anatomy is one of the biggest hits on TV at this time.

Mr. STORM: It is currently the biggest hit on broadcast TV, yes.

CONAN: And so, Brian, when you said it was a showcase for bad action, do you mean, characters behaving badly, or do you mean the acting was terrible?

BRIAN: No, I said people acting badly, meaning behaving badly. Yes.

CONAN: I see.

Mr. STORM: No, the acting is fine. That show is a - is just such a - medical hospital shows, it makes you want to never get sick to watch these shows. E.R. and Grey's Anatomy, they're just - they're almost the lowest of the low.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STORM: And I think that's why everybody loves them. Dr. McDreamy is married. Give me a break!

CONAN: All right, Brian, thanks very much for the call.

BRIAN: You bet.

CONAN: All right. And, of course, we still have to await other medical shows. House, I guess, is the other one that's become something of a success on TV, on FOX.

Mr. STORM: Yes. I'm not really sure what the status of the House season finale is. I wanted to go back to just talk about, I think the classic show, which is now, thank goodness, never going to appear again on television, The West Wing. One of the most appalling television shows in history, in my opinion.

Every year had ridiculous cliffhangers. The first season people get shot, and the second season - no, that's the first season - President Bartlet turns out to have multiple sclerosis, or maybe it's the second season; I can't keep up. The first season the white supremacists take over the whole West Wing. The third season they kill Mark Harmon. I mean, and people keep holding up this show as a paragon of great drama. Give me a break; it's a crappy soap opera.

CONAN: Let's talk with Christian(ph). Christian with us on the phone from St. Louis.

CHRISTIAN (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

CHRISTIAN: I'll disagree with The West Wing season finale…

Mr. STORM: Everybody who listens to NPR will disagree.

CHRISTIAN: I really enjoyed those. Anyway, I - the one season finale that really got me hanging on my fingernails was the one in the Next Gener - I think it was the third season of The Next Generation. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard is assimilated into the Borg.

Mr. STORM: That had the best of both worlds.


Mr. STORM: Yeah, that's - that's - some people - I mean, a lot of people who are just total television freaks in the Sci-Fi world think that's the best cliffhanger that's ever been. And it was voted the best episode ever of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

CONAN: I think actually seven of nine people voted to say it was the best ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STORM: Oh, that's good.

CONAN: Well, thank you. But, it's chilling, the idea that Jean-Luc would be there in the control of the Borg all summer long, or whenever it was that Next Generation took its break.

Mr. STORM: I don't think it was over summer, but whenever it was.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. STORM: I think it was four galactican(ph) centuries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. Christian, thanks very much for the call.

CHRISTIAN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And…

Mr. STORM: What's going to happen tomorrow night when - with Inspector Brass who's now lying on the floor choking on his blood on CSI?

CONAN: I - who knows? They - see, that's the - they're constructing these season finales - this is a two-part season finale. Come on!

Mr. STORM: I'll bet you 50-cents he doesn't die.

CONAN: Fifty cents he doesn't die? Mark Harmon, as you pointed out, who -what's her name, Cregg, was in love with, he died.

Mr. STORM: Everybody, and all the girls that watched that show were in love with him, and he did die.

CONAN: Yeah. And I guess that's the - that is, you know, after who shot JR and, of course, Mr. Burns, as well, as you've pointed out, that's the classic: You have somebody on life support the whole summer long.

Mr. STORM: And in the modern day, people are more likely to actually die. I mean look at Lost. They - you know, they killed the characters. 24, the wonderful Edgar just lays there flopping on the floor, breathing in the nerve gas.

CONAN: and that wasn't even saved until the season finale. He died…

Mr. STORM: Hardly a season finale. 24 is pretty good with the season finale. President Palmer got the poison handshake in season two; and then last year, of course, Jack Bauer was finished. He was gone. He was invisible. He moved to Mexico never to be seen again. And whoop! There he comes back. And the Chinese, were going to attack the United States, because Jack Bauer had killed their ambassador. Somehow they haven't quite figured it out yet.

CONAN: Well, the signals are very hard to reach. It's a long way to get across the ocean like that.

Mr. STORM: I think Chloe is jamming all the radar.

CONAN: That could be. Whatever - look, whatever crisis I'm in, and if I have to go away the whole summer, I want Chloe on my side.

Mr. STORM: Oh, you bet.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Storm, the TV critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He's on the line with us from Berkeley. We're talking today about great season television show finales, whether they're show finales or season finales.

If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk now - whoops, hit the wrong button there - let's talk with Anthony(ph). Anthony's calling from Kansas City.

ANTHONY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

ANTHONY: Sure. I wanted to say - I have to say one of my favorite series finale would have to be the Six Feet Under that was shown on HBO.

Mr. STORM: Ohhh.

ANTHONY: It was just amazing the way they had the whole show close up. There was so much closure, you know, right at the end.

Mr. STORM: Right. It's very unusual that the producers are that good at wrapping things and giving so many good answers. It's a real testament to that show that they were able to do that, because that show, kind of, was about four feet under for a couple of its last seasons before it came back.

CONAN: And they literally buried the main character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STORM: Everybody has their shows. My current favorite is Alias. And…

CONAN: Can you keep all that stuff straight?

Mr. STORM: Huh?

CONAN: Can you keep all of those characters straight?

Mr. STORM: Yes. You have to watch every week, though. It was fun last year, just as we learned that, you know, Jennifer Garner's new husband, or the father of her child, was not who we was supposed to be…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STORM: …it was one of the great car crashes in TV history. A complete -talk about being blindsided. You know, and then, in the second season, poor Sydney, she just wakes up and discovers that she's been missing for two years. And we have to wait all summer to find out, what's up with that?

CONAN: Well, I guess now we're going to have to wait the rest of our lives to find out what happens to them.

Mr. STORM: No, they're going to - they promised to - it's on Monday, and they have two hours and they promised to wrap it up. And they also beg you not to watch the 24 finale. Good luck.

CONAN: Good luck with that. Has anybody ever ended a series or threatened to end a season with, you know, and then they got hit by a giant tidal wave, or the entire cast was wiped out?

Mr. STORM: The famous Moldavian massacre on Dynasty; one of the kookiest season-enders of all time. All very high on the all-time crazy list, where they're all off in this foreign country having a party and then everybody gets shot up.


Mr. STORM: Who dies, and who doesn't?

CONAN: Anthony, thanks very much for the call.

ANTHONY: Oh, thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's get Ann(ph) on the line. Ann with us from Novato, California.

ANN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Ann, and…

Mr. STORM: Nevada, California, or California, Nevada?

ANN: I'm sorry, California. It's in the Bay area.

CONAN: And she's got another little critic there with her. But go ahead, Ann. He does what most of us do when we watch a lot of television programs: cry. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANN: Well, I just have a comment. I was a big, big fan of the Gilmore Girls.

Mr. STORM: Yes.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

ANN: It was sort of a guilty pleasure for me. And this year, the season finale, I will never watch the show again.

Mr. STORM: Oh, no.

ANN: I was so disappointed.

Mr. STORM: A lot of people say that this year they were disappointed because Lorelai hopped back into bed with Chris, who is the father of Rory. But…

ANN: Right.

Mr. STORM: But the point of that is is that that just sets up next year, where she'll hop out of bed and run after Luke. Scott Patterson's been signed for next year. He'll be around. Rory's boyfriend went off to Europe; he'll be back. For me, that just made me more interested in what's going to happen.

ANN: But I just loved Luke and Lorelai so much. It was so hot to see them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STORM: Life is hard.

ANN: I know.

Mr. STORM: Gilmore girls, it's totally a real show. Everything on it is based in fact.

ANN: I know…

Mr. STORM: All those people wandering around the little gazebo in that town. They're all real.

ANN: Of course, they are. And I would love to live in Stars Hollow, if I could.

Mr. STORM: Wouldn't we all?

ANN: Yes.

Mr. STORM: I'd want to live right next door to Miss Patty.

ANN: Yeah.

Mr. STORM: the wonderful 350-pound ballet teacher.

ANN: Yep, She's something.

Mr. STORM: She's marvelous. The bad thing about that show is the people that've been writing it all these years are not going to be back next year. So it'll be interesting to see what the fill-in group does.

CONAN: Ann, thanks…

Mr. STORM: I have great confidence in that show, though.

ANN: Okay, well maybe you changed my mind then.

CONAN: All right, Ann. We'll test your viewer loyalty next year.

ANN: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. STORM: Don't give up!

CONAN: That's…

Mr. STORM: Do you think her baby was crying because Lorelai got back together with Chris?

CONAN: Um, I don't - I suspect so, but, you know, it may have better taste than that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Theresa(ph), Theresa in Linden, California.

THERESA (Caller): Hi. Yes.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds, so what's your…

THERESA: Okay, I want to say the best show on TV this year and last year was Veronica Mars. And the endings for both seasons have been excellent, especially season one, when she opens the door and you don't know who it is.

Mr. STORM: Who is it? Well, what about season two? Not only are you going to get the wonderful Charisma Carpenter, who is the most beautiful actress with the greatest sense of irony about herself in all of television, opening a big suitcase full of money to tempt Veronica's father, so he leaves her standing at the airport when they're supposed to go off to New York…


Mr. STORM: …on a big father-daughter bonding, post-graduation trip. That show, for people who are listening to this show who aren't watching Veronica Mars, pick it up again next fall. It is one of the great shows on television. Totally underappreciated.

CONAN: I understand…

THERESA: It's so well written, it's so - the (unintelligible) is excellent. The story is excellent. The plotlines, the characters are well drawn.

Mr. STORM: The dialogue is so full of little throwaway jokes. You can watch it three or four times and find other things to laugh at each time.

THERESA: Yes. Yes. And we're hoping season three goes on to CW or whatever the new…

Mr. STORM: Oh, it's a virtual lock.


CONAN: Theresa, thanks very much for the call.

And Jonathan Storm, thanks for your time today. Thanks.

Mr. STORM: Well this is - is this the season finale for TALK OF THE NATION?

CONAN: Every day is a season finale for TALK OF THE NATION. We build up to this dramatic ending every single day. Jonathan…

Mr. STORM: I fall off the Golden Gate Bridge. Tune in tomorrow to see what happens when I hit the ocean.

CONAN: Jonathan Storm, TV critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, with us from Berkeley, California.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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