TORONTO - There's an implicit promise every long-running TV show makes to its loyal viewers: When the time comes, favourite storylines and characters will bid farewell with an exhilarating, satisfying finale.
For those that fail to make good on that promise, the wrath of online ranters and watercooler critics awaits — and in this day and age, that griping can linger for years. (Anyone looking to debate the merits/shortcomings of the "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" finales should have no trouble igniting a lively back-and-forth out in the ether.)
Next year, beloved series including "30 Rock," "Breaking Bad," "The Office," "Fringe" and "Less Than Kind" wrap their runs. Will they be satisfying conclusions?
"The expectations are high on how this is going to end," "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston notes of his grim AMC drug saga, adding he's happy to let that weight fall solely on the shoulders of writer-creator Vince Gilligan.
"The pressure really is all on Vince Gilligan. He should (have) and deserves the lion's share of the praise by far. And he has the lion's share of the responsibility. My hope is that he is able to find the nuance that he wants to bring to the finale."
Of course, the most memorable finales tend to be of either two extremes — the ones we love (who didn't adore the "Newhart" ending?) and the ones we hate (the "Seinfeld" finale stands as a disappointing series low).
Then there are the ones that just plain confuse us until they gradually settle into one of the two camps (David Chase still finds himself on the hotseat over "The Sopranos" ending).
"30 Rock" creator and star Tina Fey says she's determined to end her NBC/Citytv show on a high.
"We've been trying to watch great TV finales, one a day, in our writers' room and we cry at all of them," Fey said on the red carpet of the Emmy Awards earlier this year.
"Like, the other day, the staff started crying when Frasier took his dad's chair out. So yeah, we feel pressure not to blow it."
At least Fey and Gilligan have the advantage of knowing well in advance their show is coming to an end. So many shows are cancelled before writers have a chance to craft a proper farewell.
"I'm a sci-fi fan and it just drives me crazy when you get to the story and it's just, snap, the end, rather than a grand finale," says "Fringe" star Joshua Jackson, who promises a solid conclusion to his mind-bending Fox/Citytv serial.
"We get our grand finale. And hopefully it will be satisfactory to the people who have come with us on the journey."
Nothing frustrates TV fans more than an abrupt end to ongoing storylines. No one wants to see a great show end on an ambiguous note, or worse, close on a cliffhanger that will never be resolved because the show was suddenly cancelled.
Such was the case with "ALF," the '80s sitcom about a wise-cracking alien that ends with the worst possible scenario for its fun-loving hero: After spending the entire series in hiding, Alf is caught by the Alien Task Force, presumably to be tortured, killed and dissected. (ABC aired a followup TV movie six years later where Alf escapes.)
As hard as it is for fans, premature endings are brutal for actors, too, says former "Veronica Mars" star Enrico Colantoni. His teen sleuthing series ended in 2007 and he notes that fans clamour to this day for some kind of resolution — a reunion, a follow-up movie, anything.
"The most frustrating thing is talking to 'Veronica Mars' fans — you hate looking at those guys and going, 'I'm sorry. I know. I was a fan of that show, too. I wanted to know what happened to Veronica. I wanted to know if Keith lost the election,'" says Colantoni, who says a "Veronica Mars" feature film would be a "no-brainer."
"That was awful. I'm still not over that one. I'm still not over that one."
Sometimes, showrunners can see the end coming. They craft final episodes that leave things just open enough to lead into a new season, and just closed enough to feel like major issues are addressed.
Not that their devoted followers necessarily see it that way.
"I always get frustrated when people go, 'Oh, I wish you had gotten to end the series' because I'm like, 'No, we did end the series,'" "Freaks and Geeks" creator Paul Feig says of his high school saga, which ends with a summer school break.
"It's the same reason I don't go to my class reunions — I like seeing everyone at graduation and not knowing where they went to or what happened. That's more information than I want."
After consistently low ratings and little support from NBC, writer-producer Judd Apatow says he assumed "Freaks and Geeks" would get cancelled "at any second" and prepared an episode that would stand as the end.
"We knew the network had a lot of issues with the show — they thought there weren't enough victories and they were trying to get us to do a bunch of notes we didn't want to do," says Apatow, who nevertheless admits he had mapped out a possible Season 2 for his gang of teen misfits.
"We always felt the guillotine was above our head so we sought a finale about three episodes before the last episode we shot.... We didn't want to get stuck where we didn't have a final episode."
And having a relatively small audience doesn't make the need for a solid finale any less crucial. If anything, some would argue loyal fans who stick with a dying show should be rewarded for keeping it on life support.
"Friday Night Lights" writer Jason Katims says he certainly felt fans of his acclaimed but little-seen football drama deserved a great ending.
"We didn't want to have, like, a mysterious kind of cop-out ending," says Katims. "We felt like the audience, the fans of the show, were so passionate ... we really wanted to make it feel like a true ending. And so that's kind of how it was."
Nor should a series end with what writers think its fans want to see.
Chase says his only concern in wrapping up the endless woes of depressed mob boss Tony Soprano was that the ending stay true to the essence of the HBO smash.
"I didn't want to write an ending that says that crime doesn't pay because obviously crime does pay," Chase says of his much-debated finale.
"And I didn't want to do a simplistic moralistic ending, which that kind of a show leads you into in some way.... And I also thought that Tony had been suffering his whole life and been punished his whole life because he wasn't happy, he wasn't content, and I wanted to preserve that."
As sad as it is to end a series, it can be incredibly satisfying to end it on your terms, says "Less Than Kind" showrunner Mark McKinney.
The trials of the beleaguered Blecher family come to an end this spring on HBO Canada and McKinney says knowing the end date allowed writers to map out "an interesting and an appropriate true-to-life kind of ending."
"The final shot was one of the first things we knew in the writers room," says McKinney.
Unlike past seasons which were set in Winnipeg's frigid winter, the final batch of episodes are set in the summer.
"The very first glimpse you have of the show is Sheldon Blecher's graduation and then we jump forward in time, eight weeks into the dog days of summer, to see what's happened with them and the family," he says.
For "Flashpoint" writers-creators Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, knowing that Season 5 would be their last allowed them to begin paying tribute to their cross-border hit well before the two-part finale.
"To be able to think of last season in terms of it as a whole is extraordinary," Ellis says of the conclusion, which aired earlier this month on CTV.
"You're able to construct the fifth season thinking about where you started, what you want to pay off, what you set up in that first episode."
"Flashpoint" closed with a familiar scene — with its team of hotshot snipers and negotiators gathered in the SRU meeting room for one last time as a group.
"We're re-writing that scene every single day as we lead up to shooting it," Ellis revealed back in the summer before shooting wrapped, adding that he watched the finale of Denis Leary's firefighting serial "Rescue Me" for inspiration.
"We had one conception of the scene that was going to take place in the legion for a retirement party for an officer — which is where the first episode of the first season began — and we decided that we didn't want to go there, we wanted to make it smaller and so now it's set in the station and it's the team having a private moment amongst themselves."
The nostalgia-tinged scene provides that ubiquitous sentimental note that seems to be a requirement in TV endings, which by-and-large can be relied on to include such tropes as: a flashback, a flashforward, the return of a departed character, a birth, death, retirement, marriage or other life milestone.
McKinney says the trick is to "collectively get the elements to work as an ending — to provide the feeling of an ending without hitting the kettle drum of ending so hard that it pulls away from its own story."
"You try and serve two masters — 'Oh, we're ending a series. (And) oh, we've got to tell a story,' and not get lost in the idea or think that it's just enough to pan lovingly over the cast," says McKinney, who also navigated series finales for his sketch comedy "The Kids and the Hall" and acclaimed dramedy "Slings and Arrows."
"What you want is something funny and emotional but that is earned, that isn't just: 'Well, here they are for a last bow, wearing a silver lame gown, a favourite from episode 12'."
Mogernstern says it's very difficult to get that right, even when you do have time to prepare for the end.
"These characters have been a part of our heart and soul for more than five years and parting is hard," she said of letting go of "Flashpoint."
"It's hard to describe a relationship with a fictional creature but it is intense and it is very personal."
— With files from CP reporters Michael Oliveira and Nick Patch
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