Warning: Spoilers about many series finales -- namely "How I Met Your Mother," ""Seinfeld," "Lost," "Friends," "Cheers," "M.A.S.H.," and "Fraiser" -- are discussed below.
It seems that Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have their old boss David Letterman to thank for more than just helping them start their writing careers. Dave also helped knock the grumbling over the series finale of "How I Met Your Mother" out of the online television news cycle; if Letterman hadn't dropped the bombshell that he was retiring, people might still be griping about the "How I Met Your Mother" finale, more than a week after it aired.
Don't think it would have gone on this long? Then you weren't paying attention to the vitriol that permeated the web after the finale aired on March 31, from fans as well as critics. Here's one of many angry tweets by NPR's Linda Holmes, for example:
"Our whole show was a trick." "Oh. Uh ... congratulations?" #stillenraged
— Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) April 1, 2014
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix went further, and did a CSI-style walkthrough of the events that led up to a finale where the Mother dies and 50-year-old Ted goes after "Aunt Robin," who the story was about all along, with the same methods that look romantic at 25 but pathetic in middle age. "[T]his was horrible," he bluntly concluded. "This ignored everything that had happened between Ted and Robin, between Robin and Barney, between Ted and Barney and, especially, between Ted Evelyn Mosby and Tracy McConnell, all because once upon a time, this is what Bays and Thomas wanted to do."
I wasn't particularly happy about the episode, either, but what struck me about the complaining was how passionate it was. After all, "HIMYM" was just a TV show, albeit one that had a long-running storyline that had people eagerly seeing how it would conclude. But it's not the first time people were hot under the collar over a series finale that didn't conclude a series the way viewers wanted. It's not even the first time in the last year that this has happened, as there was a decidedly split reaction over the long-awaited series finale of "Breaking Bad," and a lot of rending of virtual garments over the hanging threads left by the end of the first season of anthology series "True Detective."
Why do people lose their shit like this? Is it just because people armed with Twitter accounts and WordPress logins just like to complain? It's easy to dismiss this behavior as people with misdirected anger having a platform, but there's several reasons why writing the finale to a long-running and/or critically-acclaimed series is full of landmines that all but a few writers have managed to avoid setting off:
1. People invest a lot of time in a show. It doesn't matter if it's a show like "HIMYM," "Lost," "The Sopranos," "ER" or even less-regarded shows like "The King of Queens." If a show runs past three or four seasons, it officially becomes a show where its viewers have invested a significant amount of their lives watching. It seems obvious to say, but people want to see that the time spent wasn’t wasted with an ending to the story that doesn't make sense to them.
Take the long-derided "Seinfeld" finale from 1998, for instance. When word came out that Larry David was returning to the show after a two-year absence to write the finale, fans of the show -- including myself -- were happy as heck to hear the news. Not that we didn't still love our favorite show that wasn't really about "nothing", but the two seasons where Jerry Seinfeld was running the show by himself coincided with some of the series' sillier episodes, ones that strained to give all four of the show's main characters storylines every week. David's return to bring his creation to a conclusion was seen as return to the more arch tone of episodes like "The Contest" or "The Chinese Restaurant."
We all know what we got, though: a silly plot involving Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George on trial for being their normal uncaring selves, and cameos by as many of the crazy characters as David could cram into the finale, making the show one long clip show. It undermined the impact of those side characters -- seeing the Soup Nazi in his one classic episode was more than enough for me -- and also went against the anti-sitcom ethic that Jerry and Larry had built over the previous nine seasons. That betrayal, for lack of a better, less weighty word, is why it's still on the list of worst finales 16 years later.
2. People want the lives of the show's characters to turn out a certain way. There's a reason why people more or less shrugged after the "ER" series finale, even after the show had been on the air for fifteen years: by the time it ended, the cast had completely turned over, and the longest-termed character, Noah Wyle's John Carter, had been gone for awhile before coming back for the end. There just wasn't much emotional involvement in seeing how the characters from the show's later years were to go about their lives. Same lesson applied to "Law & Order", which didn't even get a finale after 20 years on NBC. There wasn't much outrage because whatever characters had gotten developed over the procedural's two decades had long since departed.
But in shows where the characters have been there since at or near the beginning, fans root for those characters to find some peace, or wealth, or some sort of happiness after years of going through entertaining tribulations. It's why nary a peep is said about four classic sitcoms' endings: "Cheers", "M*A*S*H", "Friends" and "Frasier." Sam Malone figured out the bar was his one true love. The folks from the 4077th were finally allowed to go home. Ross and Rachel ended up together. Frasier Crane was going to find happiness with Laura Linney after years of heartbreak. It's no coincidence that these four are considered the best endings of all time, mainly because the fans got what they wanted, even if the ending might be considered "easy" or "pat" (the "Breaking Bad" finale will likely go into this category for the same reason).
With "Lost" and "HIMYM," a series-long mystery added to that desire. Were the gang on the island going to get rescued? Will Ted Mosby finally meet the love of his life? When fans got a gander of the God's-vision finale of "Lost," they revolted, mainly because they couldn't even fathom that these characters they'd gotten to know were just heavenly figments. And after nine seasons of Ted being a romantic sad-sack, it would have been nice to know that the love he had been talking about all along didn't end up dying young, and that the true love he had been talking about all along had been a bitch for more than a decade. Ted being deliriously happy with The Mother was the ending fans rooted for, not the callback to season one Bays and Thomas envisioned from the start.
3. People don't want the rug pulled out from under them. Twist and surprise endings are great for films, where you've only spent two hours with a group of characters, but they just don't play as well after investing all that time in a series. "HIMYM" is the most recent example that proved that. As simple and saccharine as the YouTube video where a fan edited all of the "death and Aunt Robin" stuff out of the final scenes -- the video was taken down after 20th Century Fox objected -- it felt much more satisfying because that was the ending we wanted to see all along.
The"cut to black" ending of "The Sopranos" elicited an uproar because it left one big, fat loose end: the fate of Tony Soprano. Did he get killed? Did he live on? Did he quit being a mob boss? It felt like David Chase was doing a disservice to the fans who held on with these characters for so long, because loose threads are not what they're looking for in series finales.
Heck, I'm one of the few people who's still annoyed that "Newhart" ended its great run by showing us that the crazy Vermont world of Dick Loudon was all a dream, generated by the sushi-addled mind of Bob Newhart's '70s sitcom character, Bob Hartley. As genius as it was to link Newhart's two iconic sitcoms like that, it felt like a cheat, that the characters we laughed with for eight years were never meant to exist in any sort of real life. It's been almost 25 years since that finale, and it still sticks in my craw that the writers did that.
All of this, of course, is said with the caveat that the creators of your favorite shows are allowed to end their shows the way they want. Bays mentioned that he and Thomas had the choice to stick with their pre-determined ending or go with a different one, which will be seen on the DVD releases of the final season and complete series. Both "HIMYM" creators stood by their choice in the face of the extreme criticism, which is the sign of an artist with the proper amount of integrity. In fact, Bays seems to have the right perspective on all this, as this was one of his tweets when he discussed the dual endings:
If you didn't like the finale, I guess that happens. We tried something and it didn't connect with you. I hope we're still friends.
— Carter Bays (@CarterBays) April 4, 2014
Hate the ending, but don't let it ruin what came before it. Seems like a good message to me. What do you think?