Scribes on several long-running series pull the plug with a flourish

Few series took greater advantage of big-name guest stars than “Will & Grace”: Matt Damon, Michael Douglas and Cher, to name just a few, showed up. The network loved the ratings-pumping gimmick, but critics eventually found it tiring.

So when it became clear that this would be the sitcom’s final year, and the show didn’t have anything to lose, scribes smelled a bit of freedom.

“We knew that the major stunting was over, and we could focus on our people again,” says executive producer Jon Kinnally.

“That was our challenge,” says his colleague, Tracy Poust: “to try new things.”

As much as “Will & Grace” and a host of other shows in the final seasons show their age, scribes say that the sign-off presents a new opportunity for reinvigoration.

While the shows no longer capture the publicity and ratings of years past, writers say it doesn’t mean that they’ve abdicated their duties. On the contrary, knowing that the series is coming to an end adds a new sense of energy, a desire to wrap up stories, subplots and relationships in a way that leaves viewers with a good feeling.

Cast members make return appearances (“That ’70s Show”), or original creators come back to pen the finale (“Malcolm in the Middle”). Or, in the case of “Will & Grace,” characters make bold moves without the fear of what happens next. Witness Will’s kiss with his boyfriend, played by Taye Diggs, something that the network resisted when the show was in its infancy. On “The West Wing,” Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) finally consummates his relationship with Donna (Janel Moloney). And on “Alias,” Sydney Bristow has a baby. None of these plots may have happened had the shows not been signing off for good.

“Once we realized that she was going to become a mother this season, it became very natural to tell the story of ‘OK, how will this person now move on to the next phase in her life?’” says executive producer Jeff Pinker. “It felt very wise that this would be the last year of the show, from a storytelling standpoint.”

Going into the season, “Alias” had no shortage of storylines, the often confusing twists and turns, double-crossing and disguised loyalties that have defined the show’s style. In addition to the birth of Sydney’s daughter, the final few episodes tried to give a payoff to the show’s mysteries.

“There was an enthusiasm in the show, wanting it to be great,” Pinker says. “I don’t think anyone said, ‘That’s good enough. Let’s worry about our next job.’ In fact, I think it was quite the opposite. We really held those last few episodes up to a greater degree of scrutiny.”

Television history is flush with once-vaunted shows with cast and crew that phoned it in in the final year. Others go through their final season without the advantage of knowing that it is their last, denying them the chance for a send-off. Shows like “Everwood” and “The Bernie Mac Show” were canceled in May, well after production shut down. Perhaps sensing that it would not be back after three years on the ratings bubble, Fox’s “Arrested Development” actually filmed what felt like a finale even though producers were not sure whether it would get canceled. It did.

Fortunately for producers of “Malcolm in the Middle,” they found out midway through the season that 2005-06 would be it. The struggle was not with a dearth of ideas but an abundance of them, particularly for the final episode in which Malcolm graduates and is off to Harvard. Creator and executive producer Linwood Boomer went to extremes to include everything.

“We just kept telling the actors, ‘Talk faster, talk faster,’” Boomer says. “We kept thinning out little couplets of dialogue in script form, and we still came in five minutes too long.”

His show still finished the season on the bottom end of the Nielsens, but Boomer nonetheless felt an affinity for the viewers who stuck with the show.

“We felt an obligation,” Boomer says. “We sort of approached it from the sense of, ‘Let’s just do it as a regular episode, but make sure we are also saying very clearly what is going to happen to these characters, what their plans for the future are, what their lives are going to be like after the show is gone.’ The graduation thing seemed to be a natural.”

Likewise, “The West Wing,” once the darling of critics and politicos alike, reached the natural ending point of the expiration of President Jed Bartlet’s term. But that storyline was planned with an eye for continuing the series with a new administration.

After the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin in 2003, critics complained the series lost its footing, but the injection of a new election race storyline between presidential contenders Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) gave a new oomph to show plots.

“The campaign dynamics put the show on a different level,” says executive producer Lawrence O’Donnell. “That was all new territory for us.”

It helped that Warner Bros. didn’t cut the production budget, even though “The West Wing” was going out of business. It even shelled out more for the series finale, in which Santos is sworn in as president and Bartlet returns to New Hampshire. While there were few surprises in the last episode, it did “leave the audience with its own ability to imagine where these characters are going,” O’Donnell says.

“Will & Grace” also mapped a destiny for its quartet, in a finale that had projected a scenario in which Grace (Debra Messing) and Leo (Harry Connick Jr.) and Will (Eric McCormack) and Vince (Bobby Cannavale) partner up and have kids. Years hence, the two children meet at college and get married. Karen (Megan Mullally) loses her fortune, and Jack (Sean Hayes) becomes a kept man.

Although ratings were down from prior years, during the season the show tried to show more emotional moments between the characters, as opposed to the bawdy one-liners that became a trademark. “I found it a bit freeing not to be under the microscope,” says Kinnally.

There were still restraints, of course. Although it was suggested, the show never got around to such ideas as Will and Jack’s relationship evolving into something more emotional or physical. But explicit talk of gay sex is still left to HBO or Showtime. “We laid the groundwork,” Kinnally says. “The next show can do it.”

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