Drama Arcs Leave Viewers Bent Out of Shape

Finishing an arc without losing the aud takes a delicate balance

This isn’t how you’re supposed to end a show.

On the last episode of the now-cancelled TNT cop-drama “Southland,” the character that had become the glue of the gritty program over five seasons, John Cooper, was shot by fellow cops who didn’t realize he was a police officer, too. The last shot shows Cooper, played by Michael Cudlitz, bleeding out as his brothers in blue realize his identity and urge him to hang on until help can arrive. And this was the capper to a season that saw Cooper and his partner kidnapped by meth addicts in another, equally harrowing episode and some bumps and knocks for other characters in the series.

“We had nothing to lose,” says Christopher Chulack, executive producer on the show. “The show is on the bubble anyway, perennially so, and we wanted to be true to the characters, and at least true to the steadfast audience.”

Conventional TV wisdom posits that finales, whether for a season or the series, need to wrap elements in a tidy bow, leaving a few strands to pull on for next season. Yet in a world in which writers and showrunners want to be true to their art while media congloms keep an eye on the bottom line, one can’t always follow established rules.

Writers say tying up a story hinges on any number of factors: the relationship of the show to the network airing it; how concerned producers are about getting viewers to watch the next cycle; and the status of various cast members. In the end, the need to please the audience, they say, is paramount.

At FX’s “The Americans,” which recently completed its first season, writers wanted to “resolve things to the point that people weren’t so satisfied that they didn’t even feel a need to come back, but they weren’t left dangling so much on the precipice that they weren’t irritated or upset by it,” says creator and executive producer Joe Weisberg. That meant juggling not only a story about Russians spying on the U.S. but also a relationship story between two spies who work in an arranged marriage. “How do you find that place in the middle? It’s very, very hard to do.”

Indeed, the TV screen is littered with finales that have sparked all kinds of debate. Consider the second cycle of ABC’s “Twin Peaks,” in which the show’s central mystery — “Who killed Laura Palmer?” — is solved midway through the season (which then ended with a cliffhanger). HBO’s 2007 series finale of “The Sopranos” left some fans scratching their heads about the central family’s final fate. And ABC’s 2010 wrap-up of “Lost” left more questions than answers.

The architecture at Showtime’s “Homeland” might provide a roadmap of sorts. The writers have in both of the program’s two seasons known how they wanted to end their stories and some of the milestones necessary to get there, says Chip Johannessen, a veteran producer who now works on the program.

At the same time, writers say, the crew has to be open to vicissitude — following through on something that develops during filming or having to shift course due to network mandate. “There are essentially two ways of doing it,” says Joel Fields, an executive producer on “The Americans.” “You can sit down and really map out the beginning, middle and end and know everything that’s going to happen with story and characters, or you can let a story tell itself. I think we decided to work in a bifurcated way.”

The future threatens to make the process of writing endings even more complex. What to do when audiences watch your program by binge-viewing, or completely separate from its on-air TV run? That’s a story whose ending won’t be known for some time.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • T.J. Dillashaw, right, kicks Cody Garbrandt

    Disney Plans UFC Broadcast for FX

    UFC matches will return to FX  – but not on a permanent basis. ESPN has been showing preliminary bouts to UFC pay-per-view events for the last while on ESPN and ESPN2, and then showing the main card on its ESPN+ subscription video service. In September, the early lineup will air on FX, which the UFC [...]

  • George RR Martin

    George R.R. Martin Says HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Ending Won't Influence Future Novels

    Geroge R.R. Martin is sticking to his original plan when it comes to the future of “Game of Thrones.” In an interview with The Observer, Martin claimed that HBO’s controversial ending for the series would have no affect on the endings of the last two novels. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything at all,” [...]

  • Listen: 'Pennyworth' Producer Talks Delving into

    Listen: 'Pennyworth' Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred's Backstory

    Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama [...]

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content