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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.

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