As smash hit 'Succession' draws to a close, Euronews Culture explores the enduring influence of TV show finales and their impact on fandoms.
40 years ago, on the 28 February 1983, more than 100 million people in America gathered around their television sets to watch the final ever episode of M*A*S*H.
The 2-hour special, titled 'Goodbye, Farewell and Amen', is still the most-watched finale in TV show history.
This was a different time, of course. There were only three American TV networks, and with no option to catch-up later, you had to be there to watch it along with everyone else or miss out entirely.
Despite the advent of online streaming, social media spoilers and general cultural overwhelm that results in the division of TV audiences into smaller pockets, the communal event of a TV show finale does still exist - just in a more intimate and connected way.
Many Europeans will have stayed up into the early hours of 29 May to witness in real time the final ever episode of Succession, the Emmy-award-winning series that began in 2018 and has successfully cultivated a dedicated fan base for its whip-smart writing (even if most of us still have no idea what half those stock market terms mean).
This month also sees the finales of Apple TV’s surprise hit Ted Lasso, a cosy comedy about an American football coach managing a British team, and HBO’s black comedy Barry, about a depressed hitman who finds a renewed sense of purpose through acting classes.
These hyped-up finales that make it to the mainstream have become a defining feature of so-called ‘prestige TV’ in particular. As we see through endless ranking listicles, the reputations of shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under and Game of Thrones are forever defined by their conclusions; enshrined in greatness or suddenly spoiled and rotten.
“In American television history, the finale, the grand finale, is actually an exception, but the vast majority of shows get cancelled,” explains Jason Mittell, Professor of Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College in the United States and author of How to Watch Television and Complex TV.
“It's pretty rare that producers are given the opportunity to end [a show] on their own terms. Usually, what happens is, you make a season of television and then you wait and see whether the network is going to renew you for another season. And if they do, great, you keep going. If not, oh well, the show is over and the finale has happened without even knowing it”.
TV show cancellations have become more ubiquitous with the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix, who fell out of favour with many fans after culling the likes of sci-fi mystery 1899 (from the German makers of Dark) and rom-com series Uncoupled, both after just one series.
The main reason for this is Netflix’s ability to access detailed audience data to measure what’s worth their investment - and what isn't.
“It has nothing to do with the quality of the show", Mittel explains, "It just has to do with the number of people who watched at a certain time and what else they watched and is it going to drive subscribers, etc".
Why are TV shows getting shorter?
Subscription-based platforms and their encouragement of binge-watch culture are one of the main reasons behind shows getting shorter in general, with most now dipping below ten episodes per season (if they’re lucky enough to get more than one).
On broadcast TV, sitcoms and pop culture staples like The Simpsons can run seemingly endlessly due to selling so much advertising revenue, but shows on streaming platforms have their length dictated by the amount of subscribers they’re generating and engaging.
“There are few shows that are so big that they generate a lot of subscribers,” says Mittell, “From a production and industry standpoint, letting a show that either doesn't get a big audience or seems to be kind of spinning its wheels go on forever, feels like it's not profitable”.
Another reason is that budgets for individual episodes are now often bigger than ever - Amazon spent $58 million (approximately €54 million) per episode of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power - which not only limits length but also sacrifices a slower pace of storytelling - something essential for large fantasy world settings.
Perhaps the most famous example of this was the final season of Game of Thrones, which only had six -albeit longer than usual - episodes that were reported to cost $15 million (approximately €13 million) each. Many fans felt this put special effects before a satisfactory plot, skipping over character details in favour of big battle sequences that resulted in a rushed wrap-up.
Fandoms and their coping strategies
Some people online call it ‘post-series depression’. It describes the intense feeling of loss that can occur after a beloved TV show finally ends, leaving fans to mourn not only the fictional characters and worlds, but also the comfort and routine of watching new episodes and discussing them with others.
A bad ending only makes things worse.
“There's a sense of betrayal, and a sense of, wow, the creators of this show didn't know what they had”, says Mittell, adding, “That attitude can certainly taint everything that has happened before”.
Increasingly, fandoms are finding ways to work through their finale feelings with the help of tech - including some who've asked AI platform ChatGPT to rewrite the ending of Game of Thrones season 8.
“Don't love it - too clean”, is one Redditors response to a particular prompt for a GOT rewrite that’s “bittersweet but satisfying”.
“I can't believe a "they lived happily ever after" finale is that much better than what actually happened”, is another’s take.
The novelty has worn off quickly on generative-AI and its creative limitations, though, and fanfiction - mostly hosted on a website called Archive of Our Own (AO3) - remains one of the most popular ways for people to expand on TV show storylines and character relationships, repairing or giving them a new lease of life after a cancellation or planned ending.
"I have lots of shows that end and I'm fine with it and can just move on without thinking on them too much. But then I have something like Hannibal that is just too perfect and I need more of it. I swear the year or so after that ended, I read more fic than I've ever read in my life, lol," a Redditor wrote on a thread about TV fanfiction.
Another way of coping is the fan edit - a format that’s grown in popularity on video platform TikTok amongst TV show viewers - often those recovering from a character death or storyline injustice - with short snappy clips set to emotional or sexy music. We all grieve in our own ways.
What makes a good TV show ending?
We sometimes spend years of our lives watching certain TV shows, becoming invested in the storylines - so much so that some characters can feel like a part of us.
Episodic TV in particular inspires stronger online communities, giving weekly space for debate, over-soaked theories and memes aplenty. All of this puts a huge amount of pressure on finales to be good or at least solid - something that’s particularly difficult for more complex and many-tentacled series like Lost, which ended in 2010 to (a still lingering) disappointment.
“I think some of the criticism of Lost is because people thought [the show runners] betrayed a kind of core idea of what the show was”, says Mittell, who believes the formula for finale success is a show being true to itself.
Citing Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as examples, Mittell explains, “both of those shows had great endings because they were true to their main characters and their key relationships. It wasn't that they delivered a great climax, it was more that they paid off our emotional investments”.
It’s also worth noting that a bad ending doesn’t have to spoil an entire TV show. Sometimes, the passing of time and wash of nostalgia leads people to reconsider their feelings, while in other cases, a show’s back catalogue of great episodes remind us why we fell in love with it and outweighs the negatives.
“One program that I really liked, which I thought had a bad ending, was Battlestar Galactica. I thought that the final few episodes and definitely the finale made some really bad choices. But still, when I think of that show, I don't think about the bad ending” Mittell says.
“I'm thinking about the positive memories.”