"Do Season Finales Even Matter Anymore?" or "Season Finale, Schmeason Finale. I Don’t Even Know When It’s On!"

Curator's Note

I must stay I have a really hard time believing that season finales retain the cultural cache they once possessed.  I can accept that they still have narrative significance.  Something major still seems to come to a head—or half a head—during the final episode of any given season of almost any piece of fictional nighttime programming; however, because of the way people watch television and the way television is broadcast (or not), the phenomenon or annual event that was the “season finale” seems to have waned along with the once-a-year broadcast of The Sound of Music.  Sure, the film still shows up on television, but its airing is far from must-see-TV.  Similarly, viewers may look somewhat forward to the season finale, but to me, at least, the experience lacks the pop it had in the old millennium. 

Shifts that have occurred in the television schedule have dismantled the sense of a cohesive and standard season.  In 2011, I find it difficult to keep track of shows’ beginnings and endings without the aid of a DVR.  Shows start at different times of the year—also destabilizing the notion of the season premiere.  Mid-season premiere dates have become common (as TNT shows like The Closer, Men of a Certain Age, and Rizzoli and Isles start between May and July, just as the majority of shows are wrapping up).  USA Network shows such as Burn Notice and Psych favor two half-seasons to one extended season.  Premium television often staggers its shows to maintain a constant subscriber base (Showtime’s Queer a Folk’s season finale would give way to The L Word premiere, whose finale would ultimately give way to a new season of Nurse Jackie or The United States of Tara).  Compound contemporary scheduling practices with the continued rise in dvd, dvr, and online viewing (and re-viewing), and an argument for the sustained significance of the season finale seems a hard sell.  I would never deny the allure of the season finale storyline—narratively or promotionally (as I personally was wholly sold on Private Practice based on an accidentally viewed “I’m going to steal that baby right out of Amy Brenneman’s womb” season 2 finale sneak peek)—but generally speaking, I think the event that once was the season finale has gone the way of Battle of the Network Stars

Comments

Kim Akass's picture

Season Finales

Kelly you’re absolutely right, aside from narrative significance, season finales have lost their ‘must-see’ appeal.  I often watch season finales well after the end of the season, and sometimes not until the beginning of the next (as a catch up).  Endings of whole series often pass me by, only to be watched on the endless re-runs, online or DVD.  

This is something that has been built into the schedules with repeated viewings stripped over the week but also with the growing availability of online viewing.  In the UK we often have to wait some months for new seasons of TV shows.  It is notable that there is a whole generation that no longer wait but watch series online before they get to these shores officially.  Obviously they watch season finales before I have even seen the first episode of a new season!

TV is most definitely changing.  The availability of shows in multiple viewing options has not only affected the ephemerality of shows but also the urgency to view them This is not always a good thing.  

Robert Moses Peaslee's picture

Agreed, except....

Thanks for the post, Kelly. A provocative way to start out an interesting week of thinking about these (perhaps anachronistic) touchstone television moments.

I agree that the nature of television viewing (time-shifting, etc.) in the 21st-century makes the notion of a nationally-shared "moment" of television largely a thing of the past, but I would suggest that you may be painting with rather too broad a brush. It seems to me that there are still a few shows that, when they conclude, provide a cathartic realization that is, as you say, about narrative, but also about a perceived community experience.

Probably the best recent example is Lost. While certainly there was great variability in the platforms upon which and the times during which that last episode was consumed, the multi-national discussion which followed was most certainly rooted in time and dependent upon the ephemerality of something like a "finale." 

Sure, others may come upon this last episode much later, but their experience will be different. I’ve still not seen the Sopranos finale, but when I do, I can’t possibly have the same experience with it that was had by those who watched it "live" (how do we define that word in this context, anyway?).

I guess what I’m suggesting is that there’s something liminal or carnivalesque - limited, ephemeral - about the social space of the finale that exists beyond narrative and that I don’t yet see as transcended by technology or viewing practices. 

Reading community?

Thanks for a great post, Kelly!

Although I agree that new viewing technology has altered the function of the season finale, social networking sites seem to push back against this change, creating a space for discussion that one can only participate in if she’s watching in real time. I’m thinking particularly of the way a Twitter thread will focus around a cult show, for instance, or how my Facebook news feed seemed for a while only to consist of Sue Sylvester quotes every Wednesday morning. If I’d recorded the show to watch later, I wouldn’t understand or be able to participate in that conversation at all.

And although I still value the experience of watching new shows in person along with a group, fan sites like Television Without Pity or The Onion’s A.V. Club make it easy to feel like you’re watching a show as part of an endless community. Even if none of my friends care what happened on Fringe last week, I can easily find a group of people who do, but I have to watch the show in real time in order to participate in the conversation before it passes me by. As Robert says, there’s something ephemeral about the finale that makes these conversations feel more important.

Maybe this all comes down to the question of "cult" viewership—as the nature of television viewing changes, the event-value of most shows decreases in just the ways you describe. However, if the viewer identifies as a fan, with all the investment in "authenticity" that comes with that position, then the event-nature of the finale becomes more important than ever to make up for that difference?

Ashton Webb's picture

Lost

I completely agree with Robert. I was late to finish Lost and after going through the whole series again I saw the finale half a year later thatn the rest of the world. The experience was definitely different because, although I was sad, I could not feel the same sentiments with everyone else because they had moved onto other T.V. shows.

      Lost is an excellent example for contemporary quality T.V. that demonstrates what a season finale can still provoke in its audience despite the technological innovations of the day.

Jeff Sleeper's picture

Were you there?

I think that Kelly hits on a very important concept about how we as Americans tend to correspond with our media. As larger corporations cry foul when faced with the impending (as they see it) internet piracy takeover, there is an ever present community of individuals who rely on a form of ritual that requires recognition at it’s core. This comes in the form of not wanting to download an album but rather wanting the materials the paid for version is packaged in. The people who are discontent to buy a used video game and would rather open the package themselves to feel more “connected” to the experience.

 

In television, there is sometimes a connection we make outside of the viewing experience that adds to the whole communion. The conversations we have with people who have watched what we have, the ways in which we wish a show would go (but don’t know if it is going to) and are helpless but to guess. Sometimes, we even gauge or popular culture peers by those who have seen a show at it’s “time” and tend to look down a little at those who attempt to re-cool something that they never could have grown up with (I am 34 and I don’t even remember much of an episode of G.I. Joe. What connection can a 19 year old have?).

 

Considering I had never watched a full episode of Seinfeld, it seems strange that I clearly remember Boston in the summer of 1998 and rushing home with some friends to have a party based on it’s last episode. Considering how much I loved the Sopranos, reading reviews the day after the last episode aired, and then watching it that night, left me feeling a little out of connection with the results.

Annais Rittenberg's picture

Suspense is Gone!

In response to Ashton’s comment, I had a similar experience with the show, Lost. I didn’t even start watching the series until all 6 seasons were on Netflix. I experienced instant gratification of watching episode after episode to my heart’s content. While each episode ended with a crazy amount of suspense, I didn’t have to wonder what happened next for very long, as I could just click on the next episode. I was talking to one of my friends who watched Lost as it aired from week to week, and she told me how excrutiating it was to wonder and wait a whole week to see what was going to happen to the people on the island. I almost wish that I had watched Lost as it aired because I feel like the elements of surprise and suspense within the series are an essential part of the viewing experience. Also, I was so eager to find out what happened next that I could end up watching hours and hours of it!!

Agree!!!

I have to agree to. For example, I am a big fan of Grey’s Anatomy, but I was quite disappointed after season 7 finale.  I think one reason for my disappointment is because the writers made season 6 finale so good and raise the expectation to a higher level that nothing can compare to it. I felt like throughout season 7, it was very dragging and going in circle. The drama that used to make the show so appealing seems to die down and lack the energy. Although in season 7, Grey’s made a musical episode to attract more audience and provide a fresher storyline and style, it is not the same, especially Grey’s original narrative is nothing like Glee. Therefore the musical aspects of it just don’t fit. I understand the writers might want to cater a larger group of audience, but this shift is too dramatic and unnecessary.

I think another reason why Grey lost its appeal is technological innovation. Nowadays, if you miss an episode, you can always go online to re-watch it the next morning. In addition, on the Grey webpage, the site also provides sneak peek for next episode. The sneak peek alone already took away the mystery and anxiety that follows the one-week wait for the show.  Also, fans that make fanvid give away storyline for audience who has not yet seen the show. The video posted on YouTube provide a space where audience who want to watch the program, but do not have the time, watch the entire program in a short clip that give out the plot and main point of the entire series or just a single episode.

 

Justin M's picture

A minor panic.

I can see a change in the way people watch programing, especially with myself. With sites like Hulu and youtube, shows are available even faster, stressing the demand for narratives even more. I’m not too sure but I kinda see this shift as a minor panic or hiccup for producers , as the less people tune in while more log on it’s definitely changing the weekly television line up.

You can see this happening with adultswim on CartoonNetwork, which oddly enough, provides all their shows online right after the live premier. 

Community just had their epic session finale and I was able to watch it on Hulu the day after.  

 

The lackluster finale’s may just be a bump in this transition or it might just be the result of some bad writing.

 

Julia Lan's picture

finales and the anticlimax

When the season finale of Weeds aired on TV, everyone was talking about it, quoting it, getting super stoked on it, but I hadn’t quite caught up on the rest of the show to know exactly what was going on. With any show, there is always a commentary that the viewers give to show their input and the different ways they view things, especially when it comes to shows that have a cliffhanger. Hearing people talk about it after also can engage people who haven’t seen the show to encourage them to watch the show but, in my case, it just made me want to finish catching up so I could hurry to watch the episode I was missing. As much as I love the show The Big Bang Theory, I was disappointed with the season four finale as everything was extremely left in the open. Week after week I was excited to watch the newest episode of Big Bang Theory, but after watching the season finale, I was quite diasspointed as it was confusing. I remember going to the TV at 8pm the following week because it just didn’t feel like what a season finale should’ve been.

Trevor R's picture

Too many finales?

I agree whole heartedly about the conclusion of season finale’s losing their firepower. That being said, I personally attest this too the fact that entire series of shows are so widely available via netflix, hulu plus, and reasonably priced DVD series. I feel that when there’s a potentially season finally every other week from one show or another, whether it be on TV or online catching up, so much media is being consumed that big cliffhangers don’t hold as much power when there’s not a wait for the next episode. Whether it be that you have something else just as exciting waiting in the wing or you have the next season queued up and ready to go right after, we are spoiled. We are used to ease of access and availability and for that we are cursed to having less meaningful seaon finales from now on. At least that is the case for me.

Isaiah Masters's picture

finales

 This is a very keen observation Kelly.  Personally I don’t believe that season finales are losing their shine for various reasons. yes”>  I believe that the significance of the season finale has always lied within the viewing audience engagement and following of the show.  Whether it is by following the shows narrative or following the “characters’ “ struggles till the end of the competition, the season finale has always had to significance to the fans only.  I’ve never once rushed home to watch the season finale of Sex in the City, simply because I’m not a fan.  If the shows finale has no relevance to my viewing pleasure, the finale has no significance deserving of my attention.  Although season structures have changed, incorporating things like mini series and half seasons, I don’t believe that this has pulled any significance away from the importance of the finale, except for the fact that we as a viewing audience, get more of the entertaining satisfaction that comes with a finale.  Everybody knows all the most exciting things happen in a finale, and this way, we get more of what we like.

 

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