Why does so much TV end in disappointment?
This is England 90, Sunday, Channel 4
New Tricks, Tuesday, BBC1
Doctor Foster, BBC1, Wednesday
Midwinter of the Spirit, ITV, Wednesday
Television almost always ends in disappointment. Think of the many great drama series of the past decade and how many of them have concluded with everyone agreeing, ‘Yup, that was the perfect ending, I have no desire for more. I am as entirely satisfied with this resolution as I might be at a well-tied knot’?
The Sopranos, as so often, got it right – just cut to black. Make no attempt to offer a satisfying anything. Walk away. Almost every other attempt to round off storylines or send beloved characters off in to the sunset leads to squabbling. The end of Seinfeld, the end of Friends – both slurs on happy memories. The end of Dexter was awful. The end of Downton Abbey is practically bound to be a let down, even though it hasn’t happened yet.
This last week was a big week for endings, and it offered several different answers to the simple question of why TV endings are so resolutely mediocre.
Of the series on offer, New Tricks had the longest lifespan and the greatest following, a regular 6 or 7 million even after 12 years. But its ratings have fallen and its storylines had been getting a little ragged since about 14 minutes in to the first episode. Now is probably not the time to point out that if a broadcaster launched a wallpaper cop show with an average of 6m plus across the series, it would be granted a second run almost instantly.
Anyway, for whatever reasons, New Tricks had to go. This was an example of TV euthanasia: Charlotte Moore, the BBC1 controller, axed New Tricks as one of her first statements of intent when she took the job and as such the show needed to be despatched in the most humane manner possible in order to ensure happy memories for all. I had been hoping that New Tricks, whose cast have never been shy in pointing out that their show rates well, might go out with a two-fingers to new broom BBC management and as such I scoured it for hidden messages. Something like an acrostic in the closing credits reading ‘CHARLOTTE MOORE SMELLS,’ or a discrete ‘Try Channel 4’ bumper sticker in the background. No such luck, but there were one or two lines you could read either way: the subplot for this final case was all about how an overbearing female boss wanted to shut down our friendly UCOS team and channel the budget elsewhere. “What about everything Jerry Standing did, Sandra Pullman, Jack Halford, Brian Lane?” pleaded Sasha (Tamzin Outhwaite), the current UCOS head, with reference to Dennis Waterman, Amanda Redman, James Bolam and Alan Armstrong’s characters from the series’ past. “All their efforts forgotten?” That’ll be a yes Sasha. The Voice ain’t cheap.
The line normally trotted out is that old shows get shunted to the great VHS library in the sky so that they can be replaced by exciting new ones. But even exciting new shows have to finish, if not for good then at least between series. That gives rise to another form of closure – the ending that isn’t an ending, where regardless of what you’re watching, the show is really giving its best pitch to be recommissioned for another series. ITV’s Midwinter of the Spirit has been excellent, a right lark yet one that has at times been genuinely disturbing. It has a brilliant central character, vicar Merrily Watkins, being played brilliantly by Anna Maxwell Martin, and a trump card in David Threlfall somehow pulling off a likeable exorcist-next-door. It should return – there are 13 novels to choose from as source material, after all.
The only problem is that returning series lose the element of surprise. Though Merrily may find herself in a life-threatening situation, as she did this week when the forces of evil took aim at Hereford Cathedral with her in it, what you might call the ‘Next time on…’ fallacy – that you know Merrily Watkins can’t be killed off, or they’ve got no series, and the advertisers can’t have that – always undermines any real sense of threat.
Returning characters are also generally immune to change – that’s one of the reasons we like them, because we know what we’re getting. But it’s hard to see how Merrily can be anything other than emotionally spatchcocked after what she’s been through in this series – encounters with satanists, evil itself and, the worst of the three by far, a stroppy teenage daughter. And so even a strong opening series sows the seeds for its eventual demise.
Whereas Doctor Foster, which concluded midweek, can’t come back. It just can’t. even its creator, Mike Bartlett, has said, ‘I don’t like these shows which have endings that are all sort of vague – so I can promise everyone it has a proper ending.’
That all depends on what you mean by a proper ending, of course. Doctor Foster’s final part certainly felt final, in that it contained the most uncomfortable party since Abigail’s, in which Gemma (Suranne Jones) confronted everyone present with their own terrible behaviour – her husband’s affair with a 23 year old, his financial misdeeds, a secret pregnancy and all.
The dinner party was brilliantly written, and Jones, as she has been throughout, took a character who as written is barely credible, yet as performed is entirely convincing. But the bombshell was dropped with 40 minutes to go, and it left Doctor Foster with the same problem as all the other programmes this week: namely how to wrap this one up? Bartlett’s solution was a series of false endings, suggesting first that Gemma was going to go round the entire town meting out summary justice; then that she was actually going to kill her own son because he would one day grow up to be a man (and men are all philandering sleazebags); and finally that her husband had killed her, on the grounds that he thought she had tricked him in to thinking she’d killed their son. If that sounds Shakespearean it was, and the tragedian in me was wishing for the best ending of them all – which is to leave everybody dead on the stage and only the stench of human folly lingering in the air.
But TV can’t do that. Doctor Foster has been a hit, which means that the end is no end. There were just enough seeds sown to suggest that even though the slimeball husband has been vanquished to London with his pregnant girlfriend, and the Doc was happy, still with her son, they could string this one out in to more series, whatever Mike Bartlett has said about endings. me to give you Broadchurch, series three incoming. The end is no end.
Perhaps the perfect solution is something like This is England, whose latest incarnation, set in 1990, ended last weekend. In the same breath that Director Shane Meadows has said that he’s not doing any more he’s also not ruled out doing more.. As such This Is England’s greatest achievement may turn out to be its format – a few new instalments every few years, allowing enough to have happened to the characters in the interim but for them always to be welcome on their return. It is, in essence, the world’s greatest soap: a neverending story that never outstays its welcome.