Not every show can go out on a good note. Sure, some shows like Breaking Bad come up with a conclusion that feels right and true to most fans. But usually, when a show has been on the air for a while, finding a tidy way to wrap things up can be a chore.
Even if it's been planned out since the beginning, as was the case with the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, it's hard to make people who have invested time in the characters feel like they've said goodbye in a satisfying way. While the fury swells over the HIMYM's controversial ending, it's helpful to distract ourselves with other epic finale fails Ted and his stupid blue French horn are up against.
It's like the start of a joke… Tony Soprano walks into a diner.
That's how David Chase sets up the finale of his landmark HBO series. The Mafia boss made famous by the late James Gandolfini rifles through a jukebox at his table and picks out Journey's "Don’t Stop Believing." His wife Carmela (Edie Falco) joins him, soon followed by his son A.J. (Robert Iler). The diner is full. A guy in a hat sits at a nearby booth and may have eyed Tony when he was alone. Another guy in a Members Only jacket enters right before A.J. and seems kind of twitchy. Another pair of guys lingers near the counter. Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is late because she can't parallel park. The jacket guy walks past the Soprano's table and goes into the bathroom. Meadow, finally out of the car, walks towards the door of the diner. She reaches out to open it, the bell rings above the door and… nothing. Cut to a black screen.
Millions of Americans reached for their remote, sure that their TV sets had just completely screwed them over and were poised to call their cable company... when suddenly the credits started to roll. The shock that the series ended with a cut to black set fans howling and looking for answers. Did we go black because a bullet just went through Tony's head? Did the bell mean something? Were the potential threats in the diner just a part of Tony's normal paranoia? What the heck does any of it mean? Chase has steadfastly refused to provide much in the way of explanation, leaving a large section of the fan base furious over the ambiguity.
The show about nothing decided to make the end about something. That's a problem. With Larry David back to write the final episode of the show that he created with his friend Jerry Seinfeld, the group is about to have some good fortune. The show-within-a-show created by Jerry and George (Jason Alexander) finds new life and the duo, along with Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards), are jetting off to Paris to celebrate in a private jet courtesy of NBC. But, some mechanical issues ground them and while they wait, they stand around making jokey comments about a car-jacking that they're witnessing. Next thing you know, we're in a court room with every ancillary character in the history of the show, each with his or her own story of how horrible Jerry and his friends are. The foursome is led to a single jail cell after being convicted under a Good Samaritan law and, essentially, starts having a conversation the same as they would at Monk's or Jerry's apartment.
As the credits role, Jerry, dressed in prison orange, performs a stand-up routine for the other inmates. The finale was bloated, lazy, and worst of all, not funny… with jokes falling flat left and right. Apparently most of the humor was supposed to come from the audience seeing the Soup Nazi or Newman one last time. For a show that had delivered consistent laughs throughout its entire run, not remaining true to the style of humor that had made it a cultural phenomenon was the ultimate sin.
The critically acclaimed '80s medical drama had a very loyal fan base that kept it on the air. It's hard to remember but the Boston-based show was the career launching pad for a number of actors, Denzel Washington and Mark Harmon chief amongst them, and was a major influence on later hospital series like ER and Grey's Anatomy. In the finale, a bearded Howie Mandel leaves after finishing his residency and David Morse's soulful Dr. Morrison collects his young son to depart as well. As the show's moral center Dr. Westphal (Ed Flanders) returns to his office, his autistic son (Chad Allen) stares out the window at the falling snow.
Cut to: Westphal now dressed as a construction worker entering an apartment where his son is on the floor staring at a snow globe. What's inside the globe? A replica of St. Eligius Hospital, or St. Elsewhere, as it's more commonly called. So, the whole show was just something that played out in the mind of an autistic boy? Is that it? Really? The whole "it was all fake" ending worked exactly once with the brilliant final reveal on Newhart, but that's it.
The closet serial killer played by Michael C. Hall is getting out of the game. With his girlfriend Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) and son Harrison (Evan and Luke Kruntchev) in tow, he's going to skip out to Argentina and lead a more peaceful life... then a criminal shoots Dex's sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter). Even though she seems fine, she suddenly lapses into a coma after a massive stroke. Dexter kind of matter-of-factly kills Saxon while he's in police custody, sends Hannah and Harrison off to Buenos Aires, and then takes Deb off life support. He steals her body and dumps it into the sea, before faking his own death. Except when we see Hannah and Harrison way down south, Dexter isn't with them and Hannah is reading a news story about his presumed watery demise.
We hear Dexter in a voice-over explaining how hard it is to be him. So, where is he? Well, why don't we let every fan of the Showtime hit take over from here: "A lumberjack?! He's a f**king lumberjack?! What do you mean he's a f**king lumberjack?!" Before that final scream-inducing reveal — seriously, how many TV sets were broken when remotes went sailing into them immediately after the shot of bearded Dexter? — the episode was pretty lifeless, moving from point A to B to C in a paint-by-numbers kind of way.
Just like with Seinfeld, the ending to Roseanne Barr's long-running sitcom felt like a cheat. Really it was a case where the show probably should've ended a couple of seasons before it actually did. The final season was an unmitigated disaster as the Connors won the lottery and the entire premise of the show changed, becoming a distorted rumination on the meaning of life. In the final episode, we see the cast of the show gathered around the kitchen table eating, laughing, and joking. Then a voice-over from Rosanne tells us that what we've been watching was a figment of her imagination. She's changed things from real life as she's written, including having Dan survive the heart attack that actually killed him two years prior. Worse, she calls into question what parts of the show going back before the heart attack were real (what do you mean David is really Becky's boyfriend?). Considering that the show became a ratings juggernaut with its funny portrayal of the real issues that face lower-middle class Americans, being told that it was just the main character's alternate reality was a slap in the face. And, while it's fine for a finale to be packed with emotion — plenty of fans cried at the end of M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show — the final shot of Roseanne sitting alone on her couch was unnecessarily depressing.
David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.