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.
In the new thriller Contagion, the emergence and rapid spread of a deadly virus threatens not just the population but the very foundations of civil society, dividing families and crippling government institutions. Worst of all, it makes Gwyneth Paltrow look really, really unappealing. The film represents the second collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns, who previously paired for the 2009 comedy The Informant! Their third project together, an adaptation of the ‘60s TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E., is slated to go into production in February (provided it can find someone to star).
In an exclusive interview, we spoke with Burns about Contagion, U.N.C.L.E., and Mr. Soderbergh’s oft-discussed retirement plans.
This is a pretty drastic shift from The Informant! What was the genesis of the project?
When Steven and I were finishing The Informant!, he took me aside and said, “What else do you got?” I’d always wanted to do a pandemic movie, but I wanted it to be based in reality and not some invented virus that was divine retribution or the product of an experiment gone wrong. And there’s a scene in The Informant! where Matt [Damon]’s character goes on a rant after Scott Bakula’s character, who has a cold, coughs into a phone and gives it to Matt. And Matt’s like, “Oh great, so now I get sick and now my kid gets sick and he misses school, and what effect is that going to have on his life, and who pays for it?” The ripple effect of transmissible illness, I’ve always been fascinated by. And Steven said, “I love it. Let’s do that.” I told him the only way to do this was to really immerse myself into the research. I spent the better part of a year really researching before I did much writing at all.
In your research, what sense did you get that something like this could actually happen?
All of the people who we worked with, the creative contract that we sort of made with them was that we wanted to make a realistic movie. At some point you put numbers into an equation and the math takes care of itself. What Dr. Larry Brilliant, who is a famous epidemiologist told me, was that with a disease that has an R-not [a term representing the exponential rate at which a disease spreads; I’ve likely misspelled it] of two or four, which is not unheard of in the world – things like the flu spread at that rate – it’s only 30 steps from two to a billion. Flu may not be tremendously fatal, but what if it changed a lit bit, or something else happened to make it more dangerous? These things are real; they do happen. The 1918 pandemic killed 40 or 50 million people, we think. That’s more than died in World War I, and yet we talk about World War I certainly than the Spanish Flu. And there were other, smaller things since then, outbreaks in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Every years, 20 or 30 thousand people die of seasonal flu. A lot of those people might be immuno-compromised anyway before they get sick, but our whole history on this planet is marked by these things. Even though we’re getting better at medicine, and we think that will keep us safer, we also move around faster than we ever have before. We’re also putting our hands in places we’ve never put them before. We’re going into wild places where we’ve never been and coming in contact with plants and animals that we’ve never been in contact with before.
What interested me about this film, and what separates it from other pandemic movies, is that it’s as much about the cure as it is about the disease. In many ways, the cure is worse than the disease, in terms of what it reveals about human nature.
I’m glad you said that, because what the virus brings out, I think, is our fear and self-interest and all of these other things that, when we’re put under pressure, always come to light. That was what I really wanted to talk about, and what you noticed, which is gratifying to me, is those things don’t go away when the cure appears. What I wanted to do with each of our individual characters is resolve their stories in ways where they make peace with things.
For the most part you avoid Hollywood over-dramatization, but you do touch upon some darker, more conspiratorial aspects. They tend to metastasize in these circumstances, don’t they?
Yeah, I think that’s a part of the problem, and it’s kinda the big metaphor we invested in. Information and misinformation travel with the same transmissibility as the virus. And so some of the things that Jude Law’s character says are true, and some of them, for some people in the audience, may provoke their conspiracist [leanings]. But he also spreads a lot of misinformation, and that becomes a huge danger.
I remember when H1N1 was at its zenith, there were all sorts of conspiracy theories revolving around the vaccine and its supposed effects.
Jude’s character became the receptacle for all of that. I just read a couple weeks ago that the guy who created that flu stuff, Zycam, he also created some homeopathic H1N1 cure. Well, it was bogus and he was just indicted. And it was the same thing. It was this guy who went on the internet and said I have this herb that’s gonna cure H1N1, and it didn’t, and he made a lot of money. All of these things when they happen, in their randomness and in their inexplicability, they become opportunities for every agenda. Again, that’s another problem that doesn’t go away with the cure. There is no cure for that.
By my rough estimation, this is the fourteenth film Soderbergh has made with Matt Damon. Did he have you write with him or any other actors in mind?
No. Steven and I will generally talk about the movie before I write a little bit, and then we don’t really talk much while I’m writing. I knew Matt was going to do The Informant! pretty early on, and it was helpful to me when writing some of the monologues for that to hear Matt’s voice in my head. But we didn’t start casting this until the script was done.
[Caution - Minor Spoiler Alert]
How present were you on-set? Is Soderbergh the type of guy who likes to re-write on fly?
On The Informant! we barely changed a word. On this movie, there were new opportunities constantly coming up. There’s a lot of material we ended up not using in the final cut. If we were sitting around the bar at night and thought oh, it would be really cool if Kate Winslet’s character ended up building the hospital she ends up sick in, that that would be a really great thing, we’d go and shoot an additional scene. So that’s the great opportunity for me in being on-set. I’m sort of the steward of the story, and if I can come up with ways to make it better, Steven and Greg Jacobs, our producer and A.D., will always try to make it happen.
Is that a challenge on film like this, when you have so many different characters and storylines, to come up with new material so quickly?
It’s a challenge in that you need to find ways to tell just enough of a story to keep that character afloat in the movie without tipping the movie over. That’s the trick to it, figuring out how little information you can give to the audience and still get them emotionally invested in this character, and making sure that you leave a scene early enough so that the audience wants to know what’s gonna happen next. So it’s just creating little emotional cliffhanger after cliffhanger, to give the movie a sort of forward momentum.
Having worked with Steven for as long as you have, what do you make of all this talk about his retirement from filmmaking?
I hope he doesn’t retire. Look, Steven has made a lot of really great movies, and I think like any artist, he wants to push himself to continue to try and do new things. And I think he’ll retire when he can’t find a good reason to go make another movie. I know we’re going to do Man From U.N.C.L.E., and I hope by the time we’re done doing Man From U.N.C.L.E., we’ll have an idea for something to do after that. I really hope he doesn’t retire; I really think he has a lot to contribute to American cinema. I’d be sad to see him go.
What can we expect from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Will it be a straightforward take on the material?
Yes. It’s gonna be period. So it will be set in the ‘60s. Some of it has, I hope, the wit and wryness of the series. It was a really brave series in its day, because it was a Russian and an American working together, and they didn’t have a government. They were working for U.N.C.L.E., and I think Steven and I both loved the idea that there was this unaffiliated organization trying to make the world better. That sounds awesome to me.
Contagion opens everywhere Friday, September 9, 2011.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
This follow-up to the 2006 smash hit Night at the Museum picks up shortly after the events of the first film with one-time museum security guard Larry Daley now living the life of a famous inventor. One night he decides to pay a visit to his old haunt the Museum of Natural History where he discovers that some of his favorite exhibits (and old not-so-inanimate friends) have been labeled as “out of date” and are being shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian Institute archives. In no time he gets a distress call from miniature cowboy Jedediah who informs Larry that a group of history’s most notorious evil personalities including Ivan the Terrible Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone are hatching a conspiracy. Together with their ringleader the 3000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh Kahmunrah they plan to take over the Smithsonian and after that the world. Larry springs quickly into action teaming up with Amelia Earhart and tries to save his old friends — and perhaps the planet — from the insidious invaders who’ve awakened from their slumber.
WHO’S IN IT?
Ben Stiller returns as Larry playing straight man once again to a legion of historical figures including new and returning characters. Back from the original are Robin Williams as a spirited Teddy Roosevelt Owen Wilson as Jedediah Smith Steve Coogan as the Roman emperor Octavius Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun and Mizuo Peck as Sacajawea. Ricky Gervais again appears briefly at the start and finish as museum curator Dr. McPhee. Welcome additions include a lively Amy Adams as the famed female flyer Earhart and a very funny Bill Hader (TV's Saturday Night Live) as an insecure General Custer. Christopher Guest plays Ivan the Terrible while Alain Chabat has lots of fun as Napoleon. Jon Bernthal’s Al Capone meanwhile is cleverly shot and isolated in vivid black and white. Best of all by a mile — and the real reason to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — is Hank Azaria who plays Kahmunrah with brilliant comic timing and an affected speech pattern that’s highly amusing. The multi-talented Azaria (The Simpsons) provides the voices for two new computer-enhanced characters: a towering Abraham Lincoln and Rodin’s sculpture of The Thinker. Jonah Hill also shows up in an early scene as a Smithsonian security guard who confronts Stiller — a subplot that goes nowhere.
Although this follow-up suffers from a severe case of “sequelitis ” director Shawn Levy knows what makes this formula work for kids. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian deserves props as the rare studio blockbuster intent on actually providing a little education by making these important historical personalities come to such vivid life. Use of photos and paintings from the adjacent museums is the most inventive new wrinkle serving as a clever interactive device for Stiller to use throughout the flick.
The screenplay (again by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) rehashes a lot of what was fresh in the first film and the result feels roboticly recycled. Levy’s direction seems rushed at times as if the filmmakers are afraid anyone with an attention span beyond 30 seconds. Kids will eat this up but aside from Azaria there aren’t many laughs for Mom Dad and older siblings.
For pure visual-effects wizardry and wonder you can’t beat the gang’s arrival at the Air and Space Museum where the production actually shot for a week. It’s awe-inspiring. Amelia Earhart’s encounter there with the African-American Tuskegee Airmen is also a swell touch.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Multiplex but drop the kids off and go shopping instead.