The Art of Dying 5/4/2004


Friends is gone, taking that Pottery Barn furniture and Ugly Naked Guy with it. Frasier said adieu with far less media fanfare, while Angel is ripped from the airwaves next week despite the fervent protests of its devotees. Each series follows a different path to its final resting place; some roads lead to syndication heaven or DVD resurrection, others to eternal obscurity. There are 6 million ways for a TV series to die: Choose one.

In the Nick of Time

The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended with a bang and a sob. That finale’s cathartic gush of affection was as much about the actors saying goodbye to each other as to us, and it set a dangerous precedent for how to end a popular, long-running sitcom—a precedent stretched to its tawdry limits with the hyped Friends finale. NBC dangled the show’s slow death before us for months with old episodes and a retrospective that reminded us how the show began: as a generic TV take on Gen X slackerdom. The series debuted in 1994, the same era as Reality Bites. Early plotlines sometimes played on the split between the broke drifters (Rachel the waitress, Joey the actor, and folk singer Phoebe) and the yuppies (company man Chandler, chef Monica, and Ross the paleontologist). Sure, it would’ve been fun to watch Joey and Chandler engineer an Internet start-up and ride IPO mania, but by the late ’90s, the series had already jettisoned its epoch-defining pretensions. And its emphasis on friendship as a substitute for traditional milestones like marriage and parenthood turned sour, as they stretched the extended adolescence shtick as far as it would go. Friends pulled the plug just in time, saving us the horror of watching Monica and Chandler grow old in the purgatory of suburbia.

Going Out on Top (Sentimental Version)

The emphasis on Cinderella-style closure in finales is bogus; if a TV series is any good, it thrives on open-endedness. Yet some of the best shows schmaltz up their farewells. Witness the recent denouement of Sex and the City, in which Carrie sashays into the sunset with Mr. Big (those six years of passive-aggressive torture? Just foreplay!), Charlotte gets her fantasy family, Samantha finds commitment with a gentle hunk, and Miranda succumbs to maturity—in her case, that means moving to Brooklyn, caring for a baby, and sponge-bathing her senile mother-in-law. Monica and Chandler, are you taking notes?

Going Out on Top (Unsentimental Version)

Seinfeld set the standard here with the most caustic send-off ever. Instead of imprisoning the characters in a happy ending, Seinfeld literally jailed them for all their many crimes against humanity. A masterstroke in the war against TV cliché, but it mostly irritated viewers feeling all weepy about the show’s demise. On the other hand, Buffy the Vampire Slayer staved off a sugary ending while also making fans feel warm and fuzzy: The finale envisioned the triumph of girl power, as Buffy endowed ordinary women all over the world with her supernatural strength to fight evil.

Putting a Dog Out of Its Misery

Too many classic series limp on past their prime, desperately trying to wring a few extra years out of a threadbare formula. This traditionally involved adding an orphaned kid to the show (Oliver on The Brady Bunch, Stephanie on All in the Family). Thankfully, NBC yanked Frasier off the air just as pregnant Daphne was ready to spawn her own little ratings-bait. This once brilliant sitcom went awry after the marriage of Daphne and Niles, whose sexual tension had propelled the show from the start. Hence the lack of fanfare for a series that should have shuffled off to syndication long ago.

Premature Resurrection

Angel has run out of second chances. Although it shared many of the same great writers and actors as Buffy, Angel could never escape the slayer’s shadow. Last spring the WB threatened cancellation but offered a reprieve when Angel‘s producers promised to revamp the show. This meant absorbing Buffy’s sarcastic vampire sidekick Spike, a perfect sparring partner for Angel. It also led to a more adventurous attitude. In this season’s most ingenious hour, Angel was transformed into a Muppet while trying to infiltrate a mind-controlling children’s TV show. But to no avail. Fans mounted a campaign to prevent cancellation, buying a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard that declared, “We will follow Angel to hell . . . or another network.” The protests didn’t save the series, but the rumor is that Angel may eventually return as a made-for-TV movie.

Died Tragically Young

A heartbreaking category for the true TV connoisseur: inventive shows cut down in their infancy, loved all the more dearly because they never decay before our eyes. The most recent example is Wonderfalls, a wacky and well-written sitcom pulled just four episodes into its midseason run, despite fervent reviews (including mine). It follows in the footsteps of My So-Called Life, possibly the most mourned cancellation of all time. In both cases, viewers rallied round futile letter-writing campaigns. But now that cheap ‘n’ nasty reality shows dominate ratings, networks have even less motivation to get behind a slow-blooming beauty like Wonderfalls. Even as the networks force out cult gems, new possibilities are bringing shows back from the grave, though. Freaks and Geeks has just been released as a fetishistic DVD box set; Firefly, the short-lived series by Buffy/Angel creator Joss Whedon, is being reincarnated as a motion picture called Serenity; and the animated show Family Guy, canceled by Fox some years ago, did so well on DVD that the Cartoon Network plans to create new episodes. Wonderfalls too may have a future: Its producer has said he hopes to release the 13 finished episodes on DVD. Just try to keep a dead show down.