Great Expectations: Are TV finales nowadays destined to fail?

*EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been imported from my Tumblr page, where it originally appeared.*

I tuned into Breaking Bad last night with more anticipation than I personally care to have. It’s not that I don’t like the feeling; in fact, I love it. Obviously, I’d much rather be hotly excited for something new than approach it with apathy, and I suspect this feeling describes everyone else in the world–unless you’re Orin from Parks and Recreation.

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But still, I prefer to temper my expectations, because more often than not, when it comes to entertainment, expectations become one’s own worst enemy. 

I was at a DVD store recently and started talking with a guy about Star Wars, the most beloved franchise in the world. He was excited for Episode VII, the new film being released in 2015, but he also wondered how good the continuation of the main story would be without what he saw as the most story-driving character of the first six films, Darth Vader. I would never call myself a die-hard Star Wars fan, but I am a fan nonetheless, and I am excited for a new movie. However, I thought the gentleman had a good point, and now armed with this thought, I admit I’m a tiny bit less excited.

So I ask myself, who am I to judge the worth of this movie before it’s even released? And the answer is easy: I’m human. Just like the humans who actually write and create these movies and TV shows, I too have a brain capable of imagination. And from time to time, I may imagine a story for an existing project that I personally deem to be better than the official source. You could search the Internet for days and find a overwhelming number of people who have created their own personal continuations of the Star Wars story, each perfect in their own minds. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the real story and the fan fiction can’t co-exist, that people won’t be happy with whatever Disney releases. It just may not live up to the standard set by the fan.

That being said, when it comes to expectations, there is a significant difference between film and television. Take Twilight, for example. The film was announced, and fans of the books immediately took it to task, particularly with the casting of uber-dreamboat Edward Cullen. No one, not even Ryan “Perfection” Gosling, was ever going to come remotely close to being anything like the character girls and women dreamed up in their minds. So when Robert Pattinson was cast, in fans’ eyes, he might as well have been this guy:

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Of course, once the film was released, we all know how Robert’s fate turned out. That’s the thing: All of a movie’s expectations come before its release, not during. Even within the constructs of sequels, prequels, and film series, a movie is one complete project. It has a beginning, middle, and end, all laid out for us in two hours. Our judgments are snappy while we watch it; we don’t have to worry about what’s coming next because it’s actually coming next.

Television, by its design, is supposed to make you wonder what happens next. Every scene change, every act break, every cliffhanger is built to make you guess what is coming up. And there’s no immediate resolution like a two-hour movie; you have to watch for many, many years before you get to the ending. Fans like me have been with How I Met Your Mother for nine years, consistently teased and tugged and pulled all along the way. The sheer length of time enduring this series has caused our anticipation to grow to astronomical levels much higher than anything Twilight fans had to deal with, meaning the potential fall is a lot steeper. Can this meeting possibly live up to the expectations we’ve built in our minds?

Then there’s a show like Breaking Bad, the most critically and commercially lauded program on television today, which tells us it’s ending and then makes us wait a full year before we can see it. It almost seems inevitably doomed to fail by our own minds. More people watched last night’s episode than any other in the series, so although I knew I would enjoy it, I almost expected a mass majority to hate it. I figured those who probably just recently binged all of the previous episodes through Netflix wouldn’t be used to the show’s trademark methodical storytelling and would think it was too slow. Fortunately, I was wrong, as it seemed that the writers turned up the velocity for this final round and burned through the plot more quickly than ever before. So now those same reservations are saved for the finale.

Lost. Battlestar Galatica. Seinfeld. Roseanne. The Sopranos. Television history is littered with examples of series that defied expectations for its finale and subsequently tarnished, on various levels, its legacy among loyal viewers. It seems that there are now two distinct outcomes for the end of any long-running show: 1) Go the route of Friends or NBC’s The Office and wrap everything up in a neat, contrived bow–make all of the characters happy and get what they want, resulting in a finale that will be called predictable or boring; or, 2) Dare to think a little outside the box and be unafraid to be controversial, resulting in a fervently divided response and ultimately alienating everyone. Mad Men has its work cut out.

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This is probably how Matthew Weiner looks right now.

Many interviewers have asked Breaking Bad’s creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan if he believes that everyone will be happy with the finale of the show, and he has each time cautiously worded his response: He and the writers made themselves happy with the ending they created, and he hopes viewers will be happy, though he has fully accepted how difficult it is to please everyone. It’s not hard to see the last part of that sentence is a vast understatement.

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