I have attachment issues — not with people, luckily, but with stories. I’m ashamed when I don’t make it to the last page or the final frame. But, in some cases, I stop right before the end and feel like I can’t proceed.
Alex and I saw Cirque du Soleil’s Totem recently. No, I’m not citing it as an example — we loved every minute of it. Buoyed by its exuberance — and perhaps wanting to debunk what could only be described as theatrical and athletic magic — we started the Bravo series Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within, a documentary about the creation of Cirque’s Varekai.
Surprisingly, the closer to opening night of Varekai the show’s chronology progressed, the less engaging the show became. Is it because we already know — as viewers in 2002 perhaps did not — that the production of Varekai was a rousing success? Is it because we were seeing the actualized performance and no longer needed to imagine what the polished end product would be? Whatever the reason, we lurched through the final few episodes and couldn’t even sit through the reunion special.
That got me to thinking: What is it that compels us to watch a show through to its end if we’re no longer interested? And, one step further, how close do we have to be to the series finale to put our heads down and power through to the finish? What’s the tipping point for completion for completion’s sake?
It’s a quandary unique to shows that have ended or are known to be ending. I feel much less ambivalent turning my back on shows with no foreseeable end date, it seems. The once-scintillating, now-convoluted Revenge can draw a big red Sharpie’d X through its own picture for all I care. This coming from the guy who once raved about it.
Often, as is Revenge‘s plight, we stop investing our time because of a show’s decline in quality. My friend Kayti put it best when she talked of Alias, saying, “It’s not that I didn’t still watch it and love it, but it was one of those deals where I was nostalgic for a television show while the television show was still on.”
Alias is one of my favorite shows — but I’m realizing now that sentimentality might be supporting its place in my pantheon. That is the show, after all, that got me hooked on television as a medium. But I guess that, behind my cheerleading on the show’s behalf, I too grew nostalgic for the episodes which had me marathoning into the wee hours of weeknights. (Sorry ’bout that, high school grades.)
Even rewatching Lost changed my opinion of it. I still think it was a cultural touchstone which revolutionized TV storytelling, and I still think it was incredibly ambitious and often got as close to perfection as any other show. But I will grant that the final three seasons were difficult. I respect them, I appreciate the writers’ hopes, but those last three seasons just didn’t feel as vital as the first three.
If I hadn’t been such a diehard fan of those shows at the time — and if I knew then what I know now — would I have seen them through to the end? I’ve surely become less forgiving over the years.
I’m already wrestling with the closing chapters of a few of my once-favorites. I really tried to stick with The Office in its Michael Scott-less seasons, but — save for a few standout episodes — it’s not nearly as funny. It’s almost a chore to watch this past season, even though I know it’s the last. I’m almost certain I’ll eventually finish it. (Almost certain.) Why? Because I’ve watched eight and a half seasons so far, so I feel obligated to see it through to the end.
Alex, my sounding board for this post, raises a good point: Dramas constructed around a central mystery (or set of mysteries) can often be far riskier to execute than shows based on characters or situations — and audience burnout reflects that. This doesn’t just happen because they require more devotion than their more-episodic kin but because we expect a bigger payoff involving plausible answers.
Why do we feel such obligation? Why do we have to spend more time just to justify the time already spent? You know that when watching a TV show is more arduous than enjoyable, something is seriously amiss. So why can’t I just drop a flagging show and be done with it?
My theory: We need closure. It’s almost a sort of catharsis. The only way to alleviate our grief over the bygone glory days is to give a show every last chance to improve and to know that you gave it every last chance. And if we know that the end is within sight, that the suffering is only finite, we grant the show that opportunity, even if it means prolonging the torture a little bit more.
I have huge respect for TV writers, knowing that they spend seven days a week trying to please TV viewers who want instant gratification while not even providing the shows their full attention. Since we watch TV in the privacy of our own homes, we viewers are a relatively fickle and impolite audience.
But once a show doesn’t demand our attention, whether we’re waiting for the reveal or for the punchline, it’s failing. And once it fails more often than it succeeds, we should be allowed — and we should allow ourselves — to tune out.