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In Praise of the Shows That Just Won’t Really End

All eyes are on the finales of ‘Succession,’ ‘Barry,’ and maybe even ‘Ted Lasso’—but there’s a place for TV that just keeps going and going

AMC/Apple TV+/Paramount/Ringer illustration

Hey, you may have heard, but Succession is ending this week. (And so are Barry and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, by the way.) To mark the occasion, we’re looking at the very idea of TV finales themselves this week: how to get them right, how to pick the perfect song for them, and why they may matter less in the streaming era. And naturally, we’re ranking them. Check back all week to help us celebrate—we like to think of it more like an Irish wake than a funeral.

This is an ode to the shows that never really end, the ones that can’t leave well enough alone, the ones that sprawl into spinoffs or reunions, the ones that make the leap into movies, the ones that helplessly come back years after going off the air. A perfect series finale? That’s fine—admirable, even; congrats on making your show feel like a play. But the true essence of TV is expansion, extension, and continuation, and the only thing better than sticking the landing is never landing at all.

Why do fans get so anxious before a beloved show airs its last episode? Two reasons. First, because most series finales are disappointing, and second, because the classical drama industrial complex taught us to place too much importance on endings. We’ve fallen into a bewildering loop. We over-romanticize endings and then feel let down by them. Aristotle and Greek theatre conned us into thinking the conclusion of the story is where the real meaning lives, as if Ross and Rachel saying “I love you” in Episode 236 could validate everything that happened back in Episode 71.

And sure, fine, every once in a while this view of things pans out. Tony Soprano flashes to black, Fleabag waves goodbye to the camera, and everything that came before glows with a whole new significance. Whenever that happens, it’s magical. I love it whenever I see it, once every five thousand shows or so.

Most of the time, though? Most of the time that’s not what goes down. Most of the time, the finale feels a little forced, a little awkward, a little out of step with the rest of the series. The struggle to retrofit a perfect ending onto a story whose creators were (inevitably!) making it up as they went along gives you the impression that the creators didn’t know what they were doing in the first place. You feel strung along. Hoping for an idealized closure, you get an uncomfortable glimmer of what religious skeptics must feel when they look at the universe. Like: If there was really a benevolent intelligence guiding this thing, how does Bran keep winding up on the Iron Throne?

And thus we come to the special satisfaction—the relief, even—of a show that just keeps helplessly rolling along. There’s no irritating last-second disappointment, because “just keep rolling” is what TV shows, at least ones built on the network model, are designed to do. They’re not designed to proceed inexorably toward one single culminating moment. They’re designed to keep growing, to keep inventing new stuff until they reach the outer limits of profitability or their creators’ patience. You launch your pilot, and then you don’t stop until the ashes of your final advertiser are launched into the sun.

I would rather be attacked by an actual undead horde than watch a Walking Dead episode at this point, but I kind of love the maniacal zombie urge toward self-propagation that’s generated 6,281 Walking Dead spinoffs to date. (Who’s ready for The Walking Dead: Dead City next month?!) It feels true to the nature of the medium. It’s the well-wrought, competent endings that feel false, because those are the ones that force you to change the way you imagine the basic character of what you’ve been watching. It was an open-ended ramble; now it’s pretending to be a unified whole. No thanks!

Take Star Trek. Here’s a franchise that’s produced at least one excellent series finale (The Next Generation) and a few pretty good ones. But how much pressure does the mere existence of the movies take off the conclusions of the shows? The series finales, even the ones attached to series that don’t become feature films, have an implicit “for now” feeling about them, like the “...OR IS IT?” that would appear after “THE END” in old-timey movie serials. You’re always encouraged to imagine that more will be coming, whether or not it actually arrives. And that little hedge against finality, that slight ducking of last-act obligation, frees you to keep your imagination in the ongoing present where the rest of the show has taken place.

Jason Sudeikis recently said in an interview that Season 3 of Ted Lasso is “the end of this story we wanted to tell.” I’m sorry—I really am—but what the fuck? Has the prestige TV era whacked us so hard upside the head that we’re now required to talk about TED BLEEPING LASSO in terms of its overarching dramatic unity, like it’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel from 1957? Did I miss the part where a cute lil sitcom that grew out of an NBC ad campaign unfurled dark angelic wings and arose into new life as The Sound and the Fury? This is not me knocking Ted Lasso, by the way; this is me pleading with humanity to let a fun show that was clearly improvised from season to season just be that. The cult of the series finale cannot force us to impose a grand existential arc on—again; I cannot stress this strongly enough—Ted Lasso unless we let it! (To his credit, Sudeikis indicated in the same interview that he was open to Ted Lasso spinoffs, which is much, much more like it.)

No. Give me Firefly, a show that was tragically cut off before it could properly end, then returned as a movie that clearly demanded sequels, then never got any sequels. Give me Deadwood, a show that kind of quasi-ended, then returned years later with a one-off HBO reunion that literally no one remembers anything about, except that it exists. Give me—yes—Yellowstone, a franchise that refuses to slow down until it’s done to the airwaves what ranchers did to the West. Give me Party Down, a good and largely unwatched show that fought its way back onto the air a decade after its release to become a good and largely unwatched show. Give me the British version of The Office, a show that ended beautifully, then came back beautifully with a couple of literal Christmas specials, for no real reason except that coming back with Christmas specials is what TV shows were born to do.

The point I’m working toward here is not that series finales can’t be wonderful. Obviously they can! The point is that any story you follow serially over a long period of time isn’t really about endings at all. The TV series is the great art form of middles. It’s about showing up week after week, checking in on where things are right now. The process is iterative and inevitably makeshift. You can’t work on a story for four or five or 10 years and not change what you’re doing, at least a little bit, as you go along. The writers change, the actors change, the audience changes. What gives the thing meaning is that we come back to it throughout all those changes. What gives it meaning is that it gives us a reason to come back. Shows that aim for dramatic perfection sometimes do a good job of disguising all that, but it’s as true of Mad Men (zero spinoffs) as it is of The Golden Girls (four spinoffs, somehow including Blossom??).

A good series finale is a nice bonus. I won’t deny it. But here’s to the shows that can’t stop teaching us the deepest lesson of television: that the real treasure is the friends we made along the way.