Spoiler Alert – the end sucks: on televisual addiction and grief
This column was originally published on Killings.
Remember watching the last episode of Six Feet Under, crying for half an hour after it finished, and then missing the characters for weeks after? Or being unable to stop speculating after The Sopranos left you dumbstruck in the end? And how often do you partake in conversations about what DVD or downloaded series you have recently finished?
It’s no spoiler that, through expanding online and digital streams, television programs are increasingly accessible to viewers. It’s a pop-truism that our various screens breed an addictive form of consumption, allowing us to watch what we like, when, where and as often as we like. And if you’re anything like me, you consume fast and often, with extracurricular assistance from swiftly updated TV compendia like The AV Club. Like Homer Simpson before me, TV is my ‘teacher, mother, secret-lover’: I am a television addict, and as the recent uprising of recap culture indicates, I’m not alone.
Programs are now being scripted for this savvy multiple-view-non-network-audience, which has helped to create a cultural shift whereby television programs are being recognised for their ‘quality’. Shows like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire are largely acknowledged for their literary values, artistic qualities, or cinematic affiliations and budgets. Tapping into this once HBO-driven market, showrunners across various networks and countries are learning how to play us so that we press play.
Across all the TV genres – from shorter ‘meta’ sitcoms (i.e. Community or How I Met Your Mother) to complex, lavish dramas – plot and story arcs require deep investment and encourage re-watchability. As seasons progress, viewers literally spend hours with seemingly fully formed people: we cry at characters’ failures, cheer their victories, predict their futures, and mimic their mannerisms or vernaculars as we would real friends.
Consequently, there is something particularly heartbreaking and damning about investing so much time and emotion in something that, like all good things, must come to an end.
I liken my intense television viewership to a summer romance: it’s all I want to do with my days and all I think about at night. But instead of handholding and butterflies, it’s powerdisking and praying my housemate will make me food so I don’t have to look away from the screen. So, when the show is over, the episodes exhausted and the sun has set, I feel lost, confused and devastated. Left with a cast-shaped hole in my heart, I’m unsure of how to move on. I call this feeling ‘televisual grief’.
Certain programs end by manipulating this emotional build-up – for instance, The Wire provided heartbreaking closure at the end of its five-series run with a circle-of-life montage that crushed any residual optimism left in its viewers. Other times, you can sense the end is nigh because the timing is right (Buffy) or the love had been lost a while ago (The O.C.) – and while sad, it’s better than seeing the show jump the shark and continue into senility (The Simpsons).
And then there is the unexpected kind of conclusion, where shows are passed on by networks and finish before their time (the ‘Freaks and Geeks wasn’t picked up for another season’ kind). Turning up late to the funeral, my recent bout of televisual grief came about from my shameless fling with Veronica Mars. And rather than being cushioned by the nostalgia of re-watching – recalling ups and downs, arcs and knowing how it all ends – I watched every episode, back-to-back, from start to finish, for the very first time.
Short-lived cult show Veronica Mars was always recommended to me due to my love of witty, genre-blurring teen TV and strong female leads. Filled with intrigue, teen-troubles and diversity, a sassy schoolgirl moonlighting as a detective and a surprisingly hot bad boy to boot, the show was made for me. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Veronica Mars, but when I did it didn’t take long to get through.
So when the end came – Veronica Mars was not renewed for a fourth season – I wallowed in my televisual grief.
I knew when I started watching that it was a short-lived series, but stupidly, I didn’t realise how short. When the third season drew to a close with an ambiguous glance between Veronica and bad boy Logan across a cafeteria, Veronica’s dad in a tenuous position and various other knots left untied, I was excited to move on to season four.
There are famously five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. First, I searched iTunes, Google, amazon, Google again – but nothing, nada, zip. Over and over I searched the same words ‘Veronica Mars Season Four’ … rinse and repeat. Even after reading the IMDB tombstone – ‘2004 – 2007, Season 1 – 3’ – I didn’t believe it. I had entered the denial stage, because it couldn’t end that way. It. Just. Couldn’t.
Then, I got angry: How could Google’s drop-down menu lead me on? (Try it: when you type ‘Veronica Mars’ into the search box, the second search suggestion is ‘veronica mars season 4’.) Bad ratings aside – and, admittedly, it’s a big aside – how could a network discontinue this show? Why would the creators leave it on such vague terms when they felt the end was approaching? I had no closure and was enraged.
Then the depression hit: it wouldn’t be the same anyway. The teen cast are now thirtysomethings, and so much time has passed. So I moped around the internet, reading recaps, watching interviews with the cast and blooper reels to lament my lost love.
And then, I found myself laughing. Gag-reels and recaps reminded me of just how fun Veronica Mars was and how I was glad to finally watch it. I began to accept that the lack of closure was somewhat charming, in a corny way. I realised that I can always revisit and re-watch, relive. So I did what all good TV addicts do to escape their televisual grief: I picked up my remote and pressed play.