Goodbye television

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in last weekend's issue of BusinessWorld: 

Breaking Bad’s finale this week lived up to the hype, blazing out on an extended 75 minutes of violence, betrayals, one-upmanship. And class. The show may come down as one of the greatest drama series ever shown on television, rivaling (the sadly not shown in the Philippines) The Wire.

There’s something special about final episodes. In a way, it captures what great shows are all about. Unlike lesser shows, they don’t need to feel weepy and self-congratulatory, trying to sweep away past disappointments and mistakes. Rather, great finales tend to do what great shows have always done: give more of the same consistently.

My all-time favorite finale was of Frasier, probably the greatest sitcom ever in the history of television. Well, next to the Simpsons (because it is) and Arrested Development (because the show proclaims itself to be so). Despite the absence of Bulldog, Frasier ended on an incredible high. Anyone moved by Judy Dench’s rendering of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in Skyfall cannot help choking to Kelsey Grammer saying, with 11 seasons behind him: “that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Speaking of Frasier, the Cheers closer was also memorable. The 90+ minute episode felt like it should: one last round of drinks. Always welcome but you know it’s time to go. One could only wish that Semisonic’s “Closing Time” played in the background, all the more as its brilliant line “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” would’ve been the perfect set-up for perhaps TV’s most successful spin-off: the abovementioned Frasier.

Compared to that, the final episode of Friends was bit of a letdown. Attempting closure through too many touch feely moments robbed it of what should have been the shows signature: its unmatched ability to mix warmth with sarcasm. The high point was when the friends decided to have coffee one last time together. As they walked away from the apartment (going, as all fans know, to Central Perk), Matthew Perry, with marvelous timing, asked: “uh, where?”

Speaking of letdowns, I’d say the same goes for St. Elsewhere and Newhart. Both giving the viewers the idea that their entire seasons were merely mental constructs: of Dr. Westphall’s autistic child for St. Elsewhere and Bob Newhart’s psychiatrist character in The Bob Newhart Show for Newhart.

On the other hand, The Cosby Show’s finale was sublime. After so many seasons with kids running around the house, Bill Cosby and his wife now have the house to themselves, their adult children off somewhere. Cosby takes his wife’s hand and they dance, dancing all the way up to the set’s edge. And beyond. Eventually walking off behind the studio, past cameramen, producers, and the audience.

I have to include my favorite homicidal place in the world: Midsomer. As I wrote in 2009, I’ve always been amazed that this English county “apparently has around 20 murders a year, with the past decade seeing a total of more than 200 murders, all premeditated. This does not include the assortment of accidental deaths and suicides. This is amazing when you consider that New York averages eight murders a year for every 100,000 individuals. To give an even better idea of the murder rate of Midsomer county, one published account noted that the likelihood of being murdered in London is .007% (per 100,000 people) whereas Midsomer is a shocking 27.4%. To paraphrase a line from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, it’s like Bosnia on a bad day. The body count is simply staggering -- for a place that is not a war zone, it racked up three kills a week for the past 12 years.”

For a moment, there were concerns that DCI Barnaby would be the 250+ victim of Midsomer. However, true to its theme of being a “celebration of the ordinary” (despite the incredibly high body count), it all came to a close after dinner with family and friends. Barnaby announced his cousin to be Midsomer’s next Detective Chief Inspector. Who then promptly gets a call of a murder somewhere (naturally), and he and DI Jones goes out, leaving a somewhat wistful John Nettles (and a relieved Jane Wymark) behind.

It’s oft been discussed that television (and the movies) reflect the world’s zeitgeist. Hence, the disaster movies of the 1970s. Or ’80’s Wall Street. It could explain the endings for St. Elsewhere and Newhart, both happening within two years of each other (1988 and 1990, respectively), plausibly an echoing of the prevailing nihilism of the time. The same could be said of The Sopranos finale, what with its ambiguity, an ending simply cutting to black. Uncertainty in outcome and purpose? And even uncertainty perhaps in the meaning of everything.

In any event, there’s one thing I am certain of: I do not want the Simpsons to say goodbye.