By their very nature, some shows have end games and some don’t. A show about families and relationships, like “Parenthood,” simply looks for a grace note (and it found a good one in its series finale in January); it’s not as if it can end with everyone’s life in a state of perpetual perfection. At the other end of the spectrum, a murder mystery like last fall’s “Gracepoint” has a strictly defined finish line: “Who killed Danny Solano?”
Some shows don’t get end games because they are canceled, in which case the best we can hope for is a grace note, like the famous final scene of “Angel” that fades to black right before a big fight. Some popular shows are granted a hyped-up finale but fail to stick the landing: “Dawson’s Creek” very clearly should have featured soul mates Dawson and Joey walking hand-in-hand into the sunset, but Kevin Williamson overthought it and went for a more realistic but less satisfying ending of Pacey and Joey being a couple.
A show shouldn’t only be defined by how it ends. A journey can be enjoyable even without a satisfying conclusion; for example, because it was canceled, “American Dreams” ended on an unsatisfying cliffhanger of Meg running away from home, but that doesn’t mean I regret watching it. Still, “What’s the end game?” is a question that hangs over every popular show, and a sense that the writers know where the story is going is important to many viewers.
Here’s a look at six current series and some guesses what their end games might be:
“The Walking Dead” – Radio transmissions have told us there is some sort of organized societal structure out there. But mainly, the show is about Rick’s group surviving day to day, and trying to establish a stable community — and failing, and then trying again. The end game could be that a cure to the zombie plague is discovered and smoothly administered, but that seems too Pollyanna-ish for this grim series about how survival situations change people for better or worse. I think a happy ending means Rick’s group settles into a safe community with zombie-proof walls and begins to rediscover normalcy. Just setting up a nice clean lab where a scientist can study walker corpses would be satisfying.
“The Last Man on Earth” – This is a tricky one, because so far it’s a one-joke show about the increasingly extreme bad breaks suffered by Will Forte’s character as he meets more and more virus survivors in Tucson. In fact, he even had to change his name to Tandy when another Phil Miller came to town. If the show was about Tandy learning to roll with the punches, it would cease to be a comedy, or it would need to become a new type of comedy. I suspect “LMOE” will continue on its current path. The end game could be a statement about how society has grown back into the exact same mess it was before the virus, with Tandy continuing to be the Everyman helpless to stop it.
“Gotham” – This “Batman” prequel/reboot needs to be on the air for about a decade to meet up with the traditional age where Bruce Wayne – currently in his early teens — becomes Batman, and that’s a lot to ask of Fox, which hasn’t let a genre show run that long, well, ever. (The closest is “The X-Files,” at nine seasons.) Detective Jim Gordon becoming the police commissioner should probably be a long process, too, considering that he’s currently 30-something and Commissioner Gordon has always been portrayed as much older. So most likely “Gotham” will have to settle for a grace-note ending after five seasons or so. But if the show were to get a full run, the end game should be Gordon becoming commissioner and Bruce becoming Batman, giving the viewer a strong sense that this united front will now make serious progress in cleaning up Gotham. If by some chance “Gotham” is still going strong after that, it could perhaps delve into actual Batman stories with some later-arriving rogues such as Mr. Freeze, if the rogues gallery hasn’t been tapped out by that point.
“Bates Motel” – This “Psycho” prequel/reboot isn’t likely to link up with the iconic events of the Hitchcock movie, simply because Norman is currently a high school senior and it would have to be on the air for another 15 or 20 years to do so. However, I think “Bates Motel” could end a few years down the road with Norman – firmly entrenched in his schizophrenic state — killing his mother, preserving her corpse with his taxidermy skills, and then going about his business running the motel. In the meantime, supporting players like Dylan, Emma, Caleb and the sheriff would have to be removed from the picture to explain how Norman’s crime could go unnoticed for another decade or so before the “Psycho” story. Another possibility is that “Bates Motel” could move the events of Hitchcock’s classic further up on the timeline; after all, this is a prequel only in a psychological sense, not in a strict narrative sense, as it is set in a different time and place than the films.
“The Returned” – This one is simple: It has to answer how and why some people have returned from the dead in a small Washington town. The “how” can be supernatural or spiritual or mystical, but the “why” needs to be rooted in something tangible, such as a specific type of unfinished business that each of “the returned” has.
“iZombie” – Liv is adjusting to the new normal of being a zombie (which in this mythology means she can live normally as long as she eats brains from the morgue regularly). Some other zombies have neutrally integrated into society by hiding their secret, like the police chief. But still others are villains who murder people for their brains and sell those brains at a high cost to other closeted zombies. And even desecrating the brains of a dead person, as Liv does out of necessity, would be controversial if the public knew about it. Since “iZombie” isn’t as grim as “The Walking Dead,” I think a happy ending of Liv getting cured and returning to fully human life is a possibility, particularly since the search for a cure is part of the mission of Liv’s boss, Dr. Ravi. More likely, though, “iZombie” will end with a grace note of Liv being OK with being a zombie, which stands as a metaphor for any troubling adjustment in life.
What are your predictions of the end games for current popular shows? Will Bruce become Batman? Will Norman go full-on psycho? Will the plagues of “The Walking Dead” or “iZombie” get a cure? Share your thoughts below.