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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Ticking Clock

In the premiere of Starz' new series "Boss," the opening scene features Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) sitting stone-faced while an offscreen voice gives him his medical report. The news is not good.  Kane is in the early stages of a degenerative neurological disease that will eventually, inevitably, kill him. The clock is ticking.

The doomed central character has become something of a television trend. In the first episode of "Breaking Bad," we learn that Walter White has an apparently fatal cancer; indeed, this revelation sets the whole plot in motion. And then, of course, there is "The Big C," starring Laura Linney as an even-more-doomed cancer patient. "Television protagonist" continues to climb the list of most potentially fatal occupations, recently passing "New York City taxi driver" and closing in on "grandmother of a college student around finals week."

Many have noted the resemblance of modern television dramas (and some comedies) to novels.  The dying hero convention provides modern television with yet another novelistic quality: the definitive ending.

Conventional television series used to continue from season to season, as long as the sponsors and networks considered them profitable.  When they went off the air, it was generally with little fanfare.  Only the most popular series merited large buildups to a finale, but the finale itself was often nothing more than a typical episode, perhaps extended to a profit-maximizing length.  Writer's attempts to imbue a finale with some sort of ontological significance would often result in, at best, treacly "warm fuzzies" ("Cheers," "Friends"); other times, the shows generated feelings of utter bewilderment ("Seinfeld") or outrage ("The X-Files").

Some shows did, indeed, have "natural" endings.  It didn't take a genius to imagine what the final episode of "MASH" would feature.  Similarly, "The West Wing" finale provided an unsurprising sense of completion, as Jed Bartlett jets off to his term-limited, post-presidential retirement and a presumably best-selling memoir.

Now, though, television writers and producers seem more inclined to plant the seeds of their shows' eventual denouements in their opening episodes.  A show like "Boss" promises its viewers a definitive finale, even though a show about a tough, big-city mayor could presumably continue indefinitely.  Other shows offer less explicit but no less real guarantees of their own, shall we say, finity: While "Dexter" can have as many seasons as its creative team chooses to make, we can see that, if circumstances demand, everyone's favorite serial killer can be caught.
The ticking clock provides a nice sense of urgency, and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of relief: Just as few of us would choose to read a novel that has no ending, we take comfort in the fact that, while we lose ourselves in our heroes' stories, these stories, too, will reach an end.

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