May 31, 2023

World without end

By the time you read this, the final episode of one of television's most acclaimed recent series will have aired. Succession, the comedy-drama about one of the most, if not the most, disgusting, reprehensible, repugnant, and despicable families since the Manson clan, came to the conclusion of its four-season run on Sunday night, and it seemed as if, over the last week, you couldn't avoid online speculation about it no matter where you looked. I've never seen an episode of Succession, since we don't subscribe to HBO, but I've read enough about it to know that it's not my kind of television. I had to work for too many people like them while I was working; now that I'm retired, why would I want to spend any more time around them? 

At any rate, this isn't about Succession, although it does provide a nice lead-in to what this is about. In Brian Phillips's Ringer article "In Praise of the TV Shows That Just Won't End," Phillips meditates on the nature of a series finale—why they invariably cause so much anxiety for true fans of the series—and then returns to the idea of shows that "never really end." In this case he's referring to shows that somehow seem to continue in the television universe, whether through spinoff series, reunions, or movies. Take Star Trek, for example; the existence of Star Trek movies has removed the pressure to nail the series finale; "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."

That's pretty good, and it reminded me of a series that had a final epsiode of sorts, even though it didn't really need one: Perry Mason. By happenstance, last week I saw the final episode of the show's nine-seasons run, "The Case of the Final Fade-Out." It's a whimsical episode, set in the world of series television, the story of an egomanical TV star who's murdered while filming a scene of his popular television show. Mason and Paul Drake interview the show's crew to find out what they know; most of the crew members are played by actual members of the Mason crew. The judge is played by Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner in an unbilled cameo. The killer turns out to be none other than (spoiler alert) eternal teenager Dick Clark! The story itself, as is the case throughout most of Mason's final season, is no great shakes, but it's an appropriate series finale in that it gives everyone a chance to take a final bow, turning the episode into a kind of wrap party.

The point of all this, though, comes in the very last scene. Having won yet another case (and once again humiliating Hamilton Burger in the process), Perry, Paul, and Della discuss an upcoming case. When Paul and Della ask where they should start, Perry replies, "It seems to me that the place to start is at the beginning." Fade out, end of series. 

It's a simple, but stunningly effective ending. It's symbolic in that it sends a message that the work of the lawyer in pursuit of justice will never end; in the world of the series, it also suggests that while the series has come to a conclusion, Perry's work (and Paul's and Della's) will keep going on—we just won't see it every week. Their universe will continue to exist, so if you ever thought to yourself that Perry Mason is the man who you'd go to if you found yourself in trouble, you won't have to worry about convincing him to come out of retirement or anything like that—they'll still be there. In that sense, it is a series that, in Phillips's words, never really ends; it can continue for as long as you want it to. (Gardner himself wrote six more Mason mysteries after the show left the air.)

Of course, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale did return as Perry and Della in a series of movies, although they're pale imitations of the show (and many Mason fans don't consider them to be canonical). But putting that aside, the show's perfect ending left you with an even more perfect message: Perry and the gang aren't going anywhere, so there's really no need to say farewell, when au revoir will do. And isn't that the way it's supposed to be with friends? TV  


  1. Most TV shows used to just end, with no closure. It was just another episode (often because they didn't know the show was ending). Once in a while you got a series finale that felt like one (your Perry Mason example above, or The Dick Van Dyke Show finale where Rob finally writes his book and Alan Brady is going to star as Rob in the TV version), but usually shows just ended (though Star Trek will of course never end).

    The endings I hate are the "open-ended" ones, the ones that we're not sure what happens. You see it a lot with the modern "premium cable" dramas, and TV critics trip over themselves (because they don't want to look like an outlier) trying to praise the "daring" ending that's "open to a lot of interpretations." What does the ending mean?!? Actually, I don't want it open to interpretation, just show me what happens to the characters.

  2. We've been here before, I think ...
    This whole "series finale" nonsense is a comparatively recent phenomenon, pretty much limited to series television; in recent years, it's become ridiculous.
    Back In The Day*tm*, TV series episodes were self-contained; there was no "continuity" as such, and it didn't matter in what order the episodes ran.
    (If you stick with Sam Benedict, you'll see a textbook example of this.)
    In the case of Perry Mason, they couldn't conclude the series, because as you observed, Erle Stanley Gardner was still writing the books (the last two novels were published posthumously).
    That's true of many long-running drama series over the years; they weren't doing "continuing stories", so the shows could run in whatever order was convenient.
    Situation comedies were a different story, especially those with children: those shows had to be in some kind of order, and were planned out as such.
    *Sidebar: Not long ago I saw a commercial for a captioning device for home telephones, featuring kindly grandparents happily using the gizmo.
    It took some time for me to recognize Kindly Grandma as Family Affair's Kathy Garver, who is now 77 years old (and who has aged very well indeed).*

    *Sidebar II:
    Back in 1958, Fred Dannay and Manny Lee actually tried to "retite" the character of Ellery Queen, in a novel called "The Finishing Stroke" which would have marked the 30th anniversary of the character.
    Fred and Manny weren't able to do that, mainly for economic reasons; the story's been written up extensively elsewhere.*

    *Sidebar II and a half:
    I think I mentioned in an old comment that Rex Stout's last Nero Wolfe novel, A Family Affair, which was published shortly before his death, had a surprise finish that led some to believe that Stout intended it to be Wolfe's "finale".
    (If you've read the book, you know what I'm referring to.)
    Nobody knows for certain, including Stout's family; there is, however, Stout's own quote, from a late-in-life interview, when asked if he planned to retire of kill off Wolfe:
    "Nonsense! I hope he lives forever!"
    You have to admit - Rex Stout got that right ...*

    Running a bit dry just now; back later, maybe ...

  3. And then of course there's everyone's favorite way to end a TV series---a clip show! I believe Leave it to Beaver was the first to use this as a wrap-up. Others off the top of my head include Happy Days, Alice, and Seinfeld (it aired the same night as the finale proper, so I'm counting it). I'm sure there are many others.

    A series didn't even have to be long-running---Both Get a Life and The Critic used this format to end their respective shows, and they barely eked out two seasons!

    1. The 'Happy Days' finale had a last-minute clip montage, but was otherwise a proper 'beginning, middle, and end' finale, with Joanie and Chachi getting married, and Fonzie adopting a child. 'Alice' had a plot about Mel selling the diner(and not being able to kill the deal when he reconsiders), but, like 'Seinfeld', it was a plot that lent itself to reminiscing.

  4. Because a series is just that, a series. Every episode stood on its own unconnected with the others. It's a never-ending cycle. Even when Mannix was brought back in a Diagnosis Murder episode, it was implied Joe was still working, still taking cases, and still getting the crap beat out of him every now and then. In the universe of series cycles, the Enterprise is still on its 5 year mission, Joe Mannix is still taking cases, the Robinsons are still Lost in Space, The Saint is still helping people in trouble, and Perry Mason is on the case. The actors are unaged, the world they are in remains intact. I prefer it that way over the night time soap opera they have today.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!