The nonsense of an ending?

Posted on 15/05/09 | in ideas

I’ve just finished watching the third season of Heroes. I enjoyed it, but various things about it – and about Lost (I’ve yet to see season five of that, though), and other contemporary TV shows, make me ponder about narrative theory. As one does.

One thing that’s really noticeable about these series is their reluctance to let characters die. In Heroes, the same core of characters continues from one series to the next, and various ingenious ways are thought up to aid this, to the extent that they can even reappear after death, whether as a figment of someone’s mind, or as a physical duplicate, or in someone else’s body, and so on (no names to avoid spoilers). The actors must have really good contracts drawn up… Yes, a few loveable characters have died, but they’re the exception.

A similar pattern persists in Lost, which seems to throw Occam’s razor ever further to the wind: it relentlessly multiplies entities beyond necessity, beyond the enjoyable teasing of the audience to the extent of suggesting the writers are rudderless. Season five, I’m told, may change this view – we’ll see.

Much is made of the ‘story arc’ these days – how TV shows have become more sophisticated, and demand a complex level of attention. Which is fair enough, and of course books have run over multiple volumes before – but I wonder if the arc is being stretched to breaking point, and sometimes misses a fundamental of narrative: the expectation of an ending.

Frank Kermode, in The Sense of an Ending, wrote that fictions (as with human lives) have an implied ending all along, which makes ” possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle”. Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot also studies how we “strive toward narrative ends” – he coined the phrase “the anticipation of retrospection” for that sense of how we imagine ourselves at the end, looking back on where we are now.

We are promised an ending for Lost in season six – but is there any way we can meaningfully look forward to it? What about Heroes: we’ve saved the cheerleader and saved the world a couple of times already – what’s left? It just doesn’t seem clear that there’s a narrative architecture any more. Maybe they’ll have to end, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (another character brought back from the dead to satisfy a hungry audience) with a whimper more than a bang.

Another TV series that comes to mind is Doctor Who – long ago this came up with a clever notion for letting the character die, but the series live on: regeneration. We want the Doctor to keep having adventures – but even he is mortal, and the 12-regeneration limit gives a whiff of the grave that helps keep his adventures alive, I think. But I bet if the series is still running, the BBC will give in to the temptation to renew his regenerative lease when they run out…

Life on Mars worked well, partly because, I think, it had a clear two-series remit, and we knew an end would come, with all the fun of guessing what it might be and looking for signposts along the way. Ashes to Ashes neatly revives some favourite characters without the narrative problem of Sam Tyler (though is less innovative as a result, so far).

Maybe it’s time to start killing things off, and having ideas for new stories, instead of keeping the same ones going at the expense of all sense.

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