'Mad Men' finale brokers the toughest sell for show's fans



When I watched the first episode of this new season of AMC's "Mad Men" -- I should point out, the final season of AMC's "Mad Men" -- I thought all the things you are supposed to think during that activity, but one thing I couldn't get out of my head was that we were headed to a series finale.

That is bad. It's not that I dread it. It's not even that I have deflated hopes for it. It's that series finales never seem to go over well with either a majority of viewers or a vocal minority. Television shows end and the outrage explodes.

Some variation of that feels like it has appeared with each show offering an ending -- "Seinfeld," "The X Files," "The Sopranos," "Battlestar Galactica," "Dexter," "How I Met Your Mother." Even "Breaking Bad," I think.

Last week I read an interview in Entertainment Weekly with television producer Carlton Cuse. Cuse's claim to notoriety is as one of the producers of "Lost," the gold standard of negative reactions to final episodes. Cuse thinks too many people expect a final episode to be the best episode ever, and this is unrealistic.

I think he's right. At its best, a final episode needs to tie up plot and theme in a way that is true to the series that preceded it. But TV show aren't like books. I can't recall one book that I have ever read where I thought, "I don't understand why the final chapter wasn't as good as Chapter 14 -- my book reading experience is ruined!"

The main reason for the backlash with "Lost" was that some felt it had no plan, that the writers were making it up as they went along. With "How I Met Your Mother," people complained that the ending that had been planned for years and actually shot when the show began stuck too rigidly with their original plan and didn't grow with the show.

You cannot win in TV. You are playing to an audience of drunks in a burlesque that lasts years.

I think the disparity in the reactions points to an insatiable quality to our consumption. We can no longer be sated.

We have come to a very strange point in our relationship with television.

We treat TV shows less like serialized works of entertainment and more like roommates. We feel like we have a personal stake now. In the Internet age, we obsess about them like ex-girlfriends.

Television recap blogs are all over the place featuring up to the minute analysis of the episode you just saw. Commenters get in little mini-wars over opinions of episodes. Viewers begin to talk about the behavior of characters as if they were peeping on neighbors or listening to family gossip, rather than watching fiction unfold. They freak out about spoilers.

And then they rewatch. Endless blogs are devoted to endless rewatches, obsessing over the same points they obsessed about the first time around.

People make a million animated GIFs of their favorite moments in their favorite TV shows. Television fan fiction is becoming the No. 1 way people flex their writing muscles.

Streaming video, and even still DVDs, create a television-on-demand atmosphere so we can watch each episode again and again, in binge sessions, obsessing further.

How could any final episode possibly live up to this kind of build-up?

We now hold TV shows to the same standards as other people and like too many people, they disappoint us in the end.

So what are we to do about the final episode of "Mad Men"?

Nothing. It's as inevitable as the polar ice caps melting at this point.

Just sit back and wait for the rewatch.

John Seven, a writer, lives in North Adams. He can be reached at mister.j.seven@gmail.com or at johnseven.net.


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