Ending On A Bye

It’s a year of endings in television. Shows that have defined television over the last decade like Justified and Mad Men are finishing fast and in the ones that continue people synonymous with that show are leaving, be it David Letterman, Jon Stewart or The SimpsonsHarry Shearer. We’re told to mourn yet there is no loss to speak of. Mad Men and Justified both judged the timing of their exits perfectly and those that are leaving do so because their creativity can’t keep up with the demand for more from the institutions they helped create. I’m not saying there isn’t cause for alarm. We can be reasonably confident that Steven Colbert will be as game-changing as Letterman was, but the untested Trevor Noah and whatever lamb to the slaughter (or, more accurately, shearer) will go on to voice characters like Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders may simply not reach the heights of their predecessors. It’s also unclear what new shows will step into the shadows, especially after a spate of cancellations which cut the cord on a few very interesting prospects, such as Battle Creek. But instead we should be grateful for the small mercy of timeliness in TV.

The Don of Man!

The Don of Man!

Justified never put a foot wrong in any department in its six years on the air, so it’s hardly surprising that the show was able to produce a sublime finale. What was surprising was that its final scene equalled the quality of the very first one, which has to be among the finest in television. I know many of those who love the series don’t have access to it, so I’ll spare them revealing descriptions and simply say that not a word is wasted (as if Elmore Leonard was script-editing from heaven) and yet all is said, in a way that changes everything we thought true while reminding us that nothing ever changes. I was somewhat less flabbergasted that Mad Men ended on a moment of ambiguity, given that Matthew Weiner was in charge of The Sopranos when it stopped believing in endings. Unlike the latter’s finale, however, whatever conclusion you took from the final scene was a rewarding one, either a statement of futility about the ability of counterculture to escape commercialisation or a reaffirmation of the curse of business sense in the mind of a true creative. Both had reached a crucial impasse of their own grand design.

Mad Men and Justified were on the verge of treading water creatively when they ended and the former was even in a danger of trying the audience’s patience with a final season split over two years, something that had worked marvellously for a carefully plotted drama like Breaking Bad but made the languorous style of Mad Men seem protracted. As he reported to viewers in on-air his retirement announcement, Letterman is leaving for fear that his mind is on other things and it’s the contractual handcuffs on doing other things that forced Harry Shearer to move on from The Simpsons after 26 years. We should be happy that these great artists have the sense and humility to not want to waste our time. The Daily Show has already been eclipsed by the provocative irony of The Colbert Report and lately the distillation of news satire into a fine art by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, which ranks among the very best work (factual or otherwise) that has ever been aired on HBO. As both men are Daily Show alumni, Jon Stewart ensured his own slide into irrelevance in the genre he essentially created. That sounds like time to go.

Catch you on the other side!

Catch you on the other side!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t actively miss these traditions (I know I will) but I’m comforted by the knowledge that quality television has been on a roll for decades now and that whatever jewel in the crown you think you can’t live without is always soon to be matched (or trumped) by what comes next. With the cult of personality in full ceremony, it’s easy to forget that the jobs that are being vacated can be done by other people. Letterman is not the first talk show host, nor is Harry Shearer the only person that can do funny voices. The itchy plug-pulling fingers of network executives might mean that less and less people in TV are going to jump before they’re inevitably pushed, but calling it a day is still something to admire, especially when you have carte blanche to go on for as long as you choose to.

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