It happened again, last night. Jessica and I sat in our living room with bewildered looks upon our faces, as we watched the series finale of one of our favorite shows. We had just witnessed the emotional ending that left us sad, dismayed, and somewhat angry. We had been following How I Met Your Mother since we got married, six years ago, and because of that long-term commitment, we had a reaction that was the strongest since we were forced to witness this:
Fortunately, I wasn’t left with the same feelings, as when Dexter ended in a way that left me questioning the basic competence of its writers and yelling at the television about the complete disaster of an ending with which we were left. I mean, does it really make sense to justify the complete devastation of the lives of the central characters, all while leaving no resolution to the major themes and questions from throughout series, by stating that there had to be some sort of negative consequence for Dexter’s actions? Isn’t it a little late to take the “moral high ground” in your finale when your show is about a serial killer? Alas…I digress…and we need to return to last night.
There we were, trying to make some sense of an ending that seemed too tragic for a television show of that nature. We were restless and uncomfortable and angry and dissatisfied, but then I slept on it and I realized that maybe that was not only an okay place to be, but also a very beneficial place to end up. After all, it turns out that the creators of the show actually wrote and shot some of the ending nine years ago, just after they shot the pilot episode. This, I think, is perhaps an excellent example of Stephen Covey’s principle of “beginning with the end in mind.”
It must have been some sort of modern feat for those creators to sell the idea of a serialized sitcom/drama to a network and finish their pitch by stating that they already had the ending written. Think about it. Most television shows are designed and promoted to continue for as long as possible because a long-running show with a loyal audience is akin to the goose that laid the golden egg. No one wants to kill that goose while it is producing. It was after realizing this that I found my avenue to make peace with all of my television shows. I am simply going to have to view them as a came to view comics.
You see, comic books contain characters that I love…and yet I have learned not to get too attached because DC and Marvel own the rights to their characters, not the men who created them. In fact, the stories of my favorite characters have been handled by many authors and artists through the years. Occasionally, one gets lucky and his or her favorite characters fall under the care of an amazing writer like Frank Miller and you get absolute gold. (For you non-comic folks, anything that you’ve seen on the screen with Batman since Batman Begins has Miller’s fingerprints all over it.) Other times…well us comic geeks don’t like to talk about those other times.
Those other times are driven by an axiom which was clearly explained to me by D.W. Howard during my formative teenage years. “Comics are sold to make money.” While that may have been hard to hear, it is absolutely the truth. Comic book characters are serialized characters that make money through the regular release of episodic content. Simply put, there are going to be several Spider-Man and Batman comics produced every month whether there is enough creative story to support them or not. In fact, if not enough books are selling, then they will pull some publicity stunt like a cross-over with another character or killing the main character altogether. (Both Captain America and Superman have died since I left high school and both of them seem to be doing fine to me.) The bottom line is that comic characters are used to produce profit, regardless of how it may affect their overall story.
This brings us full-circle to television shows. These shows are being produced to make money for the networks, and a network can tout how funny or dramatic or artistic its shows are, but at the end of the day, there is someone at that same network who is checking a balance sheet. That guy is ultimately who determines the direction and viability of a show. Actually, there seems to be a guy like that everywhere, from television to movie studios, pulling the strings.
There are, however, instances where the direction of serialized characters isn’t determined by maintaining the long-term profitability of a property. In those instances, characters are respected and artistic integrity is maintained, but even then there are times when fans aren’t totally on-board with the story or the outcomes. This happened in comics with a guy named Dave Sim, who wrote a six thousand page work in serialization called Cerebus.
Cerebus is about an aardvark named Cerebus and moves from a Conan-styled parody into a work examining politics, religion, feminism, and metaphysics. The story ran for three hundred issues and ends with the death of the title character. As you may imagine with that description, fans had a hard time getting a grasp on the entirety of that work.
I know that many of you are asking yourself why I would reference such an obscure work by an author who is virtually unknown outside of comics to make my point. Why? Because Dave Sim and Cerebus are the polar opposite end of the spectrum from mainstream, publisher-owned material…and yet they sometimes have the exact same result.
Whether I like it or not, I don’t own Batman or Superman or Captain America or Cerebus or the characters in Dexter or How I Met Your Mother or Lost. There is always going to be someone else who controls the destiny of these characters and I am just along for the ride…no matter how much time I have invested in their stories.
In the end, it is kind of like the famous professional wrestler Ric Flair has repeatedly stated: “Whether you like it or whether you don’t like it, you had better learn to love it!” As corny as that sounds, therein lies the secret to making peace with the sometimes unfavorable ends of our favorite fictional characters. We don’t control their outcomes, but at least we get to journey with them for a while.