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Do Pop Culture Audiences Deserve Good Endings?


*inevitable mild spoilers*

I’ve been thinking a lot about the endings to movies, TV shows and podcasts.  It all started when I was disappointed with the end of This is Us.  I felt like I was owed an explaination for a specific storyline that ran through the first season of the show.  In the end, I was left with this weird question mark.  It was like ending a song on the wrong chord.  I felt like I had been wronged.  I was ready to rage against the writers.   I wanted to make an embroidered hat that read “Make Stories End Again.” The injustice got me thinking, do audiences deserve good endings? Are cliffhangers viable options? In non-fiction especially, should the storyteller tie up all the loose ends or is “that’s how life is” an acceptable retort? Today, we will explore all of the possible answers and come up with a neat and tidy resolution in the end. 

Q: Do Audiences Deserve Good Endings? 

A: Yes

The ending of a story should feel like a solution.  Every piece of the puzzle should paint a picture that leads to an unexpected, yet completely satisfying explanation of what happened.  Last Sunday, audiences were treated to the perfect ending of Big Little Lies  on HBO.  Though the show had its faults, the pieces to the puzzle all came together in the end. Not only was the mystery solved, but it came to satisfying conclusion (so much so that audiences were asking for a second season of the show.) 

But, it’s not that simple. Big Little Lies shows that a cut and dry ending isn’t always true to the story.  The show’s executive producer, David E. Kelley said, “You want to give your audience a sense of closure, and at the same time, life doesn’t serve up closure very often. And in <the final scene>, we were endeavoring to show that the women had come together, that the story is not over.”  Kelley’s endeavor that he was endeavoring to show was that stories don’t have perfect endings.  Which leads us to our next question…

Q: Do Audiences Deserve Good Endings? 

A: No

If I am honest with myself, part of why I finish books or a TV series is to know the mystery.  I want to know the ending so that it can’t be spoiled for me.  Knowledge is power and if I know whether Jon Snow is alive or dead, then it can’t be spoiled for me.  In this case, it is not about whether it is a “good” or “bad” ending, it is just that I know the outcome.  In the case of the three podcasts Missing Richard Simmons, Serial and S-Town, there isn’t a set answer to be known.   There are theories.  There are life lessons to be learned, but there isn’t a neat little bow that ties up the whole package.   Missing Richard Simmons ends with the sounds of the beach.  The answer to the question “where did Richard go?” is up for specualtion.  There is a sortof consensus answer about his whereabouts, but no definitive answer.  

And that’s ok.

Part of what Missing Richard Simmons’ creator Dan Taberski learns through his podcast is that Simmons lead a extremely public life.  Maybe in his recent retreat out of the public eye, he has found a way to become more private.  Maybe Simmons isn’t missing or hiding, he’s just living.   That’s an ending to a story that isn’t very satisfying because it makes the public the bad guy, the villian Simmons is hiding from.  This ending isn’t as satsifying as my working theory as I listened to the podcast.  My theory was that Taberski would peel back the curtain to reveal that Simmons had gained lots of weight and was hiding out of shame.  That’s a Hollywood ending that is satisfying.  That’s a Hollywood ending that says more about me than it does about  Simmons.  I was looking, searching and listening for an ending that was scandalous.  I wanted an ending that was dramatic.  In reality, the real end to Missing Richard Simmons was the correct way to end a story about a man who lived in the spotlight.  It is correct, because it’s the truth. He ends up on a beach, doing what he wants without the scrutiny of the public who wishes the worst for him at the end of a podcast.  It’s not a good ending, but it is the ending that was meant to be told. 

Q: Do Audiences Deserve Good Endings? 

A: Maybe So

Endings can be maddening.  Rational viewers/listeners know that non-fiction stories don’t necessariy have to have perfect endings.  In S-Town, the mystery of finding the gold is never solved.  It ends with this linear description of John Brooks McLemore’s family history.  His story was a series of events that culminated in his ending.  It is what it is and to wish for a different ending isn’t being true to the story. Audiences want Adnan from Serial to have a burping confession like Robert Durst’s from The Jinx.  We want Making a Murderer to end as neatly as Breaking Bad.  That’s never going to happen and we shouldn’t expect them to. 

Endings can be maddening.  And that’s a good thing.  Stories that trail off stick with you.   If you aren’t garunteed an ending, then there is still the thrill of hope.   Do audiences deserve good endings? Yes.  Are good endings guaranteed? No, but we will keep hoping for them anyway.

The End.

Article written by Megan Suttles

I can't decide if I want to use this space to be witty or insightful. I guess it will be neither.