The Wrap did a list of ‘7 of the Worst Finales,’ and while I don’t take these lists seriously, I do think this one reflects some general consensuses in the world of TV viewers—namely, that the Seinfeld and, I guess, Girls finales sucked. Somehow this gets under my skin in a way that few general judgements of pop culture do. I keep thinking: What do you people want in a finale?
The Wrap piece vaguely concludes that the Seinfeld finale “was just weird.” Again, this feels like an accurate reflection of what I’ve heard from people while out on book tour discussing Seinfeldia. I inevitably get questions about the famously reviled finale, and I often ask for a show of hands as to who liked it and who didn’t; the vast majority hated it. However, when I ask more questions, it emerges that few people have watched the finale since it originally aired among unprecedented hype in 1998. Then they were told over and over by media coverage that they were supposed to hate it. Now they do, and few have been able to articulate to me why.
Here’s what I will stipulate about the finale’s faults: It took the main characters out of their element, plunking them down to surreal effect in a small rural town, the exact opposite of their New York City environs. This is jarring, though it seems deliberate on the part of writer Larry David. The crime the characters commit there—making fun of and videotaping a robbery at gunpoint—does seem a bit extreme, even for these narcissistic characters. That feels less artistic to me, and more like a leap. And finally, this set-up—the four on trial—does lead to a major finale problem: While it’s cool to see the parade of former guest characters testifying against our protagonists, it renders the main characters passive and almost totally mute for the majority of the sequence. On the plus side, this makes the finale Jackie Chiles’s show, which I don’t mind, because I love him. But it’s not a perfect situation for a finale.
Perhaps what really trips people up about this finale is that in the end, it indicts the four characters they have come to love. It puts them in prison and says to the audience, Ha! We have tricked you into watching terrible criminals for nine years! It can read, perhaps, like Larry David’s middle finger to America. Though if you are familiar with the bulk of his work, you realize this fits in with his general aesthetic.
I encourage people to watch this finale again, outside the inflated expectations of 1998. It was a time when no other TV show had inspired this kind of attention for a series finale. Most shows before it slinked off the air unceremoniously after dropping off in quality and viewership. That was how shows were canceled. Seinfeld ended itself consciously, at or near its heights, and thus it had to produce a finale for the ages. An unfathomable 80 million people watched the finale. It showed in Times Square. TV Land didn’t air anything in the slot besides a card indicating the staff was off watching Seinfeld. Months of speculation about what would happen had preceded the finale. These days, the Internet is freaking out every other week about some TV finale or other, but at the time there was little precedent. As I often say, if the Seinfeld finale didn’t reveal the meaning of life, it was going to be a disappointment.
On rewatch, especially if you consider it as its own individual piece of art, I think you’ll find the Seinfeld finale at worst, interesting, and at best an imperfect philosophical meditation. David often drew from Beckett in his Seinfeld episodes, especially early ones like “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Parking Garage.” The finale has a similar message—these four people cannot escape each other or their massive character flaws—with overtones of Sartre’s No Exit. Hell is other people, and that jail cell. (Quibble: I think the final shot should have been the tracking shot out of the jail cell. Jerry doing standup in prison lessened the impact of ending on Jerry and George having the same pointless discussion about shirt buttons that they had in the first lines of the first episode.) In the end, at least David did something with the finale. He made a statement, took a risk. He and Seinfeld created a show that went beyond the traditional sitcom. They couldn’t end it with a marriage or a baby or people moving away or whatever traditional sitcoms get up to in their unmemorable finales.
And really, people didn’t like the Girls finale? The Girls finale read to me as one more perfect little indie film, like all the best Girls episodes. I have some personal issues with the show holding up motherhood as the sole symbol of adult womanhood, but leaving that aside, Girls nailed it. Girls was about the difficulty of your 20s, about looking grown up and thinking you should be grown up but finding it impossible to act grown up. The finale was about how you can’t wait around forever; at some point you just have to start acting like an adult, which means taking responsibility for yourself and those around you. Even if you’re not ready, because no one’s ever ready, and we’re all just faking our way through looking like we’ve got this whole life thing.
The penultimate episode perhaps served as a more traditional, but still artful, finale for the show: At least three of the four girls making a kind of peace while uneasily acknowledging that they couldn’t maintain the same closeness forever, then having one last good time at a party together. (Shoshanna just turned out to be terrible, as far as I can tell, but she achieved a form of adulthood as well.) But I didn’t mind seeing one final glimpse in the finale of Hannah’s new adult life and Marnie’s insight, finally, we hope, that she had to do something with her life besides moping around Hannah.
Some of the other shows The Wrap mentions on its list of terrible finales, I agree with. How I Met Your Mother revealed an otherwise solid comedy to have been one giant trick on viewers, and an emotionally manipulative one at that. Lost got itself too twisted up in plot pyrotechnics in the finale season, then basically revealed it had been purgatory all along, as we had kind-of known from the first season. Roseanne, oddly enough, also revealed that the show had been one long lie (even inside its own fictional world). In short, trickery=not cool.
But honestly, I want to know: What do people want from a finale, if not what Seinfeld and Girls gave us?