I’m always a little obsessed with the way television has changed during my viewing lifetime (sometimes for the worse, but more often for the better, especially in drama), and one thing I was thinking about lately was the way hour-long episodic dramas typically end. When I started watching television, most hour-long dramas ended on a joke, or some kind of light moment that took the pressure off. Many dramas would actually have a tag before the final credits, the way sitcoms did, where the characters would gather together, tie up whatever plot points had been left unresolved, and then make some kind of lighthearted comment. Even dramas that didn’t have tags would sometimes end light; remember all those Star Trek episodes that ended with Kirk making some wisecrack at Spock’s expense.
Today, most episodic television still follows the old rule that the last minute or so of an episode is a moment when you pull back and relieve some of the pressure. It’s a formula as old as storytelling itself; fairy tales don’t end with the climax, they end by telling you what happened to everybody and how they all lived happily ever after. If the episode wants to leave the audience with a sense of resolution (as opposed to building suspense for the next episode), there usually needs to be a sense that things are winding down a little. But the way today’s shows wind down is different. It strikes me that a lot of the procedural dramas today try to end with a quiet, even pensive moment, where characters either reflect on what’s happened in the episode or on their own lives, or both. Typical tropes involve having the characters share a few cautiously-supportive words, or looking sad while they ponder whether this has all been worth it (often to the accompaniment of a pop song), or reading something, or sitting alone playing music. A recent CSI ended with a character reading something the murder victim wrote while the victim’s voice was heard narrating it for us; another episode ended with Laurence Fishburne getting his own crappy office, near the morgue, and ruefully saying to himself: “I think I’ll be right at home here.” It was sort of a joke, but it wasn’t meant to leave you laughing; it was a pensive little moment that was, like many endings today, intended to humanize the character a little bit. (Sometimes a show will combine these tropes with a bit of suspense; the most recent House ended with House alone in his office, playing music, and getting a cautiously encouraging word from a colleague; except the colleague was dead and he was hallucinating again, so there’s the suspense for the next episode.)
Compare that to the way shows used to end; here is a fairly typical tag featuring 1) a summary of what’s happened in the episode, 2) a goofy joke at the expense of one of the characters, 3) everybody laughing at the end 4) the “home” set.
I sometimes have a feeling that the quiet, pensive modern endings are a reaction against the way hour-long dramas used to end. The light-joke ending is perhaps the most-mocked aspect of old-school TV dramas, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be: in most shows, it really is the hackiest kind of ending you can imagine. Countless comedies have made fun of the moment where someone cracks a bad joke, everybody laughs, and we freeze-frame. So now all of that is gone, including freeze-frames.
Another thing that’s changed is that dramas, unlike comedies, rarely have stand-alone tags these days. The tag is kind of a throwaway scene, so it was inevitably written as a scene where nobody does much and where standing sets are used if at all possible. Today’s dramas want to keep the momentum going until the very end, even as they need to de-pressurize a little, so they need to have something more in terms of lighting, sets and production values for the final scene. (Apart, of course, from the improvement in lighting, set design and production values in hour-long television in general.) And today’s procedural dramas have a lot more continuing storylines and emphasis on the continuing characters than their old-school counterparts, meaning that CSI and House need to end by focusing our attention on the characters, whereas older murder and medicine shows really didn’t.