Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Sopranos vs. Futurama: Why Ambiguous Endings Don't Suck So Bad, in the Long Run

Okay, I’m not a Sopranos watcher. I watched the first couple of episodes on DVD, but I never really got into it. I know, more or less, what it’s about and who the characters are, but that’s it. So I didn’t watch the series finale on Sunday night. But I still feel like I watched the last couple of minutes – actually, I did watch the last couple of minutes, thanks to the Today show’s coverage in the morning.

(And here is where I must warn you about SPOILERS, even though if you’ve been on the internet at all in the last day or so, or watched TV, or talked to anyone, you already know what happened. But anyway, beware of SPOILERS.)

The end of The Sopranos is abrupt and jarring: the family sits down to a nice dinner together, there are some sinister guys hanging around, but before anything can happen – cut to black. Leaving the viewer no idea of what happens next. Do Tony and his family get whacked? Or is it a happy ending, where they finally reach some sort of harmony as a family? Or did David Chase just flip everyone the bird? I know how loyal Sopranos viewers were feeling, watching this live: disappointed, frustrated, and cheated. It’s how I felt when one of my favorite shows, Futurama, ended with no definite resolution.

Stay with me here. I’m sure you’ve never heard anyone compare The Sopranos to Futurama before, and you want to know where I’m going with this, right? Well, Futurama’s final scene, while not as abrupt, was no less ambiguous than The Sopranos’ ending. The finale was, literally, operatic: Fry made a deal with the robot devil so he could write an opera for Leela, putting the same story that had been the heart of the series for four years, this unrequited love that Fry had for Leela, at the center of the finale. Naturally, I was expecting a resolution. What happened was this: Leela asked how it ends, and Fry plays her a picture of the two of them exchanging a chaste kiss. It's very sweet, but open-ended. It’s true that Groening, Cohen & Co. didn’t know, when they made the episode, that it would be the last (for a while, at least), so that’s one reason why they left things up in the air. But there is a way of writing a maybe-series finale that does seem final, as Gilmore Girls proved last month.

Anyway, when I first watched the Futurama finale, I hated it. A lot of that was a consequence of hating the fact that the show was ending in the first place, especially while it was so good. (Most of my favorite episodes come from that final, fantastic summer burn-off run in 2003.) But as time went on, I found myself liking it more and more, precisely because it didn't give a clear answer. I could decide for myself how it all resolved. (My own interpretation: it was Fry's way of saying he was okay with being just friends.)

You’ll find any number of commentaries online telling you how the Sopranos finale is fitting; I can’t speak to that. But, after the initial frustration, there is something nice and, paradoxically, respectful to the fans about an ambiguous ending. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure for the viewers, in which their reading of the series as a whole allows them to decide for themselves what happened, instead of being told. Does Tony die? It all depends on how you see it.

And after a while, characters don't really belong to their creators at all. They belong to all the fans who've come to love them and their quirks, who have invited them into their homes and spent years with them. There are as many different interpretations of their actions as there are fans, and an open-ended finale allows everyone to get what they want out of it. So you may be pissed off now, Sopranos fans, but I can tell you from experience, you won't always be.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but you know nothing about TV

Anonymous said...

"Why Ambiguous Endings Don't Suck So Bad, in the Long Run."
I agree.
Many of us mature from liking the standard predictable hollywood films.

cons:This Futurama Film could have been edited down a bit.