Now that May Sweeps are over, television is officially a wasteland of reruns, unsold pilots, unending NHL and NBA playoffs, and the like. This year's glut of nostalgic "reunion" shows was endearing at first, but by the time ABC decided to air a That's Incredible! reunion, whatever bloom the nostalgia rose had had was completely gone.
Anyhow, here are some thoughts on the season finales of shows I watch. (My thoughts on the series finale of The X-Files will appear in a separate article.)
:: ER. This season ended rather strangely, I thought. The whole "death of Dr. Greene" storyline really wasn't handled very well, in my estimation. The episode where the ER staff learns, via faxed letter, of Mark's passing was superb, and that really should have been the season finale. Dr. Greene's actual death episode felt limp to me; we had to endure forty-five minutes of tortured attempts to connect with the rebellious teenage daughter. The acting was fine, but this really wasn't anything we haven't seen in any number of other television dramas. The last portion of the episode, where Mark finally dies, was very well done indeed -- although I must admit that when I saw every cast member in attendance at Mark's funeral, I couldn't help thinking: "Who is running the ER right now? What if there's one of those multi-car pileups that floods the ER with patients at least once a season right now?" And then, the actual season finale -- in which the spectre of smallpox was raised -- felt perfunctory (although it was nice to see the show finally start to fulfill the chemistry that exists between Noah Wyle and Maura Tierney). The last few episodes of the season tried to emphasize that with only Wyle remaining from the show's first season -- Sherry Stringfield doesn't count, having departed for four years in the middle of the show's run -- a page has been turned and a new chapter begun. Unfortunately, the episode that best captured that feeling was the one that aired two weeks before the season actually ended.
:: Friends. The writing certainly isn't as sharp as it once was, being too willing to descend these days into farce. The character's carefree lifestyles are getting more unbelievable as time passes. It's probably a good thing that the coming season -- the show's ninth -- is set to be its last. But I still enjoy the show. It still delivers more laughs on a consistent basis than any other (The Simpsons has become very inconsistent lately, and FOX doesn't air Futurama enough to qualify), and the writers do still know how to deliver a nifty twist on a story -- if only NBC would ever stop with its incessant "You won't believe the last five minutes!!!"-style promos. (NOTE TO NBC: A great part of the pleasure of a surprise ending is that there is a surprise ending at all, not just the surprise event of the ending!!!) In the case of Friends, Ross is heading to Rachel's hospital room to propose marriage -- except that Rachel thinks that Joey has just proposed (and Joey, in true Joey fashion, has absolutely no idea what's going on). I'm looking forward to next season.
:: That 70s Show. This season ended in similar fashion to Friends: Eric is planning to tell Donna that he loves her, but before he can the possibility is raised that Donna may end up with Kelso. This show is still hilarious -- the addition of Tommy Chong to the cast as perpetually-stoned Leo was brilliant -- and the writing still sharp, although the show's 1970s focus has faded somewhat recently.
:: Ed. Yet another series that ended its season with an unresolved love triangle: Ed is in love with Carol Vessey, who is at this moment going to spend a summer with boyfriend Dennis Martino. Much of the season finale dealt with Ed's inability to tell Carol how he feels, though just before she leaves for her trip he surprises her with a passionate kiss. The tone of Ed, on the whole, tends toward the bittersweet, so I suspect that the show will acknowledge that when "love triangles" appear in real life, one of the three people involved usually ends up hurt. The show has been fairly unflinching on this point, refusing to make Dennis Martino a mere foil or plot-device designed to delay the moment when Ed and Carol will come together -- Dennis is a well-rounded character in his own right, and the show does not ignore his feelings whilst exploring Ed's and Carol's.
:: The West Wing. In the episodes leading up to the season finale, a known terrorist -- meant, probably, to be the Yasser Arafat in the show's world -- is coming to the United States to visit with the President, and President Bartlett must decide whether or not to have the man assassinated on his way home after a foiled plot to attack the Golden Gate Bridge is traced to this particular person. As a storyline, this was less involving by far than last year's plotline involving the President's disclosure of his multiple sclerosis, although its resolution was nicely done -- the assassination is carried out while the President attends a play about England's Wars of the Roses, a period where violence was more often than not the vehicle by which power was transfered from one King to another. Less well-done, though, was the storyline about CJ Cregg's stalker and the romance between her and the Secret Service agent assigned to protect her. The resolution to the stalker storyline is handled off-camera -- CJ's agent gets a call on his cell phone that the stalker has been arrested -- and then the Agent walks into an armed robbery in a New York City store, foils one of the robbers, fails to notice the other, and is shot and killed. The manner of the agent's death was surprising, even if the fact of it was not -- Mark Harmon was not announced as joining the show's cast for next season, so clearly something had to happen to him -- but we are left wondering what the whole reason for the storyline was in the first place. Is Aaron Sorkin merely illustrating the idea that "There but for the Grace of God go we"? Or will this serve as some kind of turning-point for CJ? As it is, the whole stalker story seems pointless. Two additional comments: Lily Tomlin's addition to the cast, as the replacement for Mrs. Landingham (the President's beloved secretary, who was killed last year in a car crash), is very welcome -- although her introduction, in this year's finale, felt odd -- why would a major new character be introduced in the last episode of the year? Nevertheless, I've always like Lily Tomlin and look forward to seeing her next year. Not so Mary Louise Parker, though. She's a lovely woman, but something about her voice has always bothered me -- no matter what I've seen her in, she seems to always deliver her lines in a flat monotone, and she doesn't enunciate very well. I'd rather see Jennifer Jason Leigh in this role.
:: CSI. It was a standard episode for the show, an effective mystery solved through science and deduction. There is the revelation that Grissom is losing his hearing, which ended the show on something of a down note, but this is still one of the most entertaining hours on television. (I'm looking forward to the spinoff next year, if only for a weekly dose of Emily Procter, whose West Wing appearances were too few.)