Emmys: How 'Entourage,' 'Smallville' Writers Tackled Their Series Finales
Panic attacks, "The Sopranos" and 9/11 all played roles in wrapping up these and other shows.
The task of writing a series finale is not only the most grueling a television writer can face, it's also the trickiest. How do you gracefully end the lives of these fictional souls while staying true to your original vision for the series? The writers featured here no doubt asked themselves that question (and experienced the occasional panic attack along the way). Here the seasoned scribes behind HBO's Big Love and Entourage, DirecTV/NBC's Friday Night Lights, FX's Rescue Me and the CW's Smallville offer rare glimpses inside the long process of bringing closure to the characters and stories that have captivated millions during the past decade. Their insights and experiences speak to the tireless toil of the TV writer who is charged with the impossible: to please the network, the audience and -- hardest of all -- themselves.
Mark V. Olsen and Will Sheffer
Big Love (HBO)
Olsen: When we knew this was going to be the last season, we went back and dissected almost any finale any of us in the room had ever seen. We really examined that Sopranos finale. I really respect it intellectually; I do. I get what David Chase was trying to do. But it didn't work for me emotionally. And my investment in that family over all those many years was not an intellectual investment; it was an emotional investment. And therein was the distinction that we wanted to try to land. Deciding to kill Bill Paxton's character in the series finale did feel, in a way, inevitable.
Over the life of the series, there have been a handful of major story points that just spring up from the gut. You can labor for hours, for days, for weeks over a story, an issue, a character in the writers room and really slug it out in the trenches. And then every once in a while you have these lone stars, these touchstones, that just spring from the gut. Once we knew we were really going to wrap it up this year, that's what this choice did. We had two things that just came out, before we knew what the episode was, before we even knew what the season was: Bill gets shot, and the family goes on. Once we landed on that choice, before we really examined it too much, we went in to pitch to HBO. At that point, we were going to have Alby (Matt Ross) be the one who did it, but HBO said that was too predictable. And we also had issues with it too. Ultimately we didn't want that action to stand for the triumph of evil, the triumph of darkness. So we really wanted to move that piece off the table. The decision was made around the same time as all those nutty town hall meetings last summer where these Tea Party goons were coming out and screaming and showing up with guns. So the idea then was: What if it's random violence? But it was finding the right person for the right reason that was already in our tapestry.
Sheffer: We felt that it was true to Bill's character that he would be martyred in this way. There was some criticism that he was killed by an inconsequential character, but nothing could be further from the truth, especially in terms of how we mapped out the season and saw Carl (Carlos Jacott) as being inevitably bound up with this family for the last five years. As for the criticism: Isn't that the way it always is with creating art? I think what's really remarkable is to read feedback from people who seem to be really missing the entire point. They think they know what you're trying to do, and you're failing, whereas they actually have missed the entire boat.
We were really happy with our fifth season. When we first saw the director's cut of the finale, we were really deeply moved. And that's what we wanted to achieve in that finale. We wanted to have people extremely emotionally caught up and feeling like there was no manipulation and they really could have an emotional cry and that it had been well earned. I think that's hard to do in a finale. And we felt that we achieved that. And when we saw people criticizing that Bill was shot, that was very odd for us. It had been an inevitability for a long time. Bill had made his decision about his church accepting women before he was shot. And we dramatized that. And to see him leave in that last moment and to see the women stay together, and for Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to take on a leadership role in this very patriarchal world, we felt like we wrapped everything up. Some finales feel completely nondramatized, and we felt we had accomplished a dramatization with the finale, and that's what we wanted to do.
It was very stressful trying to wrap up eight years. I'm not like the Lost guys; I didn't have a large plan to wrap up the series. I was trying to figure it out as we went along. You put a lot of self-imposed pressure on yourself because you want to satisfy the audience as well as yourself. There were times when I did not think that there was an ending, that there was no way that I could come up with anything that would work; there were too many characters to wrap up stories.
The last scene really encapsulates what this show is about, which is friendship. There will be some things left open, and the ending won't be so neat. At the end of the day, it's a happy, wish-fulfillment show. Hopefully it gives people that feeling that they wish they were friends with these guys and wish their friends acted like these guys. We were doing a table read the day I finished writing the finale, and all the actors were there, and I gave it to them all right there on a first draft. I had 14 actors reading it the first day before I had even really decided I was done. It was an emotional moment for everybody. The actors were definitely depressed; some of the female actors were crying.
Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders
Smallville (The CW)
Peterson: The finale was a big debate because seeing him fly midseason would have created new storylines before actually seeing the suit and his actual transformation into Superman for the finale. We talked about it with the executives, looked online at what the fans wanted, and Tom Welling (Clark Kent) had a big say in that. It just felt like you wanted one big transformation. The moment for me that I'd always wanted wasn't the takeoff; we all knew that would be impressive. It was the moment where he finds himself suspended in air that we have in the barn. That, coupled with this quick flash of all of his trials -- we wanted something that would encapsulate all the seasons and really bring everything that he had done together in one nice moment.
Because we needed to pitch it early and get everybody on board, we started well before Christmas; we started in the fall. Once we got the stories broken for the first part of the season's 10 episodes, we started on the finale. Kelly and I split up the script, and I happened to get the very last few minutes. I was writing, "Fade out" -- that was a pretty major moment. I was sitting in the same place that I wrote my first script. It was an amazing personal and professional moment that all culminated with that one period. Then, when I was leaving the building for the last time, I said goodbye to the security guard and thought, "Wow, we're done." TV shows, especially one that's gone on for 10 years, are very much a family. You spend more time with these people than you do with your own family. Then all of a sudden, they're gone.