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.
Souders: I was definitely having panic attacks. We had already had a script written when we found out that Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) was able to come back. We were really far into prep and had to go back and rebreak some of the story because the whole thing needed to be rewritten. I remember one night Brian was at the computer and I was laying on the couch because I was having heart palpitations, and I couldn't get it to stop. It was a culmination of exhaustion and excitement and emotion. Also, we were toying with seeing flight in the 200th episode; it was in a script at one point, and we ended up pulling it because it felt like that's what the whole series is about. There was a lot discussion about it in the writers room. Brian and I finally decided to pull it and save it for the finale.
Overall, the number one concern was paying tribute to the show and tying off a decade of fan loyalty. That was without a doubt the most important thing to us. Lining up with the DC mythology and being in tune with them was very important. There were so many emotional moments for me. The scene where Clark and Lois (Erica Durance) walk through the door at their wedding gets more emotional each time I watch it. When he takes her hand at the end of the aisle -- my God, I choke up every time.
The quintessential Smallville moment was in the barn at the end of Part 1, when Clark is going off to fight Darkseid (John Glover) and he's with both of his parents, Jonathan (John Schneider) in a more ghostly form, and his mom (Annette O'Toole), and they're in the window. The loft in that barn is so iconic to the early years of Superman and what we remember Smallville as. Seeing them say goodbye and send him into Superman-dom -- that was the biggest moment.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)
I felt the show should have a real legitimate ending, not a mysterious ending or a big question mark. And this ending meant a bunch of beginnings for the characters -- a hint of where they were going and what their futures might be. The other thing that we really wanted to do, which became front and center in our early discussions with the writers, was to do something great for Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and Tami (Connie Britton). Their relationship became without a doubt the nucleus of the show. We'd already done a bunch of plot twists over the years -- Tami getting pregnant later in life, Coach getting offered a college football job -- but we wanted something that would be a real dilemma. I felt like what Connie and Kyle had brought to those roles and particularly to that relationship was so incredibly powerful, we sort of owed the actors. The story that emerged was Tami gets offered a job at a college in Philadelphia. That idea seemed very fresh to me. We loved that couple so much -- it had been called by many critics the best marriage on TV -- there was still something very traditional to their relationship.
We started to set up four or five episodes before the finale, so when we got to it, we felt like we had invested enough in that dilemma to have it land with the audience. We knew these were going to be our last 13 episodes, so we were able to write toward a definitive ending. When you're writing a show that consistently lived on the bubble the way Friday Night Lights did, you're always kind of writing finales that can work as both a season and a series finale. And it was really nice to be able to finally write toward a real ending this time.
Obviously, this year is our last opportunity to be recognized by the Emmys. If the show were to be recognized, it would be very meaningful. In a way, it would be the perfect ending for us, much like an episode of FNL, where so many games were won in the last second.
Rescue Me (FX)
Only three people total ever wrote the show: Denis Leary, me and Evan Reilly. That's a lot of TV for three people. I felt in the sixth season we weren't moving forward quite enough. At that point I felt, "I think it's about time to go." From a writer's perspective, the "inciting incident" of the entire series is 9/11. It became this looming, unchanged character in the life of the series. Because we knew that the show would be ending right around the 10th anniversary, that anniversary weighs heavily in the last season, so we knew what we were writing toward.
When the show started, it was fairly soon after the event, and so many people were still affected directly by it. It's an artistic endeavor, but it's also a large piece of commerce. So we had to be respectful, and we didn't want to make it a show about that. The thing that ultimately saved it was that we always knew the show would be funny. We tried to embody the idea that, even in the face of a tragedy like that, people persevere and life goes on. And it usually goes on through humor; people have no choice but to continually move forward. The interesting thing about the show is that there is one character who doesn't move on, and that's Tommy (Leary). He's not moving backwards, but he's not moving. He's stuck in that time; he's stuck in his own self-hatred and his own issues with the church and his family and alcohol. The question was always: Will a man who survives a huge tragedy ultimately survive it or not? Well, that was always what the idea of the show was. There are very specific things in the finale that harken back to 9/11 -- the firefighters who were lost -- but I think more than anything, there's a very positive message. A mass audience wants to keep it light; they just want to be entertained. You work all day, and you don't want to come home and see somebody f--ing drinking themselves to death. But a small audience like ours is great. They are fervent in their passion. And if you have viewers who stick with you for seven years, you want to reward them. You want to answer that question: Will Tommy survive in a positive way? You want to send a positive message about people being able to move on and mourn and continue with their lives. And that happens, I think. Thank God.