A Bad End

A Bad End

A Bad End

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June 25 1996 3:30 AM

A Bad End

Things have changed since J.R. was shot.

Things have changed since J.R. was shot.

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You probably recall the most famous of all TV season finales, which aired March 21, 1980. The week before, J.R. Ewing, acting illegally on an inside tip, had sold his family's Asian oil leases days before the Asian wells were to be nationalized. Now the old friends he'd tricked into buying were outraged, as was his brother Bobby, while his wife, Sue Ellen, lay in bed, shaking and crying, furious at the latest duplicity--but also dead drunk and scared he'd ship her to a sanitarium. The episode ended with gunfire and J.R. on his way to the hospital.

We learned the culprit's identity the following November (Kristin, his sister-in-law, sometime co-conspirator and vengeful pregnant mistress). We learned, too, that TV could be sillier and more crass than we'd ever suspected. We began to be embarrassed about it, and out of the embarrassment was born a less glamorous, more intelligent, and bleaker style--call it psychological naturalism. It debuted in the hour-long drama Hill Street Blues, which premiered a mere two months after Dallas gave us the solution to its mystery. The genre's subject, whether the setting is a workplace or a home, is stress that never ends. Instead of piling up suspense in the final episode and then leaving us hanging, writers distribute the drama evenly throughout the season. You can trace this style through the 1980s on St. Elsewhere (sources of stress here included cancer, race, and a contest between marriage and career), into the '90s on Thirtysomething (cancer, aging, and yuppiedom vs. idealism) and up to the present with E.R. and NYPD Blue (AIDS, alcoholism, and work vs. more work). Each generation grows more anxious than the last. The cliffhanger no longer seems necessary; now the suspense comes from life itself.

As TV drama darkened, though, sitcoms stayed bright. They remained a self-contained unit of fantasy, full of neurotics, sure, but as cozy and changeless as the bar on Cheers. But this year, the sitcoms gave in, taking on the forward momentum and tantalizing irresolution of the high-minded soap opera. Being comedies, they didn't need violence or sex to do the job. Their hook was romantic love, explored in drawn-out, real-time highs and lows. If I Dream of Jeannie were on today, Maj. Nelson would let his magic slave out of the bottle and begin to date her. Then they'd fight over the awkward question of offspring and end the season heading for a trial separation.

So while there weren't many cliffhangers among this year's season finales, there were plenty of weddings, near-weddings, and agonized discussions of future commitment. On Roseanne, the Conners had a fight that might be fatal to their marriage; on Friends, Monica and her boyfriend considered splitting because she wants a baby and he doesn't; Ellen's best friend Paige kissed another man on her wedding day; The Single Guy tried living with his girlfriend and didn't like it, but decided to try again. In a highly publicized countdown to the finale, Mad About You unraveled the hitherto flawless marriage of Paul and Jamie Buchman over two episodes (they couldn't conceive a child, so they panicked and thought about adultery), and repaired it in an hour-long third.

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It was the writers on Roseanne who took the idea of serial character development most earnestly. All year long, hints were planted that the Conners' marriage was in decline. Dan had been overworked and irritable; Roseanne had begun to talk about feminism. (And if you read the paper, you knew that John Goodman's contract was up and he was talking about leaving the show.) Down the stretch, the real-life problems piled up. Their daughter Darlene got pregnant. Dan had a heart attack. On the season finale, Roseanne--somewhat out of character--insisted on reforming their diet. Dan refused, and a marriage that had weathered 20-odd years suddenly dissolved.

All this adult anguish made it a relief to turn to a sitcom that still prefers its plot lines infantile and its characters frozen in time. Seinfeld has been praised for its hyper-real portrayal of single Manhattan, but its writers don't go in for heavy confessionals. The average plot goes something like this: There's a weird foot doctor, someone can't stop whistling, and Jerry goes on a date, but it's cut short by arson. All Seinfeld has really done is revive and brilliantly update the "situation." On the final episode, George Costanza was set to be married--to bossy, competent Susan, whom he'd been trying to ditch for months, and Jerry, for the first time, fell in love. The object of his affection, played by guest star Janeane Garofalo, is named Jeannie Steinman--same initials as Jerry--and like him she reads comic books, orders Cheerios in restaurants, and deflects emotion with deadpan commentary on trivial items like short collars. "I've been waiting for me to come along," Jerry says--it's typical of the show that he sees his narcissism and feels just fine about it--"and now I've swept myself off my feet!"

He proposes, and only a few hours later, begins to suspect his mistake. Jeannie's jokes, delivered in stand-up comedian inflections, begin to grate. ("Hey, what's the deal with decaf--how do they get the caffeine out of there, and where does it go? Hey, what's the deal with brunch--I mean if it's a combination of breakfast and lunch, how come there's no lupper? Or no linner?") And when George's fiancee suddenly dies, poisoned by the cheap envelope glue on their wedding invitations--stingy George's fault, of course--Jerry begins to dread the nightmare life ahead of him, married to his twin.

No one changes; George is restored to bachelorhood as surely as if he'd rewound the tape. As always, the plot is cruel and riddled with impossible coincidences--an O. Henry story, rewritten by the devil. But for all its callousness, the show held on to its two prime virtues: a sense of a humor and the sense, too, not to confuse itself with life. The mistake made elsewhere wasn't stooping too low or, as one TV critic recently suggested, manipulating us with base emotion. It was simply trying too hard to be real. A few years ago, this might have been refreshing. Next year, the bold move will be lightening up.

Sarah Kerr writes for the New York Review of Books and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications.