The Curse of the HBO Final Season
An Evaluation of HBO Series Endings
by Matthieu McClintock
HBO has been home to some of the best television series in the past 20 years namely the flagship TV Series The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Newsroom, Band of Brothers, Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, True Detective, and the more recent Game of Thrones, Veep, Silicon Valley, and many more. As you can see from browsing HBO, most of their series don’t make it past season one or two and are quickly tucked back into the on-demand section of your cable provider. As an avid HBO fan and original Sopranos die-hard, I’ve given almost every series on HBO a chance and have noticed a consistent pattern over the years: HBO consistently bungles up the wrapping up of even their most successful series.
In my opinion, this began with The Sopranos controversial series ending. After almost a decade of rich character development and award winning seasons the show took a turn for the worse in its final seasons which seemed discombobulated and repetitive. The series shied away from character, season, and series arcs and couldn’t get away from a tried and never-ending rivalry with a much more powerful New York crime family. It began to feel like the writers weren’t on the same page as one episode would bring the two families to the brink of war and the next episode would backtrack and find the oddest ways of finding peace. Characters were developed and quickly disappeared much like subplots and when it came time for HBO to wrap the show up, they set an odd precedent they’ve carried onto this day. The shortened final season.
Although it began with The Sopranos, it seems like HBO decides a show is over and instead of giving show runners the time needed to wrap up years of setup and arcs in the series, they’re given 6–8 episodes to wrap up what is usually 5–10 seasons (roughly 120 episodes) of content. This was why fans were shocked at how poorly written and boring the final episode of The Sopranos was; so many years of setup and no payoff at all, just rumors, speculation and 10 seconds of a black screen as if to remind the viewer, “This was all for nothing. Next!”
Boardwalk Empire suffered a similar fate as the show got off to a great start before HBO executives seemed to decide early on to pull the plug on the show when it was decided to kill the series main character Jimmy Darmody, played by Michael Pitt, in the second season finale. The show tried to find grounding in a post-Darmody world but failed epically causing HBO to pull the plug. Instead of just ending the show at Season 3 they went ahead with a shortened Season 4 which was, apart from the opening and closing episodes which had nothing to do with the premise of the show and everything to do with the Castellammarese War, the most boring television ever to boast the HBO logo.
The Newsroom, arguably one of the best HBO series in recent years, suffered the same fate with strong seasons and no indication of cancellation only to be cancelled and given a shortened final season. Written by screenwriting juggernaut Aaron Sorkin and shedding an insightful light on the news media of the 21st century, this show was, aside from HBO’s ‘The Wire’, one of the more intellectual series ever to air on the medium of television. This may have been its undoing but HBO’s inability to give the show adequate time to conclude all it had set up led to an extremely rushed pacing in the final episodes which were only watchable due to the talented and laser precise writing of Mr. Sorkin.
I could go on and on but the impetus for this article is the past few episodes and news surrounding HBO’s current flagship TV Series ‘Game of Thrones’. Since departing from the original source material by George R.R. Martin I imagined the series could have easily stayed on air for 3–4 more seasons but the series was cancelled, likely due to its extremely high costs and the epic failure of the latest HBO series ‘Vinyl’. Even Game of Thrones, which has been a major money maker for the network, is susceptible to the curse of HBO and was given a shortened final season to wrap up so many plot lines and arcs that you can already feel the change in pace in the current season. In the span of two episodes, half a dozen characters have re-appeared after long hiatus’ or deaths and the show has gone from a speed of around 50mph to an uncomfortably paced 150mph.
HBO needs to begin to think in terms of legacy. Viewers tend to remember TV series based on how they end, not how they began. Case in point, FX Series ‘Sons of Anarchy’ was all the rage on cable TV until its extremely criticized final season essentially wiped five years of brilliant television from the viewers minds, leaving them with the memory of a ridiculous final season. The same can be said of some of the great HBO Series with only one exception, HBO’s ‘The Wire’ which seems to be the only series HBO allowed the proper time to wrap up, never forcing them into a shortened final season. Even HBO’s ‘Entourage’ was forced into a shortened final season although it had, in my opinion, already overstayed its welcome on the network.
So to all HBO Executives, be conscious of this problem because your slate is getting weaker and weaker and with the massive failure of ‘Vinyl’, the major gamble on the upcoming ‘Westworld’, and the soon to end ‘Game of Thrones’, there is a massive vacancy in new HBO series’ that will draw millions of viewers and draw more subscriptions to the network via cable or HBO GO/HBO NOW. Stop with the shortened final seasons and give your series’ room to breath when wrapping up. Traditionally speaking, HBO does best when it caters to drastically different customer segments which leads me to recommend the following.
HBO needs to replace Boardwalk Empire with another mob series, much like Boardwalk Empire replaced The Sopranos. I recommend a spinoff, which was in development at one point, involving characters from Boardwalk like Lucky Luciano and the newly formed commission in post-prohibition America.
HBO’s strongest genre now is comedy with shows like Veep, Silicon Valley, The Brink, and even Ballers. That being said, Veep and Silicon Valley are likely on their way out the door and HBO tends to go through dozens of comedy pilots before finding something that sticks. I’d start this process now so a few low budget comedy series are ready to go when Veep and Silicon Valley make their exit. Perhaps it’s time to tap Entourage’s Doug Ellin to finally bring his Hedge Fund Manager comedy series, in development hell for almost a decade, to fruition. Side note: Ellin should be show runner but cherry pick staff writers from Veep to give the show the intellectual comedy Entourage lacked.
HBO needs to replace Game of Thrones with a series that caters to the same audience. I’d go with Science Fiction and recommend HBO produce their first big budget science fiction series in space. My elevator pitch would be Game of Thrones meets Star Wars.
HBO’s ‘True Detective’ was a revelation and led to a much anticipated yet extremely disappointing second season. This needs to be remedied and I don’t think the miniseries HBO has been promoting “The Night Of” will do the trick. I’d recommend a series where True Detective meets The Wire.
HBO has always had some extremely weird, also known as “original”, series which began with ‘John from Cincinnati’ and it looks like ‘WestWorld’ may be the new weird series of HBO but in the event it fails, as it likely will, be prepared to replace it. None of the weird shows have been too successful so maybe it’s time for a war series in the vein of ‘Band of Brothers’ just set in an alternate reality. Perhaps you should return to your roots and green light David Chase’s series concept of two visionaries in the early 20th century who go on to found one of the original major film studios in Hollywood. I’d watch that.
And of course… whatever you do, please let the show runners see their vision to the very end… The six episode series finales are clearly not working, no matter how much money it may save the network.