Flawed finales don’t have to spoil TV series

Chris Barton
Los Angeles Times

Approaching the end of “The Night Of” felt akin to watching Olympic gymnastics. There were lots of twists and risky maneuvers, but could they stick the landing?

(If you haven’t watched the conclusion of the HBO drama — or “Stranger Things” on Netflix — proceed with caution. Spoilers ahead.)

Given the grim tonal palette of “The Night Of” and co-creator Richard Price’s track record as a novelist and contributor to HBO’s “The Wire,” there was some potential for an “everyone loses but the system” ending for accused murderer Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed). A wrongful conviction, a repressed-memory admission of guilt or some other tragedy of the justice system all seemed in play going into Sunday night’s 90-minute-plus finale.

As it was, “The Night Of” confirmed the show’s core identity — a patiently drawn “Law & Order” episode with expert-level dialogue, more understated performances and a designer pedigree. Naz was freed after a hung jury, but remains tied to Rikers Island courtesy of prison tats and a burgeoning drug habit. John Turturro’s eccentric attorney, John Stone, saved his client and the murder victim’s cat. And the tireless Det. Box (Bill Camp) was given a rah-rah post-retirement epilogue from hard-nosed Dist. Atty. Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) to catch the real killer.

It was all tidily efficient, especially if you can forgive a baffling story line that led to Khan’s up-to-that-point smart young attorney Chandra (Amara Karan) kissing her client and eventually serving as his drug mule. The former provided a convenient means to push Turturro’s character to the center for the crucial closing argument, but the latter was never mentioned again. Coupled with Chandra’s misguided decision to put Khan on the stand, a show that thrived on the richness of details was suddenly sloppy when it came to a key character.

The question is whether the missteps were enough to alter viewers’ perception of the series, especially given the anticipation that compounded each week. That kind of delayed gratification seems quaint in the streaming era, when speculation sometimes lasts only as long as the time it takes for the next episode to load.

If you still adhere to HBO’s “It’s not TV” tagline roots, which brought us “The Wire,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” maybe the limited “Night Of” was disappointing for not better subverting the conventions of procedural TV. But even among the most acclaimed series, few have managed to finish cleanly.

For example, few shows have been as celebrated as “The Wire,” but few conversations about David Simon’s creation dwell on an uneven final season. “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” also stumbled toward the finish, though both found redemption in their final acts — one with a controversially ambiguous black screen and the other with a cathartic closing montage.

But with the anticipation that comes with solving a mystery, endings have proved problematic, especially in an instant-critique Web age. AMC’s “The Killing” never recovered after failing to solve its core mystery at the end of the first season, and “Lost” famously seemed to diminish in stature after its 2010 finale failed to deliver.

However, consider Netflix newcomer “Stranger Things.” Easily this summer’s most talked-about show, the proudly backward-looking series built a horror mystery around enough ’80s homages to fill a VHS library.

The show’s propulsive storytelling was tailor-made for binge-watching, but it, too, stumbled toward the finish. Some characters were killed and forgotten, and the story side-stepped logic for efficiency in its finale in addressing the monster and its “Upsidedown” world opened by Matthew Modine’s sinister government agency. (A secret organization that seems very bad at protecting secrets.)

But as “Stranger Things” became a phenomenon, such problematic details have mostly been forgiven. With all that forward momentum chased with the narcotic effects of nostalgia, some viewers were ready to excuse any plot holes, whether as another effective homage to the imperfections of its ’80s source material, or avenues to explore in a second season, which has yet to be officially confirmed.

But if a show offers a conclusion that is satisfying enough for where expectations are pitched, viewers and fans will forgive and forget. The first season of HBO’s “True Detective” is remembered more for the dark nonsequiturs of Matthew McConaughey and his dynamic with Woody Harrelson than its muddled finish, and the USA series “Mr. Robot” had enough convention-defying thrills to allow the show to reveal it had been partly built around an imaginary friend.

Ultimately, as TV shifts beyond its previous goal of driving ratings and looks with equal desire toward driving conversation, satisfying endings are in the eye of the beholder.

While trusting in a strong story, we have a deep capacity to forgive and forget. But if what comes in the potential next seasons for “Stranger Things” and “The Night Of” doesn’t credibly build on what’s already been seen, we will undoubtedly remember.

Chris Barton is the Los Angeles Times’ deputy pop music editor, jazz critic and pop cultural columnist.