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Those Other Finales: Time's Up for 24, Law & Order

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The finale of Lost belonged to that rare, much-analyzed and treacherous category of series finale: the ending of a TV phenomenon while it’s still a phenomenon. Success or disaster, only a handful of series—Seinfeld, Friends, The Fugitive, The Sopranos—get this kind of send-off, much less at a time of their own choosing.

There are other, more ignominious, and much more common kinds of series finale, and as luck has it, two of them are on display tonight, with the endings of two series that in their own ways helped to shape TV: 24 and Law & Order.

I’ve written before about what a dynamic change 24 was when it debuted in 2001, and I stand by all that. The series had a great couple seasons, and a good couple seasons, or parts of seasons after that. But it must be said that the 24 finale falls into the genre of Shows That Lived Too Long. (See The X-Files.) I have my issues with 24’s finale, which I’ve seen, and I’ll hopefully discuss them more tomorrow. (They’re hard to detail without getting into serious spoilers.) But the root problem is that it doesn’t overcome the series sense of simple exhaustion that’s pervaded it in the past few seasons. And it’s compounded by the fact that—I don’t think this is a spoiler, but avert your eyes if you’re nervous—the producers are openly holding the door open for movies.

Shows That Have Lived Too Long can sometimes end quite well, when they’re able to take their impending doom as an opportunity to change things up or to recapture what made them fresh and worthwhile back in the day. (A couple recent examples were the bows of Dawson’s Creek and The O.C., which passed their sell-by dates but I thought were able to recapture their spark.) 24, though it’s challenged itself somewhat through Jack’s revenge bent, has not done that for me this season; I’ll be curious to hear whether its fans believe the finale does.


Meanwhile, Law and Order goes out after 20 seasons as an example of a curious genre: The Show That Just Ends. Unceremoniously canceled by NBC after negotiations earlier this month (though there’s been speculation about a cable revival), Law & Order leaves the air with an episode prepared well before it knew it was departing. And yet that somehow seems fitting for the show.

Law & Order, after all, has always been a series that eschewed the story arcs and airs that today’s other ambitious TV series put on. It is—and I don’t mean this in any way as an insult—a show about one damn thing happening after another. Major characters leave and the show nods to them, dispenses with them fairly quickly and moves on. Because life goes on. Crime will go on. And that was exactly the animating spirit that kept the show on the air so long.

It may have been a shame that Law & Order was canceled so abruptly, but in a way, that makes for the most apt kind of finale it could get: one that doesn’t “close” at all, but instead, just ends.