Stay Single and Don’t Change: Life Lessons From TV Season Finales

After watching this year's slate of season finales, it's clear that there is one place you should never, ever, look for life lessons: broadcast television

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Patrick McElhenney / FOX

Jess (Zooey Deschanel, R) helps Nick (Jake Johnson, L) come to terms with an important decision in the season finale of NEW GIRL airing Tuesday, May 8 (9:00-9:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

Imagine, for a second, that you are a person looking for advice on how to get through this thing we all call “life.” There are plenty of places to turn for good advice: friends, family, an entire section of the Internet dedicated to telling you what you’ve done wrong so far and how you should do it right from now on… But, given the evidence of this year’s slate of season finales, there is one place that you should never, ever look for life lessons: broadcast television. (Be warned: spoilers for shows ahead.)

This failure of television as life coach shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. After all, I think everyone now agrees that television also makes the world’s worst babysitter as well as a disappointingly unsuccessful fitness trainer if you happen to be watching anything other than The Biggest Loser. Nonetheless, while I expected all manner of life lessons from watching the self-consciously dramatic year-end episodes of shows running the gamut from The Big Bang Theory to CSI: NY, I don’t think I expected all of them to be so, well, disappointing.

Lesson #1: Commitment, Intimacy and Change Are Terrifying Things Best Left Avoided
You know what’s great? Everything staying exactly the same as it is. If you don’t believe me, then America’s latest hit sitcoms (and Whitney) are here to back me up. In what was either a curious coincidence or example of new shows’ unwillingness to monkey with their formula this early in the game, New Girl, Whitney and Up All Night all offered up final episodes that featured lead characters considering making momentous life changes before deciding that, nah, that’s just a little bit too scary.

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At least the shows managed to differ in the ways in which the various characters (Nick in New Girl, Ava in Up All Night and Whitney and Alex in Whitney) were faced with change. Nick had to grapple with whether or not he wanted to move in with his girlfriend instead of sharing an apartment with two other people and adorable pixie Zooey Dechanel, while Ava faced a marriage proposal and Whitney and Alex… faced a marriage proposal. Okay, so maybe they weren’t so different in situation, but what about the comedy part of the sitcom equation? I bet those were completely different! Nick freaked out and read deeper meaning into random circumstance, while, sure, Whitney and Alex also freaked out and read deeper meaning into random circumstance. But, hey! At least Ava just freaked out. That’s something, right?


Wait, what about The Big Bang Theory? Didn’t that have a wedding in its season finale this year? (Mike and Molly did, too, but no one really watches that show.) Doesn’t that completely undermine your whole theory that television would prefer we live sad lonely lives rather than explore the possibility of more secure, more committed relationships when offered the chance? (Note to social conservatives: gay marriage is not the enemy of marriage in the United States, but going by the evidence, sitcoms may be). Why, yes, dear reader, it did. The Big Bang Theory had a character get married right before he blasted off into space for a long time, which brings me to the next lesson television tried to teach me:

Lesson #2: Personal Growth Comes As The Result Of Trauma
Most shows opted to throw the kitchen sink at viewers during this year’s season finales in hopes that they’d come back next year. In doing so, one theme emerged: in order for you to want to move on with your life, something horrible must have happened to make you realize that it’s okay to change. Consider Castle‘s Kate Beckett: Yes, she finally told Castle how she felt, but it required a confrontation with Castle and an entirely different type of confrontation with her would-be assassin from last year in order to facilitate it. Same with poor Olivia in Fringe: She’s pregnant, but it took a head shot that actually (temporarily) killed her in order for her to find out. (Still, at least she didn’t have a post-shot dream sequence for an hour, à la CSI: NY‘s Mac.) For that matter, look at the aforementioned Once Upon a Time, in which Emma finally accepted her destiny, but only because her son almost died.

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Looking at things from that vantage point, suddenly Big Bang Theory‘s Howard got off lightly; he’s likely to return from space at some point, after all, and who hasn’t been in a long-distance relationship, even if it’s normally across the globe instead of right above it? Still, his absence will cause strain. Perhaps he should have learned from this year’s third season finale lesson:

Lesson #3: Quit Your Job
Here’s a quick quiz for you:

  • What did Beckett do on Castle before coming clean about her feelings?
  • What did Nick do on CSI: NY, disgusted by what the department has become now that everyone is working for George Christopher from Bored to Death?
  • How did Quinn demonstrate her commitment to Barney on How I Met Your Mother? (And, really, considering the flash-forward we saw to Barney’s wedding at the end of the episode, that maybe wasn’t the greatest move, Karma.)
  • What did Brennan do on Bones after being framed for murder?

If you answered “quit their job” to all of the above, then pat yourself on the back. Sure, Brennan didn’t exactly quit as much as run away with her father for a life on the lam in what may be the most breathtakingly nonsensical move for the character in a season of increasingly nonsensical moves, but think about it: settling on a life as a fugitive pursued by “Johnny Law” is really just a fancy way of quitting your job when it really comes down to it. Even Desperate Housewives‘ series finale got in on this act, explaining that Gabrielle and Carlos would only find lasting happiness after she quit her job as head of sales and the two started a new business together.


A cynical observer might look at this trend as a coincidental shorthand to denote a dramatic, life-changing event on the part of the writing staffs of each series, but I think we can all agree that it’s as likely to be the collective television industry making an attempt to stimulate the American job market by subliminally suggesting that we all resign from our current positions to leave them open for other people. Well, almost as likely, perhaps. Either way, the message is clear: your job probably sucks, and you should definitely quit as soon as possible. If something doesn’t come up to replace it immediately, there’s always the hobo life.

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Of course, maybe television isn’t the right place to look for life lessons. Shows — especially shows on broadcast television, where syndication and reruns are never too far away from producers’ thoughts — are rooted in a sense of the familiar, and a chance to escape from the complexities and mundanity of real life. We watch these things not for education but for entertainment, and given the choice, we’d rather have Elena being turned in The Vampire Diaries than watch her turn around and realize that (a) vampires aren’t real and (b) most people are probably over the whole Twilight thing by now anyway. Isn’t it a little bit too much to ask for shows to end dramatically, satisfyingly, and with something to teach us about the way we should be acting?

Maybe not. Parks & Recreation, after all, managed that hat-trick last week by giving us the results of Leslie’s election campaign — complete with nail-biting recount — but showed two adults dealing with conflicting priorities by sitting down and discussing the situation like grown-ups, the way that any number of therapists would be happy to see. No grandstanding, no emotional outbursts, just a rational, level-headed approach to dealing with a problem. So, yeah, it might be missing the point to look to television for advice on how to deal with things that might come up in life because, let’s be honest, we’d all like to handle things with less explosions—whether emotional or literal—and most broadcast television isn’t exactly the best place to look for that. But every now and then, we get a glimpse, and maybe that’s enough.

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