Thursday, August 25, 2005

The End of Everything

Jeez.

This week has been landmark. A year ago, it might not have seemed so big. But this summer has been, plateaued at a level I’d like to call “contented monotony.” I’ll try to detail the things that happened in this post, but the real reason I’m writing this — or most things, really — is that I don’t even know how I feel about them yet.

A television show I like ended.

I think I saw someone dying yesterday.

Somehow, this all ties together.

Discussed herein: the dark humor of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, frozen dinosaurs, Jessica Walter, simultaneous kidney failures, Alan Ball, “Everybody’s Waiting,” Claire Fisher, the sudden end of a nice car, Sanam and the three times that I said “goodbye forever,” Heath Huxtable, Aemon’s blank canvas, the end of everything

Now, I can distinctly remember reading the Entertainment Weekly fall preview during the summer before I started high school. There's an article on "Seinfeld," which was in full swing at the time. In it, Julia Louis-Dreyfus dreamed about the show's last episode — which, at the time, was two years away.
Here's how Julia Louis-Dreyfus would like to see NBC's No. 1 sitcom end: Jerry and Elaine fall deeply, madly in love. George wins the lottery. Kramer finds his calling as a minister. In other words, after years of being TV's most pathetic losers, the four New Yorkers find that things are finally working out. So they pile into a car for a celebratory ride into the sunset--and smash headfirst into a propane truck. Kaboom! Roll credits.
Julia thought up this dark ending for her TV persona, I believe, in response to the criticism the show got for the last episode of the previous season, "The Invitations." In this episode, Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer react rather blithely to the death of George's fiancĂ©e, Susan, who expires after licking tainted envelopes in preparation for her wedding. The show’s writers chose a different route to conclude “Seinfeld,” instead sending the four to jail for criminal negligence, but I think there’s something valid to what Julia proposed.

The best way for a TV show to say goodbye — to really end with a bang — would be to kill off its entire cast.

Now, this isn’t completely unheard of. Anyone who cares enough to listen has likely heard my praise for the series finale of “Dinosaurs.” Yes, that show. “Not the mama!” and all that. “Dinosaurs” was never a great show, I’ll admit, but its last episode hit with unexpected poignancy.

A summary:
The main family, the Sinclairs, go out for picnic to watch the annual migration of a certain colorful species of beetle. The bugs don’t appear. After a little exploring, the son finds the last remaining member of this beetle species, who explains that the no-show has resulted from the construction of a wax fruit factory in the beetles’ breeding grounds. Without these leaf-eating beetles, the planet’s plant population explodes, making life impossible for the Sinclairs and their brethren. So the government decides to douse the planet in herbicide. Unfortunately, all the plants die. Strapped for ideas, the dinosaurs reason that plants grow after it rains and that it rains when the volcanoes erupt. So they naturally conclude that setting each of the world’s volcanoes off at once will restore the plants.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, the volcanoes throw so much soot into the air that a nuclear winter results. The Ice Age. In effect, the death of the dinosaurs comes about at their own hands — or in this case, their rubbery Jim Henson paws.

I can remember the concluding scene. The Sinclairs are huddled around their television set watching the last-ever news broadcast by their trusted anchorman, Howard Handupme. He explains that this is the end — the end of everything — and they’ve done it to themselves. “Goodnight,” he says. “And goodbye.” And then the TV goes to static.

“Are we extinct yet?” asks the baby.

“No, not yet. I’ll tell you when we’re extinct,” replied the mother, in a voice that some might recognize as that of Jessica Walter, who’s now decidedly less maternal as the family matriarch on “Arrested Development.”

Then we see a shot of the Sinclairs suburban cave-home as the snow falls. Eventually, the snow covers the mailbox and finally the roof of the house.
And that’s how it ends. That’s how they decided to end a show that starred a catchphrase-spouting dinosaur puppet — a show that deliberately appealed to little kids, even if the underlying messages were meant for adults. Of course, by this point, ABC had shuffled the show off its TGIF line-up to god-knows-where. But I saw it. And I remember. It’s genius in that it answers the longest-lived question concerning the thunder lizards: What killed them, anyway? Faced with ending the series, the writers really had no other option. But what really strikes me about it is how decisively final it is.

That’s it. This is the end. They’re all dead. Say goodbye.

Since that episode, I’ve always thought death would be the proper send-off for any show. “The Golden Girls,” for example. Rather than spinning off into the lame CBS show “Golden Palace,” the last episode should have piled Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia into a car and sent them to a gator farm, where a tragically unlocked gate would render the four into amphibian chow. Or hell, launched the four on an ill-fated zeppelin race around the world. Or a gas leak. Or four simultaneous kidney failures. Something, some kaboom, whatever. I just never thought any show would have the balls to do it.

But God bless you, Alan Ball.

I always liked “Six Feet Under.” It’s a great show. Sad, funny, generally well-acted and courageous enough to tackle subjects that most TV shows don’t touch — especially the aspects of death we usually try not to think about, like amger and resentment and frustration and confusion and, hell, the humor of it all. Since the show revolved around a family operating a funeral parlor, it couldn’t help edging on morbid, but “Six Feet Under” always dealt with this with an understated sense of humor — and more importantly, a underlying sense of hope.

I watched this show from its first few episodes, when the characters were first forming. And I saw these people get dragged through hell. Break-ups and failed relationships. Mental illness of all kinds. The painful awkwardness that can only come from trying to be a real person in spite of one’s family. And, of course, Nate’s disastrous marriage to Lisa. And it was consistently entertaining.

But when HBO announced that this last season of the show — its fifth — they billed it with the odd tagline of “Everything ends.” Of course everything ends. Everyone dies. Even people who didn’t watch the show know this, and those who did couldn’t help be reminded of it every time they tuned in.

Another summary:
Faced with concluding his show, Alan Ball took the only route he could. He killed everybody off. Notably, the last episode, “Everybody’s Waiting,” is unique in the series in that it does not begin with a death. Instead of quickly introducing the viewer to the Fisher family’s latest client, the story begins in the hospital with Brenda giving birth to her baby — the child of the recently departed Nate, who collapsed of the aneurysm the show had been hinting at for years now. Sure, the episode ties up all the lose ends it needed to, with David and Keith resolving to make a home for their adopted sons and with Claire turning her photographic pursuits into a job that could take to New York, out of the tight grip her family has on her. But in the last ten minutes, the show does something brave and remarkable. Intercut with shots of Claire driving east on the California highway, the show flashes forward to future points in time. Weddings. A family reunion. Birthdays. And, most importantly, the death of every single character. From Keith being shot in the chest to Federico keeling over on a cruise ship to finally Claire dying at 102 years old, surrounded by the photographs of her loved ones — the characters this show made me care about for the past five years.
It’s sad, of course, but not needlessly tear-jerking like it could have been. It’s honest. It’s true to the tone of a show called “Six Feet Under.” And it’s the kind of thing that will linger with me.

To be honest, I can’t yet pin my approval of the series finale solely on its own merit. Though most TV critics have unabashed praise for the episode, there’s a chance that this sequence just happened to nail my current emotional state so squarely that I’ve fallen victim to a raging case of sympathy.

It’s an ending of a story arc I had in which I had invested quite some time and interest. It’s a story about someone moving away, leaving everything behind to embark on a new life as an adult. It’s a reminder of temporality — of friendships and situations and circumstances and life itself. And this is a theme that has never seemed more appropriate.

For example, Sanam called me yesterday to come over for one last goodbye. By my count, this would mark the third occasion I’ve given this girl the “goodbye forever” and thought I meant it.

So I hop in my car and go but stop about a block from my place. For some reason, a car is parked perpendicular to my lane. As I get closer, I see that this car has somehow t-boned some older car, knocking it onto the sidewalk. And when I say “t-boned,” I mean “t-boned the shit out of.” This older car, which looks like something its owner spent a lot of time fixing up and painting, looks like smashed tin can. There’s glass everywhere. And there’s two people lying on the ground: one face-down beneath the front part of the car, as if he had slid on his belly to nuzzle against the two front wheels, and the other two the side in the fetal position. No blood that I could see, but I only looked for a few seconds. Despite its bloodlessness, this scene looked bad.

I can’t figure out how this could have happened. This accident didn’t seem to happen near enough an intersection that it would make any sense. I don’t know how the people on the ground go to the positions I saw them. And I can’t imagine how one car ever got going crosswise into the oncoming lane. Or how it could have knocked the antique-mobile so far onto the sidewalk. But it did. And on some level, the car being this fancy little oddity makes it more tragic in my mind.

I can’t explain why.

People were already pulling over to the side of the road and talking to the victims — or, at the very least, leaning down and looking at them — and I saw a few cell phones out, so I pulled around the perpendicular car and kept driving. After all, what could I do? “Stand back, everyone. I have an English major.” As I drove by the man in the fetal position, though, he made eye contact with me. I realize in retrospect that this means I was driving forward with my head turned a full ninety degrees to the right.

I felt bad. I still do.

I turned the radio off. That seemed like the thing to do in that situation. Not to listen to music.

Had this been “Six Feet Under,” this terrible sequence would have ended with a flash to white, followed by the full name of the man on the ground and the years of his birth and death.

I got to Sanam’s and hung out much longer than I had intended. I wanted to make sure the accident would be cleared before I got home. I didn’t want to spend the emotion on seeing it again, as selfish as that sounds.

As an English major, I feel I may be prone to trying to make things fit together more thematically than they actually might. I read life like I read a book. As a pop culture junkie, I look for resonance of real life in imitations of it. I watch life like a watch TV. And I know that the movie-of-my-life or reality-as-television show concepts are just so fucking cliche, but I feel like when I watched that final episode of “Six Feet Under,” I was seeing a representation of my own experience.

Claire driving away: That’s my friends. That’s Sanam or Aemon or Greg or the handful of others who are leaving Santa Barbara to do something else. That’s also me, resolving to push myself onward onto the next stage of my life, which I’ll be doing without the comfort of a lot of the people I care about. I have a job now, in a sense. My first article for the Independent is due tomorrow morning, and loyal readers can look for all 250 words of it in next week’s issue.

Life moving on without Claire: It happens. My parents are already thinking of where they’re going to move when they’re too old to live in the house in which they raised me. My brother already works at the family business. My friends will meet new people in new locales. And regardless of what I do, the life I leave behind isn’t simply going to stop.

And, of course, there’s the motherfucking end of everything.

I know everybody dies and all things are impermanent. But I haven’t actually thought about that in a long time. I’m not sure I even understand it. For example, I know that one trillion is a number, but can’t comprehend just how many that is. One trillion pennies. One trillion microscopic organisms. One trillion people. I might as well say “infinite” or “kajillion” because I can’t actually comprehend that silly word “trillion.”

Nonetheless, I see it happening, this evil impermanence. People die, thought thankfully not that often do people I know do so. People move away, I’m reminded recently. Santa Barbara is temporary. (Take that in any sense you’d like. The Santa Barbara of my college heyday is already gone. I will eventually leave Santa Barbara. And eons in the future, the city will crumble like sand and fall into the ocean.) Even that awful accident I saw yesterday only lasted a single moment. The aftermath was cleared in a matter of hours. All that remains now, hauntingly, is a few shards of broken glass remaining on the roadside. If I didn’t know how they got there, they’d almost look beautiful, sparkling in the sun.

So maybe that’s why I want all my favorite television characters to ultimately die. Maybe that’s why “Six Feet Under” worked so well for me. Maybe if Brendon Small and Agent Cooper and Jerri Blank and Jan Brady and Cliff Huxtable and Mary Hartman had all died in the last episodes of their respective series, I’d have that closure that I crave. Instead, I watch these people cycle through syndication or I resurrect them with the spinning of a DVD. So I never really have to let go.

I hate goodbyes and I hate letting go. Yet unlike TV characters that live forever, everyone one I know will die. And everyone reading this now — if anyone’s gotten his far — will die. And one day, even I won’t be here to type anymore. And this blog will creepily remain online, a monument to what I did with my life and to my subsequent non-existence.

The television set is off right now and I don’t intend to turn it on today. Aemon left a blank canvas in Sanam’s backyard for me. (And if you read this, Aemo, thank you very much.) I think maybe I’ll put something on it. It very well might be however this jumble of thoughts and words translates into an image. Who knows? Maybe I’ll paint a monument to my own non-existence. Maybe I’ll paint a tribute to my favorite dead TV characters.

In any case, I feel oddly hopeful. I have something to work for and I know I don’t have forever to work for it. It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the happiest sentence I’ve written all day.

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