Television viewers are an interesting breed. Since its inception decades ago, television has been a way to escape our everyday lives and experience a different world. It can provide a mirror to reflect back on society around us and our place amongst it; or it can be a looking-glass to see the world as it actually is in the far corners that we cannot explore ourselves. Whatever it is used for, television is a great escape.
Modernly, an interesting trend has emerged: the need for “wish-fulfillment.” Viewers are turning to their televisions not only to be engaged and intrigued, but also to find a bit of peace and happiness that remains elusive in our everyday lives. They find it reassuring to see the bad guys caught and prosecuted, villains get their comeuppance, and heroes get happy endings. Yet incongruously, at the same time, the past decade has seen the rise of the anti-hero, which challenged viewers to be flexible in who is the villain and who is the hero, and what exactly is a happy ending for them.
Two recent television shows make good examples of how these diametrically opposed yearnings are in conflict, and the outrage and confusion it subsequently inspires: DEXTER and SONS OF ANARCHY. Both shows have strong anti-hero themes and require that their viewers embrace a bit of moral flexibility in order to root for classically villainous characters. In DEXTER’s case, viewers are rooting for a serial killer – albeit one with a code that demands that he only kill other killers. Then in the case of SONS OF ANARCHY, it provided an entire club of anti-heroes who are vicious, ruthless and relentlessly self-serving in achieving their personal goals. But somehow, by sheer audacity in asking their audiences to unflinchingly support these atypical heroes, viewers fell under the spell of the carefully crafted characters in both shows. Yet this year, there was quite a bit of outrage amongst fans simply because these characters that they have grown to love have not lived up to the fans’ expectations of wish-fulfillment.
Many thought that in the series finale that DEXTER had ended badly. They did not like the idea of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) faking his own death and then creating a new life all by himself in the Pacific Northwest. Some were rooting for Dexter to be caught and to have a glorious death; and then others were secretly rooting for Dexter to escape and join his soulmate Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) with his son Harrison in Argentina. Yet, this is what is curious. DEXTER from the beginning was not destined for a “happily ever after” ending. The threat of being caught was always looming and it would have been a fitting end for a serial killer, even one with a heart of gold. So it makes perfect sense that Dexter would have a contingency plan, that he would have foreseen the day he would need to fake his death and start again – in the last place anyone would ever look for him. Fleeing the country was too obvious, and to be found with Hannah McKay (another serial killer) would have made them doubly easy to track eventually. A “happily ever after” scenario was just never in the stars for Dexter Morgan, and he planned accordingly. Besides, who is to say that after a few years of hiding in the back woods that Dexter would not tire of his solitary existence and find his way back to the beaches of Argentina and reunite with Hannah and Harrison? It could happen. There just might be a “happily ever after” out there for Dexter if he chooses to pursue it. We just won’t see it. Our journey with Dexter ended with his faked death. His ties with Miami Metro were forever severed with the death of the one person who kept him there for all those years – his sister, Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). After all, a serial killer can work anywhere. Working alongside Deb just made it easy and fun for him. Without her, he was unfettered and free to go anywhere and he didn’t want to take his son with him into that darkness. It was Dexter’s way of giving his son a chance at a better life: a wish for his son. Thus, DEXTER was answering the need for wish-fulfillment in a different way: by answering Dexter’s wish, not the audience’s. Fortunately, the writers granted that wish for him.
As to SONS OF ANARCHY, the show has not yet ended yet. With one more season left, it still could conceivably end on a happy ending. But, for many fans, the chance of a happy ending was ripped away with the plunge of a fork as Gemma (Katey Sagal) killed Tara (Maggie Siff) in the Season 6 finale. There is no happily-ever-ever awaiting Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) now. With the death of his best friend Opie (Ryan Hurst) in Season 5 and now Tara, Jax’s blissful vision of the future has been forever destroyed. Yet, for those who were paying attention, creator Kurt Sutter never promised a happy ending. In fact, he has stated time and time again that he modeled the show on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which ended very tragically as well. But fans are just in shock and bereaved. They are not quite ready to fully embrace the idea that Season 7 could bring the death of Jax Teller, which would bookend the series perfectly in fitting with the Shakespeare story is was inspired by. What is even more crazy is that the fans somehow bought into the idea that there could ever be a happy ending waiting at the end of the SAMCRO rainbow. The lives they lead is hand in hand with death and destruction. It is a 7-part tragedy playing out in perfect precision. It was the audience that has fooled itself into believing that the traditional happy ending was within Jax’s grasp. Their strong desire for wish-fulfillment fooled them. SONS OF ANARCHY was always destined to be a tragedy. There was no trickery involved.
Yet over and over, we see this strong desire by fans for happy endings. They believe that because they have devoted years of their time in supporting and watching a television show that they are entitled to a happily-ever-after ending. It is an increasingly burdensome expectation that television shows struggle to meet. But there in lay the fallacy – some stories were never meant to have happy endings. Would Shakespeare be as popular as he is today if he had only told stories with happy endings? Much of classic literature are tragedies.
Joss Whedon is famously known for having said that he creates characters only to torture them endlessly. Interpreting that, are we to understand that happy characters are thought to be dull, listless and boring, and it is only through conflict, loss and despair that stories can be told? Maybe not all stories, but some stories. It is just a matter of figuring out what kind of story one has signed on for. Not every story has a happy ending; yet television audiences seem to crave them now more than ever.
But is satisfying viewers’ desire for wish-fulfillment really necessary? Is television about granting wishes or about telling compelling stories — some of which that will haunt us for years to come? Certainly much of television today strives very hard to give the viewers exactly what they want. They will bend over backwards to tell their stories in such ways to make the fans happy. It is after all how to keep a TV show on the air, by giving in to fan demands; and giving viewers what they want can be a sound business strategy. Shows like NCIS, LAW & ORDER, ER and even the long-running SUPERNATURAL have all adopted this strategy and it sells very well. It ensured their longevity.
Yet for other television shows, they cannot compromise their creative vision just because the fans crave wish-fulfillment. Would BREAKING BAD have been as exemplary and memorable series if it had ended with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) surviving? Would LOST have been as galvanizing and remembered if it had ended with a classic happy ending and everyone was rescued from that cursed island? Would SEINFELD be hailed as one of the greatest comedies of all time if its characters had ended their journey any place other than a jail cell reflecting on their crimes against humanity? Not every show can end with their characters married and living white-picket-fence lives in its final scene. Some shows demand that they kill off their characters, one-by-one, classic Agatha Christie style, just to see who remains in the end and why.
But in doing so, a show may have less time to grace a television screen as fans seeking wish-fulfillment turn their attention to shows that feed their addiction to happy endings. Thus, fans have a difficult choice to make: to set aside their innate wish-fulfillment desires and enjoy the ride; or to turn the channel. It is just sad to see that so many are opting for the second choice. And just how many wishes can television grant without compromising its own soul? We can only hope that more TV shows hold tenaciously out for telling the story they want to tell. For while wish fulfillment guarantees a paycheck; by eschewing it, a legacy will be born.
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