Life is not like television, where things are often shown in black and white. So those of us who watch TV to the extent that it is a large part of their life expect more out of series that they watch. We grow to like certain characters, and we become invested in their successes and their failures. And on those occasions when a beloved character dies---- something that has begun to happen more often in series produced in this century--- it can be like a death in the family, no matter how little we actually knew them. So perhaps its not unusual that when a long running series reaches its end, we hope for that rarest of things in life--- closure.
As I write this, Lost is coming to its conclusion. Millions of words have been written online and on paper trying to figure out the mysteries of this series during its six-year run. I won't deny that there are some questions about this show that I desperately would like to see answered, but there are other things I care about more. Will Desmond and Penelope live happily ever after? Will Jack finally work through the mass of complexes that have burdened him almost since the day he was born? Will Ben finally pay for the endless series of crimes he has participated in for nearly as long? Sure, I want to know what the island does and why, but after 100 plus episode, I care about these characters resolutions more than the islands.
24 is coming to an end this season as well. I have less hope that this series will be able to wrap up all of the myriad storylines it has started spinning over the last few years, and not only because each season amounts to just one day in a life. This series has generated nerve-jangling suspense and bone crunching action, but it's very concept does not lend itself to resolving the stories in the same way other series do. Characters die by the boatload on this series, but as a great playwright once penned: "Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship." Killing a character, even when it's done well (as this show proved over and over) doesn't end the issues or fill the space that character did. That may be the real reason so many people were upset about the ending of The Sopranos. There was an awful lot of killing, but there wasn't much resolution involving Tony or either of his families.
Some long-running series provide closure in other ways. In its final season ER spent less time wrapping up the lives of the current cast, and more episodes dealing with the original cast--- I cared more that Ross and Hathaway managed to live happily ever after than I did about Neela and Ray. In that way, it modeled NBC's other great hospital drama, St. Elsewhere, which spent the last few episodes wrapping up the lives of the characters who'd been there the longest (Even if the whole series existed just in the mind of an autistic child).
And some shows can only provide closure by telling you that nothing ever really ends. At the end of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and Homicide, they wrapped things up by making it clear that crime never stops, even though the people who solve it keep leaving. The Wire did it perhaps even better in its final episode, when it demonstrates that even though the players in both the crime and law change, 'the game' never ends.
I have mainly dealt with dramas in this article, but a good comic series can resolve things better. This year, Ugly Betty manage to resolve things satisfactory not only for its plucky heroine, but even for her greatest rivals at Mode (and with pleasant endings that didn't feel pat). Frasier and Friends wrapped up long runs by carefully spending a season handling all of their characters arcs. And even if their hadn't been a movie franchise, I'd say that Sex and the City managed to wrap things up for all the major characters according to each of their behaviors. That's the real reason Seinfeld's finale was such a disappointment. The show may have been about nothing, but they tried to make something out of it, and, well, we all saw the results.
No one wants to end a successful series any earlier than they have to. This can lead to endless problems in providing proper conclusions. I fear that we will never get proper resolutions for most of the characters on Grey's Anatomy. Franchises like Law & Order and CSI care little for character development by their nature. And even after some series are cancelled (mostly animated) they can find themselves revived a few years later, so resolution makes little sense. Still, I can only hope that when it's time for Gregory House to solve his last medical case, or to say goodbye to our friends at Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, that the creators of these shows realize we've come to care about these people we've let into our living rooms for a period of years, and give them to chance to leave with the same dignity they arrived.