Why senseless drama finales could be VERY bad for broadcasters

Liar, Safe House, Rellik, Doctor Foster: all of their final moments contained little logic. And that could lead viewers away from the BBC and ITV, argues David Butcher

(ITV, BBC, TL)

We need to talk about endings. Specifically, about why they keep going so wrong, mostly in promising dramas that jog along for weeks and then, when they should be crossing the finishing line, trip over their laces.

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It has happened a lot lately. We’re almost starting to expect the kind of two-fingers-toviewers dénouement that we got from Paula and The Replacement – the kind that that leaves you thinking “What?” and “Eh?” and, mostly, “Why did I bother?”

Take a series like ITV’s Safe House, where the baddie played by Jason Watkins abducted Zoë Tapper’s character in the boot of his car – but then what became of her? We were left hanging. (“Why have I wasted four hours of my life for something to end without explaining anything?” one viewer tweeted.)

The conclusion of Liar (also ITV) will no doubt spark similar rage, as it cheekily confronted viewers with a whole new mystery. It feels as if the writers aren’t just failing to tie up loose ends, they’re perversely untying them, deliberately fraying the plot into rags that flutter dismally over the end credits.

The ending of BBC1’s Rellik wasn’t much better. After six hours of (more or less deranged) drama, it played the dog-eared get-out-of-jail-free card TV writers use when they need a reason behind serial killings: it was all down to sexual abuse at a care home where the killer suffered as a child. Where have we seen that before? In every low-rent crime drama ever.

Unlike many, I did like the final twist of Doctor Foster (BBC1). It was a neat idea to make us realise the story was really about a teenage runaway – Gemma and Simon’s put-upon son Tom. Yes, there were absurdities in that last episode (don’t get me started on the syringes…) but I was fine with the ending itself until – until! – that supremely naff closing shot.

You remember, the one where Gemma is standing outside her front door and looks straight at the camera for her last line, breaking the fourth wall and the patience of eight million viewers. What is this – a public information film? In that final flourish Mike Bartlett undermined the rest of his marital melodrama for the sake of sticking an indulgent cherry on top.

In the film business they know how vital endings are. That’s why Hollywood studios spend millions, if necessary, to reshoot them. Because movies live or die on word of mouth and if punters leave a cinema short-changed, the word of mouth will be “Meh”. Not so in TV, where dramas can string millions of us along, make us give hours of our time to their plots, seduce us with their stars – then in the last episode abandon us at the altar, clueless.

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But here’s the thing: the more that broadcast dramas break viewers’ trust with shoddy plots that fall apart in your hands like wet newspaper, the more likely viewers are to defect. The next time a young couple are sitting down with an evening together to burn, they won’t risk starting an ITV six-parter. They’ll stream something off Netflix instead. And once that becomes the default across the land, then for broadcasters, the end is nigh.