Monday, May 12, 2014

On Beloved TV Shows and Endings and Memory

A funny thing happened recently.  In the space of two weeks, I realized that my certainty about the final episodes of two well-known TV series was in error.

Robert and I were talking about finales.  I maintained that in “The Wonder Years,” Kevin’s voice-over (Daniel Stern’s, actually) let us know that after high school, he and Winnie Cooper never saw each other again.

In fact, Kevin relates that he and Winnie wrote each other a letter a week for the next eight years.  And that when Winnie returns from Paris, where she has been studying art, Kevin meets her at the airport with his wife and eight-month-old son.  (This is all from Wikipedia, by the way.  It kind of rang a bell when I read it.)

Similarly, I was positive that Ross and Rachel didn’t end up together in the final episode of “Friends.”  Absolutely positive.

All this has me thinking about memory, which is much on my mind anyway, as my 94-year-old mother is succumbing to dementia.  And about stories, and about endings.

As writers, we pay a lot of attention to endings.  Some of us even start there.  (I don’t, but some of us do.)  If we are serious about our work, we go to great pains to craft an ending that makes logical sense and offers a satisfying conclusion to the story line without veering into sentimentality or “over-neatness.”  At the same time, we try to end things.  No leaving it up to the readers’ imaginations, a non-solution that in all but the rarest of instances smacks of creative cowardice.

I’m sure the writers of “The Wonder Years” and “Friends” spent a lot of time writing those endings.  But I made up my own anyway.

So what does this mean?  Are the endings over which writers pore unimportant?

Of course not.  Endings matter enormously.  But I look at my inclination to rewrite mentally the endings of beloved TV shows as indicative of 1) the fact that I tend toward the gloomy (notice that in both instances, I assumed the worst) and 2) the splendid “spells” the shows’ writers cast over the duration of both series’ runs.  Kevin and Winnie and Ross and Rachel lived in fully realized fictive worlds, so real to me that I felt I knew them as actual people.*  Re-imagining their stories’ conclusions speaks to the verisimilitude the writers created, itself the result of masterful writing (among other things).

(*Do other people talk about TV characters as though they are real people?  My best friend and I do it all the time.  Sometimes we will sheepishly acknowledge what we’re doing, just to reassure ourselves that we haven’t lost all touch with reality.  But then we keep on talking.)

My mother’s memory fades from week to week.  She no longer reliably remembers that she grew up in Cleveland, that she had a beloved brother who died young, that I was married to Brian, that I have a son and a daughter. 

When she was first diagnosed, I kept trying to remind her of things she forgot or swore she never knew at all.  Gradually, I have learned not to do this unless she asks me to. 

In forgetting almost everything, she is rewriting her own ending.

At this point, I think it is more painful for me than it is for her.

I think I need to stop forcing her to stick to the script.