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'Battlestar Galactica' and how bad finales damage good shows' legacies

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BSG FINALE
Everett Collection

It’s been 10 years since Battlestar Galactica aired the first episode of its excellent ongoing television series. But there’s one aspect of Battlestar that threatens to hold it back from modern-classic status: its ending. Do a quick Google on Battlestar’s ending and you’ll get a pretty quick read on the popular opinion surrounding it—it’s bad.

This matters a lot more than it used to. Thanks to the modern ubiquity of streaming video, what sells us on a show is often the gestalt narrative of an entire season or series—the promise that clicking on “season one, episode one” will take us on an unforgettable journey into Dillon, Texas, or an Albuquerque meth lab, or a weird police box that’s somehow bigger on the inside. But when you have access to every episode of countless television shows, it’s natural to want to narrow down the list somehow. See the really great stuff. Skip all the bad stuff. Many viewers naturally just want to know if something’s worth it. They want to know if it ends well.

While a bad finale doesn’t necessarily ruin a good show, if enough people know about it, it can scare them away from said good show. We, as 21st-century consumers of TV programming, are now hyper-aware of the amount of time we’re committing to when we start a series, and knowing we’re spending all that time heading toward a letdown seems like bad math. Coupled with the way modern television is made, favoring “installments” over “episodes” as Ryan McGee wrote in a 2012 essay over at The A.V. Club, and it’s easy to be skeptical of the notion that it’s the episode that makes television special, and isn’t just a series of obstacles to clear between a story’s beginning and its end.

Battlestar Galactica‘s proper first episode, as EW‘s own Darren Franich exhaustively illustrated, is a phenomenal hour of television. It’s a thesis statement for the entire series—its political subtext, challenging moral dilemmas, and perpetually bleak character studies persist throughout the entire series. Its final episode contains many of those ingredients wrapped in a thrilling plot, with its characters embarking on a desperate final mission that is grimly described as “a one-way trip.” What makes it hard to go along with, in retrospect, is the fact that it becomes hopelessly lost in its own mythology, having emphasized several big mysteries in its final two years without having any good solutions for them.

But putting too much emphasis on Battlestar Galactica‘s end implies that it was inherently good at longform storytelling. It was not. What Galactica was good at in the long term was momentum—it kept the twists coming fast and furious, constantly putting its characters through the wringer and never allowing itself to become complacent or comfortable. Galactica shone in individual episodes, taut constructions of ratcheting tension and impossible choices and barely contained frustration. Hell, it was a show that started every episode with a crazy taiko drum montage showing off just how wild things were going to get.

Oh, and there was also that one Portlandia sketch.

Of course, Galactica isn’t the only series overshadowed by a contentious finale—Lost will forever be plagued by the way its writers decided to end it, and How I Met Your Mother‘s conclusion to its long-running frame story may severely undermine its legacy as possibly the most watchably earnest Friends knockoff ever made. (The Sopranos seems to get a pass from critics, despite its divisive ending—maybe because it ushered in The New Golden Age of Television, or something.)

And the finale isn’t the only factor working against Battlestar Galactica and its legacyLike a number of great shows that didn’t air on HBO in the early 2000s, Battlestar Galactica also suffered from existing primarily in a pre-Twitter/Netflix universe. Once the modern social media watercooler came into existence, it never really bestowed the level of affection on BSG that it did to Buffy or even Lost. Maybe it’s because Battlestar is a science fiction show, and there’s a stigma that comes with being Dwight Schrute’s favorite television series. This, of course, is yet another hurdle to clear in the modern watch-this-skip-that era of television.

Last spring, a number of acclaimed showrunners spoke to EW about the high wire act of ending a series. Shawn Ryan of The Shield fame said, “The biggest mistake I always noticed was they make a different show for the finale than they made leading up to then.” It’s a good point, one that explains what makes fans unhappy with some endings (coming from a guy responsible for one of the best). It’s also great to keep the inverse in mind when you’re considering diving into a now-completed show—it can be a great disservice to apply a finale’s reputation to the entirety of what came before.

Despite the ire its ending may have incited, Battlestar Galactica remains a vital, groundbreaking show, one that’s well worth watching every single episode of.

Except “Black Market.” Even the creators hate “Black Market.” You should probably skip that one.

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