Tuesday night marks the end of Private Practice, a traditional nighttime soap with a loyal yet relatively small (compared to its parent show, Grey’s Anatomy) following. While ostensibly an ensemble, the show revolved around the trials and tribulations of Addison Montgomery, an OB-GYN/neonatologist who was as mixed up in her private life as she was brilliant in her profession. Addison is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, so I’m sorry to see the show end. Even more disappointing, though, is the way the show is ending. Creator Shonda Rhimes decided to give Addison a “happily ever after,” marrying her off to a character who was basically a deus ex machina since he showed up a few seasons ago.
Romance is one of the most popular genres in fiction, whether that fiction be TV, film, or novel. And the best romances are drawn out as long as possible. It starts with that early tension; the “Will they or won’t they?” Obstacles on top of obstacles are thrown in the path of the would-be couple. They come together, only to break up, and then come together again. Only after they’ve been tested again and again do they earn a happily ever after. This formula is the one that hooks viewers and readers. It’s called “intermittent reinforcement,” and it’s akin to rats pressing a bar to receive a food pellet. The ones who receive a pellet every time give up as soon as the pellet stops coming. The ones who never received a pellet give up quickly too. But the ones who sometimes get a pellet and sometimes do not keep pressing that bar again and again and again. And humans too are much more likely to persist in an activity that gives them intermittent rewards, and watching their favorite couple finally come together again after a break up is a reward.
Addison had a relationship like that with Sam, her best friend Naomi’s ex-husband. Respecting Naomi’s feelings, Addison tried to stay away from Sam, and an entire season was dedicated to their “will they or won’t they.” Then Addison decided she wanted a baby, while Sam thought he was done with parenthood. When Sam finally came to his senses and proposed, Addison threw him over for Jake, the aforementioned deus ex machina. Jake, whose only flaw is caring too much, is the man Addison will marry tomorrow night.
What if Carrie had ended up with the Russian artist instead of Mr. Big at the end of Sex and the City? Even though the Baryshnikov character was based on SATC creator Candace Bushnell’s then husband, the producers realized that the viewers’ emotional satisfaction of seeing Carrie finally end up with Mr. Big after six seasons was more important than trying to recreate the creator’s own then-ending.
I believe that writers, be they in film, TV or book, have an obligation, when a romance is so central to the story, to deliver that emotional satisfaction to their fans. And that satisfaction is only delivered when the central couple comes together at the end of that long, rocky road. Otherwise, why bother taking that journey with them? Yes, I know that traditional daily soap operas, which are most invested in these types of relationships, are also the most constricted from being able to deliver that pay off. Unless canceled (and those canceled soap operas did deliver a few couples finally getting together after years of trials), most shows wind up losing an actor and therefore being unable to deliver the happily-ever-after – at least permanently. Recently General Hospital lost an actor who was part of not one, but two of these tortured couples, and he did get a happily-ever-after with his wife before being killed off. It wasn’t the ending the fans wanted, but the best the show could do when the actor left, and I think that fans – the sane ones, in any case – understand that. But when the show can deliver the experience the fan craves, and chooses not to, then it’s no surprise when fans turn their attention to something else.
Like romance novels, for instance. Romance is the top-selling genre, and each book features a central couple who go through “will they or won’t they”, many trials and tribulations, to end up together by the end of the book. It’s a proven formula that readers want.
But it’s not something that Private Practice will deliver tomorrow night. Yet, ironically, it is perhaps the most realistic ending. For in real life, when our relationships are so problematic, they end. And we end up with the guy with whom there was never any drama.
Of course, real life is the reason we watch soap operas.