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Drama kings: There's a reason why the best TV shows avoid happy endings

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Michaela Coel’s ending to I May Destroy You has divided opinion

Michaela Coel’s ending to I May Destroy You has divided opinion

Michaela Coel’s ending to I May Destroy You has divided opinion

In fiction, as in life, if you want to be loved, best to try for a happy ending, like the final moments of Friends. If you want to be remembered, it's generally better to let cruel fate have its way: Brief Encounter and Casablanca aren't classics because it all worked out in the end.

And if you want to drive your audience to distraction, an ambiguous ending will do it every time. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who was a writer on The Sopranos, once said of the latter's famous ending: "People wanted closure? F--- 'em."

Television audiences get very worked up about endings. Loose threads, implausibilities, the obvious cop-out in service of a soon-to-be-announced second series all draw down fury from viewers. We want things tied up properly, we want it all to make sense, and we want it to be emotionally satisfying. Not a lot to ask. Oh, and we want to be surprised as well.

This week, in the remarkable BBC One drama I May Destroy You, the show's writer, star and co-director Michaela Coel faced up to the problem of the ending. And came up with something unexpected.

She played out three different scenarios as a conclusion to the events of the first episode, in which successful young writer Arabella (Coel) was raped by a man who spiked her drink in a bar.

Coel wrote 191 drafts of I May Destroy You, and took herself off to a cabin in rural Michigan before coming up with an ending she was happy with. But her viewers were divided. "What an ending. What a series!" wrote one fan on Twitter. "The ending was INTENSE but sooooooo good!" said another. Meanwhile, "The ending of I May Destroy You was um... I don't get it?" added a baffled viewer; "I don't know if I'm just the one that didn't understand the ending of I May Destroy You, but I didn't like it," decided another.

Baffling viewers isn't a new thing. I grew up watching TV in the 70s (a very good time to grow up watching TV), and I was constantly having to get my head around the ways that television challenged traditional ideas of storytelling.

One series that I adored for its toughness, Gangsters, set in the racially charged crime world of Birmingham, ended with the crew walking on to dismantle the set in the middle of the final scene as its lead female character announced, "Somebody get these b------s a drink." It boggled my tiny mind - and I haven't checked that quote, nor seen the drama since it was aired in 1978.

The problem of the ending, especially in a long drama series, is that viewers commit so much time in getting to that point. The most-watched British TV drama of the past decade was Jed Mercurio's Bodyguard, which not only blew up Keeley Hawes' home secretary Julia Montague en route, but then produced a brilliant twist ending, in which meek, hijab-wearing Nadia (Anjli Mohindra) revealed herself to be a jihadi and criminal mastermind.

Many viewers suspected I May Destroy You would employ a twist too, in which Arabella's intriguingly inoffensive, non-threatening flatmate Ben (Stephen Wight) would turn out to be the rapist. But no. There would be no dramatic moment of catharsis, nor indeed a wistful, sad ending, as in the second series of Fleabag. No romantic union either. Arabella's Italian lover had told her to "get away from my door" four episodes earlier, and wasn't about to saunter into her room saying, "I got off the plane". Instead, life would just go on.

Many of the greatest dramas ever made have endings that leave the viewer distraught or uncertain. Think Vertigo, Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Ambiguous endings too can become immortal. Picture the bus teetering over the edge of the gorge in The Italian Job.

Finales are hard - you can't please everyone and the possibility is there that the writer may ruin everything that's gone before. That's why it's hard to take risks. That's why risk-taking should be applauded. It may destroy you.

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Telegraph.co.uk