— Josh Berman still remembers the season finale that blew his mind.
"I absolutely do — the 'Moldavian Massacre' on 'Dynasty,' " the showrunner for Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva" said. "I remember watching that with my jaw on the ground. The gunman had just killed the whole cast of characters! Everyone was talking about it at (my high) school, and so were my parents. A season finale should be breathtaking, and that one was."
May is a special time of the season for TV viewers — time for season finales. That means many devotees of top-rated shows are likely recovering from shock as they watch credits roll.
These final shows of the season are like mini-climaxes, not as crucial to a program's legacy as a series finale, but still key to ensuring fans come back next season. A blah ending to the season may have fans wondering why they should bother checking in again in the fall, and a bad one could turn them off for good.
"The season finale provides a bridge for the really rabid fans to keep the shows at the forefront during the off-season," said Bob Batchelor, an assistant professor at Kent State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "That's particularly important given that the off-season is filled with so much clutter."
Finding the right tone and content for a season finale isn't easy, though. Just ask the experts.
"You don't want it to feel like it's an ending," said J.H. Wyman, a showrunner with Fox's "Fringe." "It's an ending, but it's also a new beginning. We want to say, 'This is the logical conclusion to what we've been piecemealing out over the past season.' "
Wyman and his co-showrunner Jeff Pinkner, like many other show writers, start off at the beginning of a season with a general plan of where they intend to end up. "We like to know where we're going," explained Wyman. "It's much easier to write when you know where you're going."
But a story's end point doesn't have to be clear at the start of the season, said Dave Finkel, a showrunner for Showtime's "United States of Tara."
"We know what we want the emotional core to be," he said. "You really want to culminate the full season's experience in one 25-minute episode, and leave the audience with iconic moments that will stay with them through the hiatus."
Finding that indelible stamp and keeping it original is key to avoid irritating loyal audiences. Over the years, shows have done so many season-finale hooks to death — wedding failures, mysterious children, putting a lead character in peril and the dreaded "it was all a dream" — that writers had better tread carefully if they want to put a spin on a familiar ending.
TV fan Melissa BiJeaux said the season four finale of “Bones” still burns.
"I know they're just trying to titillate to encourage viewers to tune in, but in the case of 'Bones,' it backfired," she said via e-mail. "They promised (it) wouldn't be fake or alternative universe ... and it was a coma-induced hallucination."
Getting the fans to roll their eyes in disgust rather than wonder is not the goal, and in today's entertainment environment, being original is even more of a challenge. When “Dynasty” stunned Berman in 1985, there was no Internet to share spoilers, no 24/7 cable channels to rerun classic TV shows and familiarize audiences with finale hooks.
Things have changed a lot since then.
"All the stories have been told and the cliff-hangers put out there," said Batchelor, "and we all draw from the same culture fountain. It does make it more difficult."
"Cliff-hangers have gotten a lot more sophisticated since that 'Dynasty' episode," admitted Berman. "When crafting a season finale, you want to lay in all the elements of the last couple of episodes, so it feels organic. People really invest in TV shows and characters, and I wouldn't want to (inorganically surprise) my audience."
"Fringe's" writers strive for originality in finales. The show's past three seasons haven't ended with one big bang, but rather wound down over a handful of episodes, then dealt with the fallout.
"When you're at the starting line and imagining what the ending will be, as you get closer to it you decide what would be cool is to show the consequences of that event," said Pinkner. "We don't do a last-minute surprise. Instead, it's a culmination of that season's chapter, and we tease or foreshadow what the next season will be like."
But viewers who think writers just want to tie everything up so they won't have to think about the show over break are wrong. Berman, for one, insisted he "eats, dreams and thinks my characters during hiatus." Instead, the problem writers often face is a self-created one: writing themselves into a corner.
"It's an interesting masochistic tendency with writers," said "Tara's" Finkel. "We set ourselves up to be angry with ourselves for the coming season. We sometimes leave episodes with an ending that was brilliant, and then say, 'How do we work with this?' And we say, 'We'll figure it out, we're writers.' If at the end of the season you say, 'Everyone's going to the moon!' then, OK — everyone's going to the moon."