One-season cliffhangers really, really suck
Few things about watching television suck as badly as a show that gets cancelled on a cliffhanger. But should showrunners have an obligation to bring new shows to a stopping point at season’s end?
For any fan of television, September is always an exciting time. The networks are rolling out their new slate; old favorites return – clearing up any cliffhangers – while new shows vie for the audience’s collective fandom. And as much as we fans might fall in love – or serious like – with a particular show, statistics show that most new shows won’t live to see a second season.
While we can argue the whys and what-fors of ratings vs. viewers, shares and the all-important “demo,” when it comes down to it, the people making these decisions are trying to maximize profits for their company. Despite what TV watchers might think, that’s not a bad thing; it’s really just the way of the world.
But while a couple two or three million viewers may not be enough to sustain a show into future seasons, that’s a lot of viewers that have allowed themselves to become invested into a show – or at least the beginnings of one. It’s bad enough for those fans when the network pulls the show before the first 13 episodes have aired; whats much worse is when we get to the end of those 13 — or even full run of 22 — episodes, and we’re left with a cliffhanger that has no hope of being resolved.
Crap. There’s actually no better word to describe how that feels. Personally, when that happens, I can conceptualize why the show’s no longer on the air. I get that something like Journeyman or Kings spoke to me, but didn’t have the popular appeal to warrant multiple seasons. That pretty much sucks, but it is as an inevitable occurrence, as the May up-fronts that signal in a new crop of shows for us to get attached to.
Sadly, showrunners do this to us all the time. Kings is probably one of the shows that stung me the most; David flees Gilboa and Silas’ wrath, while Michelle is sent away by her father to birth her child in secret. But that failed NBC drama is far from the only offender. Other shows have ended their first seasons with just as many questions: The Lone Gunman, The Event, John Doe, FlashForward, Surface, Invasion … this list could literally go on for pages and pages.
But for every Persons Unknown or My So Called Life, there’s a Chicago Code or the aforementioned Journeyman. When the first thirteen episodes of Shawn Ryan’s Chicago-set police drama came to a close, Teresa Colvin and Jarek Wysocki were slapping the cuffs on Alderman Ronin Gibbons. Journeyman may have not answered the question of what — or who — was causing Dan Vasser to go back in time, but the story came to a wonderful “resting point,” as his wife finally saw and believed his jump. Occasional Clacker Bob Sassone and I may have been the only ones on the planet who truly enjoyed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; I appreciated how all of the story lines came together in a nice, neat — though admittedly implausible — package. Even How I Met Your Mother had a plan in place — named Victoria — if the show didn’t get picked up past its original 13 episodes.
Those examples prove that it can be done. Talented showrunners can bring a story to a stopping point, even if it is far to quick to bring a story to a real close. Considering how savvy hard-core TV viewers are getting, it is in their best interest to keep fans — as few as a show might have — as happy as possible. Years ago, viewers might not have followed a showrunner like Shawn Ryan from The Shield to The Unit to The Chicago Code and Terriers, but today they will — the really smart ones will even tell how great his one season in charge of Lie to Me was. I’m a big fan of Ryan because of his work on those shows, and I feel that — after The Chicago Code — that I can trust him as well.
Admittedly, showrunners don’t have it easy. To keep their cast and crew working, they’ve got to please audiences and the networks. They have to create a commercially viable product that that’s born out of a craft so painstakingly developed. But I think the should challenge them; cliffhangers are a completely viable storytelling technique. But if the show is in any legitimate danger of being cancelled, keep your fans in mind when writing those finales!