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The Unresolved Cliff Hanger:
Or, cancelled TV series...and a "new" way to do TV story arcs.



 

Here’s a message to all TV writers, producers, etc.: “Your series will be cancelled.” Whether it’s in six weeks or six years, it will have its plug pulled. Like death, it happens to everyone.

It might seem like an odd thing to need to be said, but sometimes you get the impression that a lot of people in the TV biz live in denial of that elementary fact -- invariably reacting with shock, outrage and disbelief when the axe comes down on them. The other guy, sure…but them? No! They were going to run forever!

And in Canada this is more relevant than even other countries, since ratings can be problematic to begin with, and a single series can be produced by a hodge podge of networks and production companies so that the financing itself is a massive house of cards. Canadian series that have relatively healthy ratings can get cancelled simply because the behind-the-scenes financing fell apart, while another, lower rated series might run for a few years simply because its production partnership was more stable. And though in Canada a series can usually bank on a couple of seasons -- it being cheaper for the network to keep a low-rated series going than commission a new one -- it’s also true that it becomes rarer for a series to survive past that (go ahead, check back through Canadian television and you’ll be surprised how many series run two years…then get cancelled).

(Actually, just as an aside, the CBC’s decision to cancel “Wild Roses” after one season, though disappointing, might actually indicate an atypical confidence on the part of the programmers that they can do better…particularly as “Wild Roses” was, I think, averaging better ratings than CanWest-Global’s “The Guard” or “Da Kink in My Hair”, both of which have two seasons, so far, in the bag).

All this brings us to the point of this week’s rant. The story arc. The sub-plot. The whatever you want to call it. Television series used to be comprised of generally stand alone episodes, often where you could even jumble the order of the episodes to little discernable effect. Or, at most, narrative progressions might be gradual, natural things -- a series starts out with romantic tension between two leads, and over the course of the seasons, they become lovers.

But in recent years, the idea of the story arc has become almost inevitable. Ranging from series that tell stand alone weekly plots, but with some on going sub-plot playing beneath the story-of-the-week, to series where each week’s episode is but a “chapter” in the on going saga.

The advantage to the on going story threads is it can create richer, more complex, more compelling stories, allowing characters to be developed with greater nuance, and providing a hook that drags the viewer back week after week.

The downside is it can result in series that are incomprehensible to jump into part way through. Meaning it may hold on to committed viewers, but has trouble building an audience. It’s not that on going threads preclude that, but it requires the writers to realize that any episode might be a viewer’s first episode, and so provide enough to invite that viewer to join the ride. I’ve watched some middle season episodes which, though I didn’t know fully what was going on, nonetheless entertained me enough that I became a regular viewer of a show…and others which left me so bewildered I never watched again.

As a curious example there was the recent US detective series, “Life”, in which each week the heroes solved a stand alone case (making each episode watchable on its own) yet there was an on going sub-plot involving the hero investigating a conspiracy that had framed him for murder years before. I quite liked “Life”, at least what I saw of it (I started watching in its second season) but the series’ articulation of the on going sub plot was poorly handled -- even after watching a number of episodes I wasn’t really clear on what the hero was investigating. So though I liked “Life“, I liked it almost in spite of its on going story arc, not because of it. “Life” was cancelled after two seasons, and I wonder if they had done a better job with their on going sub-plot, and explaining it better, might it have enjoyed better ratings?

Anyway…

But an even bigger problem relates to my introductory point: all series will be cancelled. Sooner or later. And recent TV history is littered with the bodies of series that end in mid-story, often on “to be continued” cliff hangers…never to be resolved. And the audience is aware of this possibility, which creates a Catch 22. I know people who won’t even watch a TV series (with a story arc) until they know it’ll be renewed, yet networks won’t renew a series that people aren’t watching.

And the problem is more significant now. Years ago, a series got cancelled and was tossed on the rubbish bin of obscurity. Today, it has a second, third, fourth life with reruns cropping up on any of a zillion cable channels and, more, elbowing for room on the DVD shelf with “complete” collections.

So now -- what? The producers are trying to hawk a series that is unfinished, the story unresolved…to an audience who knows that ahead of time. Someone who got hooked on the series while it was first airing might still find enough good things in the episodes that were completed to watch it again, even buying the DVD. But a completely new viewer? How many people are going to buy a DVD collection knowing, ahead of time, that it ends on a cliff hanger, all of the cryptic clues and teased along threads unresolved? After all, there are a lot of offerings on the DVD shelves these days, a lot of alternatives for a consumer to turn to instead.

So what’s my point?

My point is: TV producers need to realize that, and factor that in. Unfortunately, I don’t think they care (and haven’t thought it through enough to realize my point about it hurting future DVD sales). All these series with their unfinished story arcs, frankly, strike me as reflecting a certain contempt. Contempt on the part of the series’ makers for their audience, for the show, and even for their craft. Not to mention, as I said, living in denial, believing that cancellation won’t happen…even though they’ve known for months the ratings were in the sewer. Cancellation rarely comes out of nowhere.

Now, as I say, despite its problems of alienating casual viewers, story arcs and sub-plots can be entertaining, and I suspect aren’t going anywhere soon. So what’s the solution?

This:

Craft your series around finite arcs, that can be introduced, teased along, and played out over a single season. And then if you get renewed, great -- craft a new arc for the next season. But treat each season as its own “novel for TV”. Some series have been this route. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ran for seven seasons, and though relationships and characters developed throughout the whole series, nonetheless each season was generally wrapped around a core arc -- a villain was introduced, teased along as a sub-plot throughout the season, then dramatically confronted in the final of that season. “24” tries something similar. The even earlier “Wiseguy” broke each season into two or three arcs.

Unfortunately, the common “wisdom” runs toward the opposite. Season finales, instead of resolving a plot, are often deliberately “to be continued” to hook the viewer for the next season. But if that next season doesn’t come? Then it means the whole series ends on a sour note, leaving the viewer with a sense of frustration.

Maybe it’s just me, but a series that does provide a resolution to its sub plots or story arc -- even if it only ran a dozen episodes before cancellation -- often intrigues me more than a series that might have run longer, and been better, but stopped in mid story. It’s the former series that I’m more likely to watch again in reruns, or of which I might buy the DVD set.

Obviously, a lot of people in the biz will say that they can’t do this, that it runs contrary to their story telling template. But then, a few years ago, when series first started employing story arcs, no doubt the writers then balked, insisting television series only worked as stand alone, one-off episodes. Heck, back in the 1950s, when half-hour dramas started giving way to hour long dramas, I’m sure a lot of writers scoffed, insisting it was impossible to tell a good story stretched out to an hour!

The medium evolves, and the narrative styles should evolve with it. With endless rerun opportunities and, more significantly, DVD collections, cancelled TV series enjoy an expectation of perpetuity they never used to. A failed series can rise, Phoenix like, on the DVD charts, and still be on sale years down the line. And an unresolved cliff hanger ending just can’t be swept under the rug anymore.

(Interestingly, comic books are facing similar problems, a once transitory medium where series would be cancelled in mid-plot…but now with semi-permanent collected editions flooding the book shelves, but still featuring unfinished stories from series cancelled in mid-plot).

As well, telling focused story arcs contained in a single season would probably lead to better stories. After all, part of the reason for the stretched out, unresolved plot lines is, I suspect, because the writers don’t really have a conclusion in mind. Hence why a lot of these series that do run on (and on) often end up bleeding viewers who begin to get bored, fearing the series is just lost and rambling, like having a forest guide who insists he knows where he’s going but you suspect you’ve seen that same tree again and again.

Recent Canadian series like “J-Pod“, “Intelligence“, “Charlie Jade”, “Wild Roses“, “This is Wonderland“, and others, all -- unintentionally -- ended unsatisfying, with dangling, cliff hanger endings. Other series like “MVP” and “DaVinci’s City Hall” maybe didn’t end on blatant, life threatening cliff hangers, but nonetheless ended a bit like shaggy dog stories, as so much screen time was expended on developing threads that, then, went unresolved. In some of these cases, the unresolved climax wasn’t necessary at all, but was a conceit -- maybe even a dare to the network, a “nyah, nyah -- you won‘t dare cancel me now, ‘cause my fans would be outraged!” “J-Pod” and “This is Wonderland” in particular stand out as series where the “to be continued…” ending seemed contrived, rather than an unavoidable result of where the series had been headed all season (I mean, “This is Wonderland“ wasn‘t even particularly serialized for the most part).

Sure, “Wild Roses” was a soap opera, so it could be argued there was no specific “arc” that was being developed. And it did actually provide a resolution to a major thread teased through the one season (relating to a quest for an oil strike)…even as it ended with some relationships in shambles and some characters maybe dead/maybe not. But when you think about it, the difference between a reasonable resolution…and an unfinished cliff hanger was largely contained in how close a couple of characters were standing to the explosion in the final scene of “Wild Roses”.

But the result is some series that I was enjoying…which I have little interest in revisiting because of those unresolved cliff hangers. The CBC’s recent reruns of “Intelligence”, I believe, registered staggeringly low numbers, despite a cult fandom that sprang up saying it was the best show on TV -- perhaps the series’ unresolved cliff hanger ending has sapped the enthusiasm even of what fans it had?!

The makers of “Life”, which I referenced earlier, knowing cancellation was likely, did make the decision to wrap up the outstanding story arc in the final episodes…while still leaving things so that if it had been renewed, the series could have continued. They did the right thing. After all, I’m not saying resolve the series as a whole since, obviously, the producers are hoping to be back next year. So if you’ve castaways stranded on an island, leave them on the island…I’m just saying avoid ending with your protagonist hovering between life and death, slumped in a doorway with a bullet in him!

The further irony is that if the writers made the effort to wrap up outstanding threads it also allows them a little more dignity, an exit strategy. Instead of being “that series that got canned in mid-story”, they can act as if that was all they intended to do -- that, sure, a second/third/fourth season would’ve been nice, but not essential.

It’s the difference between someone saying they were fired…and someone saying they quit.

And the difference between a series cancelled ignominiously in mid-story…and a fondly remembered novel for TV all shiny and packaged for the DVD shelf.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

July 13, 2009

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