Jaxton Kimble

Jaxton Kimble

- making stuff and rambling about it -

Enough Rope to Cliffhang Yourself

I just caught up with Continuum via our On Demand, and I may eventually have something coherent to say about it, but right now it’s only relevant in that it caught one of my hangups with its finale: the season-ending cliffhanger.

Let’s be clear, first, in that I’m not claiming some kind of fan-abuse for being handed a cliffhanger. I recognize the utility of them in serial fiction. You want people itching to see what’s next, and unresolved peril / conflict / mystery is an excellent way to incite chomping at the bit. “Holy crap, what’s going to happen?” is just the kind of thing you want so that people keep coming back.

My concern, however, is the combination of the tried-and-true cliffhanger with the far less dependable nature of television series renewal. A cliffhanger is, generally, a kind of promise: the viewer1 lets the writer play with his emotions, and the writer implicitly promises to resolve the cliffhanger in return for continued patronage.

And if the only two participants in this opt-in emotional blackmail were the writer and the viewer, I’d be just fine with playing this little game with those writers who’ve earned my goodwill. But there’s that pesky network in the middle, whose decisions the writers don’t always have the ability to influence. Or, in many cases, even predict. So for every Stargate SG-1 or Quantum Leap, where season-ending cliffhangers always found their other-side finishes, there’s a VR.5 or Sarah Connor Chonicles, which built to cliffhangers that could never resolve, since the networks behind them decided they simply weren’t worth another season.2

Continuum, by the by, is safe for at least one more season, but it still doesn’t push my buttons any less in this department. Networks are under no particular obligation to guarantee follow-up season news in advance of receiving a full season’s delivery. I don’t doubt there are indicators and assurances of various stripes, but if the Corporation Person is anything, it’s frustratingly inconsistent and rarely fully self-aware. The person telling you “oh, yeah, we love this show. Go for broke,” may just be talking to the wrong gaggle of Corporate Cells. Heck, sometimes networks take a series off the air before they even show all the episodes they purchased.3

I think I’m entitled, then, to get extra nervous when a season finale ends on a severe cliffhanger. Television series these days seem to be perpetually on double-secret probation. Here’s the thing: I’m all for leaving dangling threads that aren’t entirely resolved, especially in an ongoing mystery / conspiracy show like Continuum. Answering all the questions or giving everyone a happy ending isn’t what I’m after. I’m signing on for something ongoing, and even when a show “ends,” I like to have a sense of character continuity, that just because the cameras aren’t around any more, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still something going on.

But maybe we soft-peddle it just a tad. Resolve the more looming pieces you’ve focused on in your current season. That was your primary story, anyway, and one hopes that you aren’t Lost when it comes to having figured out what’s going on with those larger pieces when you placed them on the board. Tease things, give us answers which may be unsettling, or which may lead to some more questions. You can still keep us on the line without having to put us all in jeopardy of being stuck forever with sore asses from never getting off the edge our seats when the network left hand chops off the network right hand that patted our heads and told us not to worry, there was another season aborning.

Or, I could just still be bitter about Journeyman dying after only half a season.

1. Or reader, obviously. Serial prose is just as rife with cliffhangers. But we’re talking about a few things which are slightly more common to television, so I’m sticking with viewer because I want a single word and refuse to use “consumer,” much as the entertainment industry might like to minimize me as such.
2. I’m not going to make arguments for what should or shouldn’t have been renewed. That’s a much longer, and probably more contentious, post. These are just the examples that came to mind.
3. I shall now show pathetic sad faces in the direction of Firefly. Feel free to judge me for my membership in the Whedonic Herd. We love what we love.

Related: I found this old io9 article listing a heaping helping of shows cancelled with unresolved cliffhangers. So, hey, I’m not alone in noticing these sorts of things happen regularly.

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