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Don’t Leave Us Hanging: Going Out on a Cliffhanger…

So, I saw the final episode of V last night. Talk about disappointing. The series throws us a giant big cliffhanger and then… boom! It’s cancelled by the network in what has been referred to as a “bloodbath.” What makes it more frustrating, though, is the fact that the cancellation was quite probable even as early as last year, so it wasn’t as though the series was cut down in its prime without any warning. The cast and crew knewthat there was a fairly significant chance that this episode would be the last to see the light of day… and they ended on a whopping big cliffhanger anyway. I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed.

After two years, the visitors are sent packing...

Okay, let’s be frank. The new V wasn’t great. I’d be reluctant to even call it “good.” It was decidedly “meh”, especially in its first year, seemingly unable to decide whether it was going to chart an arc or be populated with stand-alone episodes. I watched it, from time to time, in the company of my parents as a family activity, and out of a lack of anything better to do. I had no real fundamental objection to it, but I’d be the last person to stand up and defend it. Still, as it faded to black one final time, it got me thinking: why on Earth would anybody choose to go out on a cliffhanger.

I can understand their logic, I really can. The producers were really hoping for a last-minute pardon from the axe. It has happened before, with the network suspending the death sentence of a show at the last possible second. Part of me wonders if the team weren’t gambling on that – daring the network to pull the plug just as they offered a delicious taste of all the plots they had planned. However, I find myself wondering if ever an artistic decision like a cliffhanger has stayed the network’s hand in a case like this.

Undoubtedly, this “cancel us on a cliffhanger!” dare was part of the strategy adopted by Star Trek: Enterprise when it ended its decent-to-good penultimate season on a “oh my god! alien nazis!” shock twist. But I find it hard to believe the network executives immediately went, “Renew it! I want to know why that alien is wearing a Nazi Uniform… again!” I suspect it had something to do with the fact that one more full season would push the series to a syndication-friendly 100 episodes. Plus, you know, it would have been kind of fitting for a series attempting to emulate the free-spirited sci-fi wackiness of The Original Series to end on a space-nazi-related cliffhanger. V was not in such a position as it ended its sophomore year, so there was little chance of a reprieve.

Lounging lizards...

That said, I can appreciate that sometimes it isn’t necessary to fully wrap up everything in a television show or even a movie. After all, it might be comforting for the audience to know that their favourite characters are still out there somewhere, fighting the good fight. It’s teasing the imagination to suggest that the characters we’ve come to know still have adventures ahead of them. That’s why I love the ending to The Incredibles, for example – it’s a sort of a “to be continued” in a broader sense, rather than this specific instance.

V doesn’t end like that. It ends with the world practically enslaved to the evil alien overlords, and our heroine trying desperately to shake her friends out of it, while her son died happy (at least from the grin on his face) after helping make a half-alien baby. In fact, the only really conclusive part of the episode was that – thanks to CGI – we got to see what these aliens actually look like. Call me old fashioned, but I preferred their original appearance in the classic miniseries. However, I digress.

Some people will be frustrated to update their on-line streams...

On the other hand, I can also understand why – although a cliffhanger might not be desirable – a definite ending might be an even worse alternative. Even if the producers knew ahead of time, it might not have been possible to tie their arcs up in the space that they had. To make the finish line, they would have had to cut corners or cram more in than was advisable. That sort of approach isn’t necessarily fair to the fans either, and could result in a weaker and rushed final season that doesn’t get a chance to address everything that deserves addressing in the space allotted. At least with the cliffhanger, I suppose, they leave it possible for tie-in stories to finish it the way that they intended.

Another possible side-effect of tying everything up in a nice little bow, even if you can accomplish that, is the fact that it leaves you in an even worse place if the network does – through some fluke – decide to extend your stay of execution. Consider what happened when Babylon 5 (intended to run five seasons) was cut sort to four, and then give a last-minute extension. The fifth season was deemed to be much weaker than what came before. In fact, wandering around directionless if you happen to get another season might be as likely to alienate your audience – look at what happened when Scrubs got renewed recently, dropping most of the cast and moving to another setting.

I can see that it might be a lose-lose situation, especially for a show like V. There’s really no way to end on a reasonably satisfying finale that isn’t a grand finale. Either our motley cast manages to save the world from the evil reptiles plotting to enslave it… or they don’t. There’s no pointing really ending on a season finale of a minor victory, because that isn’t exactly very tense, and it leaves just as many questions about where the story goes from there. There’s no half-way measure. There’s no way for a show with a premise as straight-forward as V to do a finale that could be a satisfying season finale and yet still leave room for a follow-up just in case.

Is it a bar to entry?

This is part of what frustrates me about network television. It doesn’t facilitate long- (or even medium-) term storytelling, because the decisions are always made quite close to the line. There isn’t the same comfort zone to tell a story in a certain promised space. If you aren’t going to give a storyteller as much space as they need to tell their story, you could at least do them the courtesy of letting them know how much space you are going to give them. I don’t see a way around this that satisfies everyone, save an arrangement similar to that made with Lost. But, then again, not every television show is Lost.

I do worry, and I’ll probably talk about this again down the line, that this sort of thing might be killing television. I’m wary about jumping on board with a new television show, because I know it’ll likely get cancelled before it goes anywhere. As a result, I don’t watch, and it’s more likely to get cancelled. It’s a vicious circle, and I regret that, but I do only have so much time. Maybe structuring the show into season-long arcs, like Doctor Who and The Wire do might help… but, I think I’ve gone on long enough.

Ah well, I guess it leaves us to imagine how this particular story played itself out. Maybe the aliens won for once…

6 Responses

  1. I often prefer to watch a show on DVD at my own pace. Have you managed to watch Carnivale yet? Not to pressurise you…

    I think JAG had a cliffhanger ending? 🙂

    I remember feeling nervous watching shows like Sliders and even The Girl From Tomorrow and Mirror, Mirror because I had followed them so closely. There were so many shows we used to watch religiously, but I can’t remember the half of them. It’s probably time to sit down and write a list to jog the memory!

  2. Speaking of cliffhangers… just wanted to remind you about the “Morality Bites” blogothon kicking off 2moro, June 29th. Would love your input Darren. Here’s a link http://bit.ly/iHvWBH. Cheers man, Ronan.

    • Sugar. I completely forgot, man. Can I write a post at the weekend, or is that too late? I’m so sorry – everyhting’s been a sort of a scramble of late around here.

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