Some of TV’s most unforgettable moments have come in the form of cliffhangers. Think of Buffy’s heroic death followed by the words on her tombstone, “She saved the world, a lot”; or the slow reveal of the body of Jeremy Bentham at the end of Season Three of Lost; or Veronica Mars opening her door at the end of Season One and saying to someone off camera, “I was hoping it was you”; or Sydney Bristow learning at the end of Season Two of Alias that she had lost two years of her life. Cliffhangers at their best have been celebrated from the moment we began to speculate about who shot JR Ewing to the shock and wonder at seeing the untoppled twin towers of the WTC in last year’s Fringe. There is, however, a flipside.
Cliffhangers have also led to some of the most irritating moments in the history of TV. The fourth and final season of Farscape ended with American astronaut John Crichton proposing marriage to his alien lover and former space Nazi Aeryn Sun, only to have a spaceship zap them with a ray gun, reducing them to a pile of glasslike pellets while they kiss and embrace. One of the finest finales of the 2008-2009 season was that of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a brilliant episode that changed everything we thought we knew about the show’s characters and created some intriguing situations for the following season. That would be a season that would never materialize thanks to its cancellation by FOX. The terrible taste that was left in our mouths by the end of Farscape was partially eliminated by the miniseries that wrapped up the series, but a similar fate seems unlikely for TSCC, meaning that the game-changing images of the last few minutes will be forever unresolved.
A natural knee-jerk reaction—it is certainly mine—is to blame the studios for these dangling cliffhangers. After all, if the Sci Fi Channel had renewed Farscape, the shocking end of Season Four would have led to an exciting Season Five premiere. Likewise, had FOX renewed TSCC all of the brilliant plot twists in the Season Two finale could have led to something truly exciting in Season Three. I certainly share the frustration that others feel with the inability of the networks to find a formula that enables them to keep first-rate but low-rated shows on the air. My growing belief, however, is that much of the blame has been misdirected, that the real culprits are not the networks—or at least not primarily the networks—but the writers, producers, and studios that produce these shows.
It is not the fault of FOX that TSCC ended on a cliffhanger of epic proportions. Josh Friedman and his team of writers must shoulder the primary responsibility for that. They were aware that the show was almost certain to be cancelled. TSCC had twice barely escaped cancellation and FOX had given no signs that renewal was likely. But instead of taking the series towards a resolution that tied up many of the loose ends, Friedman took the series to a finale that multiplied rather than resolved the show’s many threads. Who did this stunt serve? Was it a boon for the fans to have the writers create an intentionally inconclusive cliffhanger for what was likely to be the series finale?
The strategy of the producers in cases like this may be to place pressure on the networks to renew the shows, perhaps by stirring up the fans to demand the show’s renewal, perhaps by showing the network that the show still has plenty of gas left in the tank. When a show has already been renewed, a cliffhanger can be a great thing. The Season One finale of Fringe—with its twin reveals concerning Peter Bishop and the parallel dimension into which scientific genius William Bell has escaped—made for great television in part because the series had already been renewed. But not every show is in the position to end on a cliffhanger.
The brute fact is that television producers and writers need to show more respect to the fans of their shows by ending seasons by wrapping up more loose ends than they create. There is no shame in not ending a season on a cliffhanger. When Veronica Mars was clearly in danger of cancellation at the end of its third season, creator and executive producer Rob Thomas almost defiantly left the final episode unresolved in an attempt to raise the stakes of nonrenewal. It was as if he were thumbing his nose at the network execs, telling them to cancel the show after THAT, if they dare. Instead of devising an episode that could have served both as a season and series ender, Thomas opted for an episode that could serve exclusively as a lead in to a new season. As a result, fans were left with a sensation not unlike a mouthful of sand. Thomas had a chance to wrap up some of the show’s storylines, but refused.
Not all producers take Thomas’s approach. When Everwood was in danger of cancellation, an alternate ending was filmed that could be used as a series finale. Ever since bringing Buffy the Vampire Slayer to television, Joss Whedon has consciously ended each season in a way that the episode could stand both as a series finale and as a lead in to a new season. The only season of any Whedon show to end on a cliffhanger was Season Three of Angel, which had already been renewed when that episode was filmed. And no, Firefly is not an exception; FOX stopped production before Whedon was able to shoot the finale. Even if producers took the approach I advocate, they could still be bushwhacked. Recently his intellectually challenging series Dollhouse was cancelled by FOX, with enough forewarning to enable rewrites for the last two episodes to wrap up the season. But given Whedon’s predilection for ending each season as if it could be the series’ last, I doubt if Whedon and his team of writers will need to make many adjustments to their final scripts.
It would be nice if networks gave every show a chance to end properly, allowing them an opportunity to craft a satisfying finale. In the best of all possible worlds, if a network cancelled a series, they would allow them to continue for a few episodes after being informed of cancellation so that they could wrap up the show and reward those fans that stuck with it until the end. But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Networks are going to cancel shows when convenient for them to do so. Networks will remain the bottom-line entities that they are. In the face of this, the sole responsibility for ending seasons responsibly—especially what could be series-ending seasons—lies with the producers and writers, not with the networks. Producers and writers need to adjust to this unfortunate reality. I love that Josh Friedman created a great show like TSCC, but I wish he hadn’t abused us by ending the series with a game-changing cliffhanger. We deserved better.
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