I’m a huge fan of serialized shows, particularly the supernatural otherworldly type. Give me a bizarre mystery, confused characters and a hint of a conspiracy and I’ll tune in. Unlike most intelligent TV viewers, once I start watching, I almost never stop until the bitter end.
Unfortunately, the ending for serialized shows is usually bitter these days. Almost none of them stay on the air long enough to reach a satisfying conclusion.
I’m not talking about the rare shows that end with some degree of purposeful ambiguity, such as Lost. I loved the final episodes on the island (and the purgatory of sideways-ville) because they answered enough of my questions, but more importantly they completed the creators’ vision of the show.
It’s the canceled shows that never get a real finalé that have become the rule rather than the exception. Those are like starting a good novel and halfway through realizing that the rest of the pages have been ripped out and burned. The last few years of my viewing life has been riddled with examples of television interruptus: Invasion, Surface, FlashForward, Jericho, Heroes, etc.
Which brings me to The Event. I already have a bad feeling about this one. The first episode ended with a plane disappearing into a rip in the time-space fabric somewhere over Miami; it reappeared somewhere in Arizona. Good stuff. Oh, and we’ve been holding aliens in a Guantanamo Bay type facility in Alaska for decades. Great stuff. Count me in.
Then I see the ratings. Decent for the premiere, but by episode three a third of the viewers have been lost. Uh-oh. Even worse is that I’m not hearing much buzz on this show. That adds up to a lot of nervous network execs, which leads to pulling the plug. We’ve been down this road before.
Some might say that Lost ruined serialized TV forever because the pilot and subsequent episodes were so good that first season that we got spoiled. The real villain here is probably Heroes, which squandered all its goodwill over four increasingly muddled seasons. NBC stuck with it even after it hit a creative roadblock and started to shed viewers, but the extra time never paid off. The show let everyone down, and that failure will probably doom future serialized efforts looking to find their way.
So what can be done for us folks addicted to the promise of serialized TV? One solution would be for the networks to start treating these shows like miniseries, albeit ones that could span over several seasons. If they did this, they could decide up front exactly how many seasons the show would last and map out the whole thing from the start.
But we’re talking about Hollywood, and decisions are based on money, not any sort of consideration for small fan bases or artistic integrity. If a show is not being watched by enough eyeballs, it gets canceled.
Here’s another option. Require networks to give shows a certain number of episodes notice before cancellation. In exchange, the writers must come up with a series of choose-your-own-adventure endings. If canceled after 15 episodes, turn to page 154. Viewers would get a true finalé. Maybe not the original vision, but at least there would be closure.
There is precedent for this working. Jericho was canceled in 2007 after one season, leaving most questions unanswered. Fan uproar led to a second truncated season. It wasn’t what fans wanted, but it was enough for the writers to come up with an arc that concluded the show. It got an ending and all was good.This could happen with every serialized show. Give any writing staff a dozen episodes to reach closure and they should be able to do it.
Alas, that’s not going to happen with The Event. Instead, I expect the same pattern will repeat as with Invasion and FlashForward and so on. Decent start. Inevitable audience erosion. First season building to a cliffhanger. Cancellation. Annoyed fans who wasted 22 hours of their lives.
So what is the end result? Well, for me, I watch TV differently than I used to. It’s pretty much impossible for me to start a serialized show and not assume it will get canceled. I still pick them up, but it’s hard to get invested. I’ll watch because I want to be in on the ground floor of the next Lost, but I’m never fully committed.
Unfortunately, I don’t think The Event is the next Lost. Or even Heroes. Which is too bad. Because three episodes in, and it’s a pretty good show. Oh well. There’s always next season.