TV

All That Ends, Should End Well on TV

It would be nice if networks gave every show a chance to end properly, allowing them an opportunity to craft a satisfying finale.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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