May is the month when somebody dies.
I'm talking about television series, particularly the long-running ensemble shows with large casts, so you can imagine eliminating one cast member without the whole structure falling apart. Think the CSI family, NCIS, The Mentalist, Criminal Minds, and so on, where death and destruction lurk around every corner. In May, the usual end of most series' season, something has to go seriously wrong in the last episode, leaving somebody's life hanging in the balance.
I understand the value of a cliffhanger, really, I do. We as writers want to leave our readers (or in the case of broadcast/cable/whatever people use these days, the viewers) with a burning question that absolutely must be resolved in the next book or coming episode. We want them to groan at the end of the season and make a mental bookmark to tune in as soon as the series returns, usually in the fall, to find out who survived and who didn't. In case that bookmark isn't enough, networks will start bombarding us with teasers months in advance.
We've been watching some of these casts for years now, and we've come to care for the characters, some more, some less. That's what keeps a series coming back year after year, and keeps people watching it in endless reruns on cable stations. Viewers like the people in the show. That's a good thing.
But don't you feel just a bit manipulated when the scriptwriters sit down to create that season-ender and pull out the hackneyed devastating crisis, leaving you wondering just who is going to walk out of the smoke and debris in September? Admit it: you find yourself making mental bets, and running down the list, thinking, "isn't he making a movie this year? Bet he wanted time off," or "they've pretty much gone through every possible plot twist for her (i.e., she's been romantically involved with every male castmate)—maybe she'd better get bumped upstairs about now" (or die now—anything that removes her from sight, permanently).
Seeing this plot device once in a while is fine. It's a powerful ending; otherwise it wouldn't be used so often. However, when every series of the crime-solving ilk uses it at the same time, it becomes almost comic. You can surf from network to network and see the same promo for The Last Episode of the Year: The Explosion. Doesn't matter which show or which cast, but you know the building will blow up. Or some thug will spray the bar where the cast is celebrating their latest victory with automatic gunfire. Or a terrorist will spread a lethal plague in the subway system. Or (fill in your own choice of cliffhanger). And some cast member will walk into the sunset.
And then in the fall someone new will walk in—the silver-haired team leader, the sexy blonde, the brash youngster, the geeky techie—and soon we won't even remember who it was that was vaporized the year before. Series life will go on.
We've got another week or two of explosions to get through. And then blessed silence—until September.