Friday, May 18, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

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.


Susan said...

It would be wonderful if the blessed silence of cliff-hangers with multiple deaths/explosions would be accompanied by the silence of zero political ads this year.

Julia Buckley said...

Haha. You've got the basic television formula pegged, Sheila. And some shows do it better than others.

This is the time of year when we discover really good cable shows on Netflix. :)

Sheila Connolly said...

Or a good book, Julia! Summer is when the TBR pile shrinks, just a bit.

Susan, I agree. The political campaign season now seems to start a full year before the election, and I find myself muting all commercials, regardless of candidate or affiliation. I prefer the Irish way: they have three weeks before their election to promote, period. I'd vote for that!

LD Masterson said...

Yup, pretty much every season finale I've seen this year has done the life threatening cliff-hanger. Do these producers really think I'm going to spend my summer wringing my hands and worrying about what happened until that first episode in the fall?

I think we can blame the original Dallas and "Who Shot JR" for starting this nonsense.

lil Gluckstern said...

Sometimes it's almost a relief that I don't have to think about these shows until next year. Meanwhile cable has some fun show that only air during the summer. and I have a zillion books to read. I'm just mad about Harry's Law and Awake. They won't be back, and NBS is so stupid. Viewer loyalty is very important.

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm sorry to hear about Awake (and loved the teaser for next week's show). I've been racking my brain for the name of the British show the lead appeared in--I think I was watching it on cable last year. He's good.

And yet adoring fans drool over the new Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that it's an intelligent show where people talk very fast with odd accents, and the plots are complex, and there are literary allusions. Maybe the fact that they're doling it out in small doses has something to do with it. (It couldn't be Benedict Cumberbatch, could it?)

lil Gluckstern said...

The actor is Jason Isaacs, and the Masterpiece series he was in was "Case Studies," based on Kate Atkinson's books. He is extremely appealing. yes, I think the small doses of Sherlock works, and Benedict Cumberbatch has everything to do with it :)

Diane said...

When I saw the post earlier on Facebook about today's blog subject, I had to laugh. I, too, have been thinking the same thing about crime series endings. This year it really is over the top. And, frankly, annoying. Really, do they think viewers who like the show aren't going to turn in next season if there isn't a big bang at the end of this one? With all of the stupid reality shows and - to some extent - really dumb comedies, of course we will.

I was also recently thinking about the old shows that were actually given a chance to develop an audience, instead of being dumped after a couple of shows, probably having been moved around all over so no one could find it before then. Think Barney Miller, or MASH. Not instant hits, but enduring and good.

As for Masterpiece's Sherlock, it is wonderful. And of course Cumberbatch has a lot - if not everything - to do with it. He's a good actor, but so are the writers.

But there are fun shows during the summer and lots and lots of fun books. And if I haven't got a book (not likely to happen) or need something to watch while knitting, there is always Netflix.

Sheila Connolly said...

I agree with you, Diane. I think MASH handled transitions (and there were several) in a believable and appropriate way. What is surprising is that the show holds up so well--it's not dated. The writers hit a universal vein there, and it still works.

Yes, there are plenty of classic movies I haven't seen--yet!

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Volkmer said...

It would be wonderful if the blessed silence of cliff-hangers with multiple deaths/explosions would be accompanied by the silence of zero political ads this year.