Commitment Issues

Sit down and get comfortable, boys and girls.  I’m going to tell you a story.  Here’s the catch, though: I might not finish it.  Maybe I will, but more than likely the story will come to an abrupt halt.  Even worse, that so-not-an-ending will be a huge cliffhanger, putting the futures of the characters you’ve come to love in jeopardy, and YOU WILL NEVER KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!

BWUHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Sorry.  Went a bit evil there for a moment.

But seriously, given those terms, would you even want to start listening to the story?  I’d be hesitant myself, yet this is exactly the situation we viewers find ourselves in at the beginning of every television season.  We pick up new shows not knowing if we will ever get an end of the story.

This is less of an issue with sitcoms, which tend to have less of an arc (Exceptions like How I Met Your Mother not withstanding), but with long form dramas, particularly those that have some kind of mystery (criminal, supernatural, science-fiction, or otherwise) at their heart, it is very likely that viewers will be left without a satisfying conclusion. 

According to Screenrant.com, between 2009 and 2012, 65% of new US network shows were canceled by the end of their first season.  And Zap2it.com found that the 2013-14 TV season was even worse, with ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX canceling 70% of their new series. 

Looking down the list of cancelations from the last few years, there are many shows that left their audiences without any kind of resolution to the storyline they began.  Not surprisingly, several of them had big sci-fi mysteries at their core: FlashForward, Invasion, Awake, The Event, and Surface. 

It’s not just a sci-fi series issue either.  As I discovered last week, it can even happen in musical comedies.  ABC’s Galavant was sold to viewers as an eight-episode mini-series event.  Embarrassingly, I believed them.  I’ve watched enough TV by now to know that every show, even one that claims to be limited run, wants a second season.  Hell, the creator of Galavant came right out and said it in THIS interview: “Though the initial run is only eight episodes, Fogelman envisions Galavant as the first of a series of specials. ‘The episodes are giant in scope, it would be a crazy and borderline thing to try to do 22 episodes ... Our first season of the show is kind of like one giant movie.’”

So I watched all eight episodes expecting to have fun with a light adventure tale containing a few songs, a few laughs, and a happy ending.  I got a few of those things.  The story was light, there were songs, and I did laugh, mostly because of Timothy Omundson, who is fantastic as King Richard, a part that is miles away from his Detective Lassiter on Psych. 

What was lacking, though, was an ending.  (Mild spoilers ahead here, folks.)  Galavant ends on a massive cliffhanger, which the main characters separated, one imprisoned in a very creepy way, and a very not nice character quite happily ensconced on the throne of Valencia.  The Jester/narrator even sings something about wondering if they will get a season two.  Another spoiler alert, folks: They won’t.  Galavant’s ratings were pretty awful, and the show did terribly with the coveted Adults 18-49 demographic.  The Cancellation Bear, who I have mentioned in posts before, puts it at certain to be canceled. 

While I enjoyed the show, part of me is frustrated at spending that time watching a story that will never have a proper ending.  I don’t like that feeling, and, if I’m honest, fearing that I will get involved in a show only to have it ripped away from me without any kind of conclusion has prevented me from even starting several series with potentially-interesting premises.  I have to wonder how many other viewers are staying away from new shows for the same reason.  We’ve just been burned too many times.

For the television networks, this creates a nasty cycle: they air a show, some viewers get heavily invested but the ratings aren’t high enough to sustain it, the network cancels the show, the show’s fans are unhappy because the show didn’t get a proper ending and are less willing to try a new series the next season.  Therefore, the next crop of new shows gets even lower ratings, and the cycle repeats.

The NBC series Constantine had an initial order of 13 episodes.  All double speak by the production company and NBC aside, it’s not coming back.  Episode 13, currently scheduled to air on February 13, 2015, is going to be the end of the show.  Very likely, this final episode is not going to resolve the show’s ongoing arc about the “rising darkness.”  Even worse, it may end on a cliffhanger; although, that would be more likely if the series had been given a full season.  Either way, fans are going to be left without a resolution and possibly less willing to get involved in a new show next season.

As it currently stands, this is the way television production works.  Shows obviously want to keep going, so they focus their episodes and storylines on drawing in viewers as best they can and keeping them engaged.  If they were picked up for 13 episodes, they hope that the networks will give them the full-season order of 22 episodes and then an order for another season.  Every so often, a series accepts reality and tries to bring things to a conclusion.  Wonderfalls, a series I names as a Pick of the Week, is one such show.  Whether due to their own design or the sense they got from the FOX network as the show was heading to air or the fact that they were pulled from the air after only four episodes, while the rest of their order was still in production, the showrunners of Wonderfalls made their final episode work quite well as a series finale. 

This is very uncommon, so what is a network to do?  The answer, as much as we viewers might like it, is not to just keep every show on the air regardless of the ratings.  That’s not how TV works.  However, when networks order a new show, they could insist that the creators craft two endings for the final episode of the run: one that wraps up the show’s story and one that keeps things going in the event the show is picked up for additional episodes.  The obvious drawback here is that this will cost more money.  Depending on the show and the storyline, the material required to wrap up the story could be a few scenes up to an entirely different final episode.  And this money would be spent without any perceived immediate benefit to the network or the production company.  The show is being canceled.  Why spend more on it?

While that particular show may not be saved, the fact that the series gave the audience a conclusion to the story may make them more willing to come back for another new show in the future.  That assurance, knowing that whether a show lasts for 13 episodes or 13 seasons, that there will be an ending will, I believe, engender viewer good will.  Viewers that don’t want to get involved in anything new for fear of falling in love and having it ripped away (Bring up Firefly at a sci-fi convention and see what happens.  And we at least got a movie for that series.), won’t have that to worry about any more.  In the end, the extra money to create finales will be funds well spent.  Viewers will come back to try more shows, and the alternate footage will an extra selling point on the DVD/Blu ray sets. 

Beyond that (And I realize this matters little in the business side of television), an ending fulfils the unspoken contract a show makes with a viewer.  The show is basically saying, “I’m going to tell you a story.”  We’re giving this show our time because we want to watch that story, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It might cost them a little more, but the networks need to give us an ending. 

- Alan Decker

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