When is a Finale not a Finale?

Over the last couple of seasons, television networks, in their continuing efforts to keep people watching their shows in the face of ever-growing competition from cable and the Internet, have started calling their episodes before the usual December/January break, the “Fall Finale.” 

I’m not exactly sure when this became a thing.  Shows have traditionally taken a break during December and January, but the reasons are fairly practical.  A full season of a show is usually around 22 episodes.  If the show has its season premiere in September and then runs through November sweeps, that’s upwards of 10 episodes gone.  And then they need to have more new episodes for the February and May sweeps periods, which takes out around another 8 episodes, leaving only four or so for the remainder of the Spring. 

Let’s take a quick step back just in case you don’t know what sweeps weeks are all about.  The ratings for the months of November, February, and May are used to set advertising rates for television series and networks.  Because of this, the networks want new (and preferably spectacular) episodes to air during those months.  As I said before, this has been standard for years.

The Fall Finale, however, is a relatively new concept.  As a showrunner, I don’t know if I’d be thrilled with it, since it basically forces me to think about my season as two mini-seasons with a large act break in between.  By the end of episode 9,10, or 11, the show needs to have built to a place where it can dump in a major cliffhanger designed to make sure its viewers are eager to return in February.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks to be building to some major events with this week’s episode.  Of course, unlike many shows, SHIELD has to keep their audience on the hook until March, since their timeslot is going to the return of Marvel’s Agent Carter in January and February. 

Long-time readers (Do I have long-time readers?) may remember that I wrote a few posts in SHIELD’s first season about the state of the series.  The first two were fairly critical, but by the third I felt that the show had turned around nicely and hoped that it would continue its momentum into the second season.  I’m happy to say that it did and season three has carried on nicely. 

Not to pat myself on the back, but I am somewhat amused to note that in my first SHIELD-related post I laid out a plan for what I thought the show should do moving forward.  Two of my ideas have actually been implemented.  The first, spreading a method for people gain powers to the general population, has occurred through terrigen mist getting into fish oil capsules (I had recommended something involving Extremis).  And the second, having someone on the team develop powers, has happened through the character of Skye (now going by her birth name, Daisy).  I can’t claim any real predictive powers here, though.  These were fairly obvious moves to make for a show set in the Marvel universe.

What has been an entertaining and unexpected surprise is the development of Grant Ward.  When SHIELD began, he was a fairly bland character who looked to be on the show just to provide good looks and muscle.  Since the revelation that Hydra had been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades and counted Ward among its number, he has become an incredibly compelling and infuriating villain.  The actor, Brett Dalton, has been doing a fantastic job making Ward the bad guy we love to hate.  I want Ward dead so very badly, but I know the show would lose so much without him around to make trouble.

Right now, Ward has led a Hydra team along with the captured Fitz through a portal onto an alien world to find some kind of being that Hydra has been looking for for centuries.  Agent Phil Coulson has also passed through the portal, and he’s looking for revenge on Ward for killing a woman he cared about.  Things will be coming to a head this Tuesday, but I’m expecting to be left hanging about the outcome until March.

Meanwhile over on The Flash, the big events were really this past week as the series had a two-part crossover with sister-show Arrow which also served as a semi-prequel to the new Legends of Tomorrow television series that’s premiering in January.  This week’s Fall Finale looks almost tame in comparison.  Yes, The Flash will be going up against three villains (Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, and Mark Hamill returning as The Trickster), but there was no signs of the season’s Big Bad, Zoom, in the trailer.

As a side note, Barry’s secret identity is being kept as well as ever on the show.  This past week, Cisco flat-out called him “Barry” in front of a woman who he’d just saved in costume as The Flash.  Granted, the woman was Cisco’s girlfriend, Kendra, who later found out that she was a reincarnated Egyptian warrior-priestess who could sprout wings and fly, but still.  As Barry said to Cisco at the time, “Dude.  Come on.”

Between these episodes and Doctor Who’s actual season finale, it’s going to be a good week of television for me.  Now I just have to figure out what I’m going to do until everything comes back in the Spring.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter