Wednesday, June 2, 2010

One of These Characters Will Die Tonight

I watch too much TV. It’s a vice I apparently share with a great many people, so there isn’t quite the social stigma attached to it as, say, heroin addiction, or liking the music of Miley Cyrus, but still, I have enough self-awareness to be mildly ashamed.

It’s that time of year again, when Sweeps Month meets the Season Finale extravaganza. For some reason, that got me thinking about the great Circle of (TV Show) Life. Back when writers and producers didn’t overthink things, each episode tended to stand alone. The end-of-season cliffhanger was something of a moot point, because there were no cliffs on which to hang. The Avengers replaced John Steed’s partner at least four times with nary a dramatic death or illness among them. (They explained Diana Rigg’s departure with two minutes at the very end of the episode, in which Emma Peel’s long-gone husband returned and collected her. I thought it was a big mistake, not the least of which was that kick-ass, independent Emma Peel meekly got in the passenger side of the car, just another 1960s TV wife. Gag. But I digress. These days, her departure would have taken at least half the episode, with some foreshadowing in three earlier episodes.)

Nowadays, after the Hollywood brain trust decided that the way to create loyal viewers was to have more crap about the characters’ lives cutting into the weekly stories, and to have story arcs that span episodes or even seasons, we have the spectacle of the Season-Ending Cliffhanger. “Who will live and who will die? Tune in tonight!”

One problem is that we don’t buy into certain types of cliffhangers. Their outcome is entirely predictable because, if the show is back, they can end in only one way. On Medium, the lead character has a brain tumor that – cue the dramatic music – could deactivate her psychic powers or kill her. Okay, and if that happens, do we rename the show Small and go on with just her widower (who can finally get a full night’s sleep) and her kids? Seems unlikely. On Bones, one of the two leads decides she doesn’t want to do this crime-fighting work any more. Oh really? Any chance of that lasting? Was Dr. House really going to spend the rest of his life in a mental institution, suffering from weird hallucinations? Seems doubtful.

Of course, you can kill off peripheral characters, or even main characters in ensemble shows. Get a big enough cast, and anything can happen. CSI lost William Peterson and went on (though he got the teary farewell, rather than the cliffhanger). And you can create plausible situations in which the principal setup of the show changes. When they “closed down the X Files” at the end of one of the early seasons of The X Files, you could imagine that Mulder would find paranormal cases even as he worked in some other unit of the FBI, or that he’d quit the FBI but would turn to his former partner to do the law enforcement bits. Okay, the betting was always on finding some excuse to get Mulder and Scully back in that basement office, chasing monsters on the taxpayer’s dime, but the alternative was at least conceivable.

It strikes me as cheap and lazy writing to get an emotional charge out of threatening the lives of characters we’ve come to know over the years. In some cases, perhaps it’s a matter of making a silk purse (ratings) out of a sow’s ear (the departure of an actor). Mostly, though, it’s an overused and hackneyed technique.

As it turns out, it’s a fairly ineffective technique on me. I have such a bad memory when it comes to such things that, by the time the new season rolls around, I’ve completely forgotten how the previous season ended. I’m not looking to see who survived the shootout at the lab because I no longer recall it.

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