Deniable Plausibility: The trite ritual of season-ending ‘cliffhangers’

As the decades advance, television networks produce fewer episodes of tv shows each year, while simultaneously trying to solve the perplexing mystery of declining viewership. This was in part implemented with the notion of a TV ‘season’ which starts in autumn and ends in the spring. This presents a problem for the networks. If by some miracle clueless network mooks stumble upon a show that viewers like, and by an even greater miracle they don’t decide to cancel it, they have the problem of how to maintain the viewer’s interest through the bar-b-ques, beers, softball games, parades and sun-tanning of summer.

The tranditional answer to this problem is the season ‘cliffhanger’. By means of last-episode melodrama, perhaps the viewer will spend the summer wondering how things turned out, and eagerly tune back in in the fall. In 1980, when the producers of Dallas had the charismatic scoundrel JR Ewing shot in the final episode of the season in March, it really did capture the imagination of many folks, and the Big Reveal episode in November of that year was the most watched episode in TV history at that point.

But that was 32 years ago, and since then the imaginary crimson harvest of network stars, who may or may not have died in season-enders, has turned the increasingly violent and implausible ‘cliffhangers’ into a predictable and forgettable ritual. Wowing people depends on novelty, but lazy network writers prefer to cut and paste from old teleplays–or is it network executives who are reluctant to depart from ‘proven’ formulae?

And so it was this year, as the few police procedurals I enjoy suffered the inevitable machine gun strafing, hostage taking, terrorist bombing, and general mayhem of the sort that insults rather than enthralls the viewer. The producers of NCIS even went so far as to have their beloved Man From U.N.C.L.E spy turned Coroner collapse, on a picturesque ocean beach, of an apparent heart attack. Have they no shame–picking on poor old Ducky?

So, re-runs until fall, favorite shows cancelled to be replaced by dreck, and we will ultimately learn which actors successfully re-negotiated their contracts and woke up in their hospital beds during the first episode, and which unceremoniously travelled to Hamlet’s Undiscovered Country, never to be referred to again. Ah for the days of my youth when JR Ewing, whom we so loved to hate, was shot, and we actually cared enough to speculate about who did it during the hot summer of 1980.

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