Friday, April 28, 2006

Some thoughts on cliffhangers

If you don't vote in this best-of-TV survey, I will be very sad.

Big updates coming over the weekend. Lots of links to add and people to give shoutouts to. But that will all have to wait for a bit.

As May, month of season finales, is upon us, it's important to point out a few things about cliffhangers. There are going to be a LOT of them, and I think they need to follow a few simple rules. In lieu of doing something more intensive (like a perfect episode post), I think I'll talk a bit about what makes an effective cliffhanger.

1.) It has to be something that won't be easily undone, that will either scar the characters or change them irreparably.

Good example: The West Wing's first season cliffhanger was an assassination attempt. Now, on a show about the president, you knew they were getting to this eventually, but you also knew that when we came back for season two, EVERYTHING WOULD CHANGE. Since the whole cast (virtually) came under fire, there was also the possibility that one of them would die or be seriously injured (Josh was injured). And the whole event had emotional payoffs throughout season two. In short, ramifications were in order.

Bad example: The West Wing's second season cliffhanger was a weird mash-up of multiple sclerosis and the Clinton scandal (should the president be allowed to keep secrets was what Sorkin was going for, I think). None of it quite worked as well as anyone wanted it to, and then the cliffhanger was the president standing in front of the press, ready to say if he was going to run again or not. OF COURSE HE WAS GOING TO RUN. If he doesn't run, there's no SHOW. It makes NO LOGICAL SENSE for him not to run. What's more, he wasn't really tested by the scandal (this is when Sorkin got into his weird, "I'm right; you're wrong" phase of the show). He just became even more convinced of his principles. The rest of that finale (Two Cathedrals) is shockingly well written, but that cliffhanger is pretty dumb.

2.) It shouldn't be something that presents two options: a.) the show stays pretty much the same or b.) the show ceases to exist.

We kind of talked about this above, but here is another example.

Good example: The X-Files second season finale featured Mulder trapped in a burning rail car full of dead alien bodies. Now, we all knew Mulder wasn't going to die (the show wouldn't work without him), but he was closer to The Truth than he ever had been before. Therefore, the show created a false cliffhanger (would Mulder get out alive?) that was supplanted by a much better real one (what would he learn about the conspiracy?). It all sort of makes you wish that the conspiracy wasn't so darn convoluted.

Bad example: In The X-Files' fourth season, the cliffhanger centered around Mulder dying. Scully reported this to her bosses. But we never saw his body. Not only did we know that he wasn't really dead (again, no show without him), but we ALSO knew that it was probably a put-on. But we really had no idea why. The show didn't provide a substantial backup cliffhanger to keep us interested. It pretty much relied on us to say, "I wonder how they'll get out of this one!" to hold interest over the long summer.

3.) It's not necessary, but it's nice if the cliffhanger doubles as something that could be a series finale.

Obviously, there aren't going to be good and bad examples of this because it's so rare, but I think the show that did it the best was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you "ended" the show in any of the six seasons before the final season, you would have a nice, complete story. Most of this was because each season had a main, over-arcing villain who was defeated in the finale, but credit is also due to the writers for coming up with scenarios that doubled as reasonable stopping points AND credible cliffhangers.

To wit:

First season: Buffy defeats The Master, an ancient vampire who has plagued her nightmares. In addition, love triangles resolve themselves. We've ended the first season's main storyline, but we've still got room for more stories.

Second season: Buffy sends the man she loves to Hell. Love triangles become more tangled. Everyone suffers and is in pain. Buffy leaves town for good. While this is a "cliffhanger" scenario if ever I saw one (and every genre show has tried to have a finale as stuffed to the gills as this one is, mostly failing), it also works as a credible ending point. Ending the story with Buffy removing herself from the monster-killing life would have been downbeat, but it would have been an ending. No real loose ends there.

Third season: Buffy and the gang graduate. This, obviously, is an ending point, but it's also a great cliffhanger because the WHOLE PREMISE OF THE SHOW is going to have to change.

Fourth season: Buffy and the gang take down a government project, then have crazy dreams. The dreams work both as a look back at four seasons of the show and foreshadow the fifth season to come.

Fifth season: Buffy dies. Now that's closure!

Sixth season: Willow doesn't destroy the world. Buffy ends her depression. Etc. For a season about how life kicks you in the unmentionables, this brought the show full circle. Only the weird Spike-has-a-soul addendum crosses over into cliffhanger territory, though it conforms with the next rule. . .

4.) A good cliffhanger throws everything (or one very important thing) into question.

Good example: Alias was a show that was built on cliffhangers in every episode, but the ones it had in its first and second season finales were doozies. The first season cliffhanger revealed that Sydney's mom was, indeed, alive. And she was evil. And running the organization Sydney had been fighting against. While it wasn't a reveal that shook up the whole show, it shook up the central dynamic (Sydney's relationship with her estranged family) in many new ways. The second season cliffhanger involved Sydney waking up TWO YEARS after the scene immediately preceding the wakeup. It could have been a soap opera plot device, but on a show about spies, it made a kind of crazy sense, especially since it essentially voided all of the relationships that had been built up to that point (and, apparently, turned Sydney's father into a crazy hobo).

Bad example: Alias' third season ended with a ho-hum scene where Sydney went to a bank and. . .read some documents. In season four, we learned just how boring those documents were. But because we didn't learn what was in the documents in the third season finale, we simply couldn't be bothered to care about what they said. It's the equivalent of Darth Vader saying, "Luke. . .I may know who your father is" at the end of Empire Strikes Back.

5.) If possible, a good cliffhanger encapsulates the show's central conflicts.

Good example: In Cheers first-season finale, Sam and Diane finally kissed. Because the whole show was about how the two couldn't stand each other, tuning in for season two was guaranteed, simply because we couldn't wait to see how they would embark on a relationship.

Bad example: In one of the later season finales, Sam and Rebecca finally slept together (in the case of a romantic cliffhanger, you should almost always end on foreplay). Because the show had ceased to be about that will they/won't they tension at its heart (it was much more interesting as a big, loopy ensemble comedy), the cliffhanger failed to sustain much interest.

Whenever possible, a cliffhanger should take chances. It should change the show in a way OTHER than a plot shift. It should threaten the characters or move things forward thematically. It should place them in new situations that will test them physically AND emotionally.

Because, even though that's how they got their start, a good cliffhanger is NEVER just, "How are they going to get out of this one?"


Anonymous said...

the second season of the west wing wasn't really a cliffhanger. during the episode, it was said that whenever Bartlet decides to pursue something, he puts his hands in his pockets and smiles. when he is asked whether or not he is going to run, this is what he does. you'd have to have been an idiot not to catch that.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I haven't seen the episode in two years, but I didn't remember that happening. I'm sure you're right.

And, anyway, that makes it an even WORSE cliffhanger (it's constructed like a cliffhanger, so I treat it like one). Because we know EVEN MORE what he's going to say when the reporter asks him the question.