Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Will There Be Another Season Of [Insert Name Of Favorite Show Here] ?

We hear a lot about "cancel culture" nowadays. It's a controversial and complex topic I have no intention of getting into here. Instead I propose to steal the phrase and re-apply it to something wholly more trivial, the really annoying but seemingly ever more common practice of media platforms (particularly Netflix) cancelling TV series before they can reach their natural and satisfying conclusions.

This was a phenomenon rarely seen on the British television I grew up with, where runs were much shorter and usually complete. We did suffer badly from imports being transmitted out of order and haphazardly, making U.S shows hard to follow but the ad hoc nature of broadcasting back then made watching anything end-to-end a major life commitment. You only had to be late home from school one day or forced to go visit an elderly aunt one Sunday and that was it. You never caught up.

As I learned more about American television practices I realised it was always a bit of a lottery even back in the reign of the big, broadcast networks. Some shows got pulled very early, sometimes mid-season, when the viewing figures didn't justify keeping them on. Others ran a season or two then stopped, leaving everything hanging.

By and large that applied to sitcoms and action/adventure shows which were, by nature and design, episodic. Some, if they ran for long enough, did build up complex narrative arcs but that always seemed to be more a function of their longevity itself than an initial design choice. Shows that didn't make it out of the first or second season had rarely established a narrative arc worthy of the name so the concommitant loss when they were cancelled was heavily mitigated.

Dramas, equally by their nature and design, arrived with an overarching narrative structure baked in or so you'd hope. I'm sure there must be examples of dramatic series from the 1970s, '80s and '90s that ended up being cancelled or pulled before the full conclusion of the storyline could be revealed but I can't remember any that I watched. And I watched a lot of television in those decades. 

These last few years I've been watching television again although what we call "television" now is a very different experience from the linear, rigid, by-appointment, take it or leave scheduling I grew up with. The days of switching on a channel and watching whatever was showing are long gone and even sitting on the couch channel-surfing seems as distant as gathering round the piano for a communal sing-song.

Pick your platform, pay your subscription, sift through the offers, find your show, watch it when you want, where you want, on whatever device you want. It's all about personal choice. Except when it comes to seeing the damn story through to the end.

I've developed a habit. Whenever I think of watching a show now, I check how many seasons my platform of choice is holding. Then I google to find out if that's all of them. More often than any rational person would expect, it's not.

With that in mind, I then google to see if the supposed "final" season is, in fact, the intended end of the run or whether, as is far too often the case, the future of show is either still under negotiation or has already been decided unfavorably.

Then, if I find the show has run its course, I check whether that was planned all along, thereby allowing the whole thing to a reach a (possibly) satisfying dramatic conclusion, whether it was an unwanted termination that was nevertheless signalled in sufficiently good time for some kind of conclusion to be cobbled together, or whether everyone wrapped on the final day of shooting, said their goodbyes expecting to see each other again in a few months and then got their termination notices  while they were supposedly at leisure betweeen seasons. 

This kind of cavalier disregard for artistic integrity seems to be especially prevalent in pop culture fantasy/sf shows aimed at a young adult audience. Or possibly those are just the kinds of shows I watch. I suspect, however, that a sense exists among those paying the bills that this is a fickle and disposable audience that can be jerked around without much risk in a way that might backfire badly if tried on an audience with more power and better contacts.

You might think it's younger people who do have the power and the contacts nowadays with the upswing of social media and the impact of influencers. I think that's a factor too but not in the way those influencers or their followers might imagine.

The upshot of many of these abrupt cessations of content appears to be fan-led campaigns to save the shows, something which, I suspect, provides a welcome buzz of interest for the platforms at no cost whatsoever. It's free publicity. And occasionally it's effective lobbying. Once in a while the buzz will grow so loud someone with keys to the safe might notice and the show might be thrown a lifeline, perhaps by another platform eager to capitalize on the investment already made by someone else, sometimes by the issuing of a reprieve by the current rights owners.

Mostly, though, the shows stay dead. If fans are lucky the showrunner might do a few interviews in which they give some hints of the direction the final season might have taken, had anyone let them make it. The story might even conclude in another medium, with a feature film or a book or a series of comics.

That's arguably better than silence but it's still not the show. What needs to happen is for the show to end in an orderly fashion, with the regular principals and supporting cast in place, with a storyline that brings the whole enterprise to a recognizeable conclusion. It needs to finish with an END card.

Aesthetically, it would seem the way to do this would be to decide at the begining of each new season whether it should be the last rather than waiting until it's over to have those meetings. It might be too much to decide before shooting begins on Season One, Episode One that this is a show that will run for six seasons and no more (although that's what the creators of Schitt's Creek did) but it doesn't seem outside the bounds of possibility to make such a decision on a rolling basis, at the start of each season rather than the end.

While such an approach would bring some problems of its own, they wouldn't primarily be ones of aesthetics but of commerciality. If the show's in decline then having made a decision to treat each season as the last would be prudent. If it's growing, though, who's going to want to stick with that choice come the end of the run?

Let's assume we're not going to do that, then. There's still one thing you could do to minimize the damage. Write the show assuming you won't get picked up for another season not as though you will. Don't end on a cliffhanger if you aren't sure you can haul the show back up to safety later. Don't throw all the cards in the air in the final episode on the assumption you'll be able to pick them up, shuffle them and re-deal next time, when you don't know for sure there's going to be a next time.

I realize this is putting the onus on the people least responsible for the problem but those are the only people in this scenario who both care and can do something about it. The billpayers could do plenty but they don't care enough to bother. The cast and the fans care a lot but they can't do much. The showrunners and writers both care and can shape the story to fit the circumstances, even though those aren't the choices they would have made given a free hand.

Since this seems to be such a regular pattern in the media environment that we have today, perhaps new ways of thinking about storytelling over time will develop. I'd prefer it if people just stopped cancelling shows mid-run but we all know that will never happen. Storylines designed to anticipate and pre-empt that possibility would be the lesser evil.

Not going to help me with all the dangling plotlines tangled in my head right now but let's hope for some better clarity of vision for the future. And some forward planning that doesn't rely on pixie dust and unicorn tears.


  1. I don't think multi-season story arcs were much of a thing before the 90's. Before that, TV series (other than soaps, naturally) were usually written so that every episode ended up with the main characters back at the status quo ante, precisely so that episodes could be shown out of order, with a popular episode repeated in sweeps week and the whole thing could be sold into syndication. I remember when we saw Murder One, a drama written about a single court case that ran the length of the first season, and there was press coverage wondering if any audience would be able to follow it all the way through. Babylon 5, created from the outset with a five year arc in mind, was seen as a bonkers idea.

    1. OMG! I'd totally forgotten Murder One! You're absolutely right, it was treated as a huge innovation at the time. That was before I stopped watching TV and I remember watching the whole thing. That was also the time of the "serious, adult drama series" aka high-production value soaps like Thirtysomething and the first of the well-writen, well-acted YA drama series like the brilliant My So-Called Life (which did end mid-season I think - we have it on DVD so I could check).

      Yep, it was definitely the 90s when things started to change... and then reality TV came along and blew all that innovation away. Or at least onto the cable and subscription channels, where the revolution continued. I'm starting to form an overview now... shame I'm not studying History of Television at the Open University or somewhere. I bet there's a course...

    2. I remember being so frustrated by the full-reset that happened at the end of each episode, I have loved the switch to more serialised content -- but the risk of cancellation is certainly upped the ante on it all!

      Perhaps not quite to the same extent, but I do go through a very similar process to what you describe in the post when looking at a show new to me that has been around a while.

      I'll jump into new shows that look promising just on a hope and a prayer and take that risk, but if it's something with a few seasons under it's belt already -- I want to know what I'm in for! xD

  2. What REALLy annoyed me was that after 10 seasons of SG1..and 5 seasons of Stargate:Atlantis..Stargate:Universe was cut short after just 2..and we haven't seen any real Stargate since...


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