Unfinished Stories: The Logic and Illogic of TV Cancellations

This is one of the times of year when the television networks decide on programs they will continue or cancel, and the new shows that they will introduce for the coming season. (In the universe of television, a season is defined as a group of programs that have been bought for presentation over a period of time, usually beginning after some major holiday, sports championship, or entertainment industry awards show.)

Many viewers will be disappointed by the news that a program they like – perhaps one to which they are devoted– has been cancelled.

In fact, all TV shows are eventually cancelled. The proliferation of networks and programs means that each season will spawn a new crowd of doomed sitcoms, crime stories, and reality shows, as well as a number of cancellations. The decision to cancel a show is based viewership, the only measure of the purpose for which shows are broadcast – to sell sponsors’ products. (Remember, soap operas got that name because their original purpose was to sell soap to radio audiences. Watchers of early television may remember TV actors doing commercials – as themselves – and then continuing to play their characters in the programs.) These decisions are acknowledged to be independent of the shows’ dramatic and aesthetic qualities. Good shows with loyal discerning audiences are cancelled all the time.

In the semantics of television, there are two ways to think about and describe programs: shows and series. A show is generally a sitcom, following the format that goes back to “I Love Lucy.” A comedic crisis arises, characters engage in tried and trusted routines of ironic miscommunication and pratfalls; jokes are set up by the sidekick and punchlined by the protagonist; and, the crisis is cheerfully resolved – another happy ending. Shows also included most of the older cop programs, in which a crime is committed, procedures are followed, and suspects are dangled before the audience until the brilliant police work results in the arrest of the murderer or other miscreant. Crime shows evolved to include crime-solver lawyers, doctors, novelists, and medical examiners.

The other type of program is the series. The series is a hybrid form that combines the episodic structure of the show with a longer range narrative derived from other formats. Each episode is self-contained with respect to the particular mini-crisis that unfolds and is resolved, but the season, and perhaps the entire series, is bound by a single over-arching concept. Most series are crime shows, thus requiring that a particular crime be solved each episode. But the individual episode is framed by the evolution of and/or discovery of insights into some character’s personality, the exploration of relationships, and often movement toward the resolution of some grander conflict, the victory over some supreme adversary, the end of some monumental quest. We see this in current shows like “The Mentalist,” “Breaking Bad,” “Dexter,” “Person of Interest,” “Castle,’ “Rizzoli & Isles,” “Body of Evidence,” and “Elementary,” to name a few. Other genres have taken over the series structure, including medical (“Chicago Hope,” “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Private Practice”), science fiction (“Battleship Galactica,” ”Eureka,” “Warehouse 13,” and “Fringe”), and horror (“Being Human” and “American Horror Story”). Of course, the achievement of the big goal means the end of the story. And, as we shall see, this creates a major dilemma for the creators and producers of the series.

Series have their origin in the soap opera. Soap operas have an epic scope with no ending written into story line. The story line is an assemblage of sequential and parallel subplots: characters come and go, die and re-enter the story (“it was only a dream”), shift in and out of relationships, and endure multiple crises and their resolutions. Soap operas also end, but their longevity makes their endings like our real lives: they go on until they end, often abruptly, but leaving a lifetime of memories. The big programming transformation came with the creation of prime time soaps, beginning with “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” The 1980 “Dallas” cliffhanger, one of the most widely viewed shows in television history, left the world wondering over the summer “who shot JR?” The success of these series spawned other long-running evening soaps including the recent and current “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” and “Scandal.”

We should note here that another inspiration for the series is the telenovela, the Spanish language soap opera form that is followed by millions of viewers in Latin America and in the US. The telenovela is designed to tell a complex story. Its novelistic form allows characters to be developed and revealed, relationships to develop and change, and multiple themes to be explored. But the telenovela is a story that has a clear ending. It may run for a few months or as long as a year, but it has a conclusion. It ends and the performers move on to other roles in other series. The most direct translation of a telenovela into a US English-language series is the long-running “Ugly Betty,” based on the hugely popular “Betty la Fea.”

The series also arose from the miniseries, a story with a long dramatic arc, following the logic of novel and often based on one. Each episode advances the story line, reveals aspects of the major characters’ lives, and moves toward a clearly defined conclusion. “The Thorn Birds,” “Shogun,” and, of course, “Roots” helped lay the foundation of the modern series.

The ending of a series (“Series Finale”) is often heralded with great fanfare. The final episode is usually a two hour special presentation. “House,” “Fringe,” “Eureka,” and “Battlestar Galactica” had impressive, if not entirely satisfying finales, which were hyped from the beginning of the season up to the penultimate episode.

On the other hand, some series don’t fare so well. Popular series are often cancelled long before the final climax and denouement. And some unfortunate viewers find their beloved shows cancelled mid-season. These unfinished stories hold, for me, a unique place in the history of TV series. I have often been on the receiving end of such an abrupt cancellation. The most egregious example is the case of the ABC series “The Nine,” which aired in the fall of 2006. The series featured a complex plot and characters who are never what they appeared to be. The story was told largely through flashbacks as the means of revealing the secrets that lie at the heart of the story. With two episodes to go, ABC cancelled the series. Although there was talk about showing the concluding episodes, the program never returned and it several narrative threads were never pulled together.

Some series challenge both the viewers’ patience and the sponsors’ financial comfort levels. “The Event,” which aired in the fall of 2010, tried to combine elements science fiction, action/adventure, and political thriller in one program. It involved extra-terrestrials, political assassins, a Black Latino president, and a plot by the ETs to kill the president, overthrow the government, and take over the planet. The first, and only, season ended with the eponymous “event” about to happen. But we never found out what it was and what happened in its aftermath.

The 2010 surrealistic series “Awake” was a challenge to viewers’ credulity, but its execution resulted in an engaging narrative. The ending of the first season was neither particularly convincing nor satisfying. But it was a definite ending, which was fortunate, given that the series wasn’t renewed. (Or, perhaps the season finale was a “just in case” in anticipation of non-renewal.)

“The Killing,” which I consider an excellent show, barely survived. The first case took two seasons to conclude, taxing the concentration of over-stimulated and attention deficient viewers. Fortunately, it was renewed, with a promise to conclude the next case in one season.

Of course there is the question of how long a series should go on. Just as sequels to good movies (for example “Alien” and “Pitch Black”) and books (“Dune,” for example) can tarnish the original, the one season too many (which is often the second season) can tarnish the entire series. One of the seminal series, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks,” was an artistic tour de force, combining a deceptively simple but continually convoluting plot, characters and scenes previously found only in magical realist films and literature, striking visual framing, and a haunting soundtrack. The first season was a masterpiece. The crime was solved, with a final episode that contained a powerful climax and satisfying resolution. It should have ended there. But the desire to keep a successful enterprise going, and the belief that the continuing effort will be profitable, led to a second season that seemed forced, disconnected and erratic. Clearly, the creators of the series believed in their long-range vision, but the network didn’t see a future in the show. The final episode of the second season can be interpreted as an extended middle finger to the network executives, as the pure-hearted protagonist descends into madness and is trapped in a Boschian underworld while his body and mind are taken over by the malevolent demon known as “Bob.”

We are entitled to ask how many seasons of “Damages” we needed (although the long arc of the story possibly justified four seasons – the last of which was broadcast  only on the Dish Network). The cancellation of “Body of Proof” couldn’t have come a minute too soon. “Royal Pains” continues into a fifth season, having degenerated from whatever it was intended to be into a soap opera trading on our fantasies about the one percent. “Grey’s Anatomy” challenges its writers to create increasingly absurd crises as the series bounces along.

There’s a school of sharks out there waiting to be jumped.

As I looked over the list of renewed and cancelled programs, I was impressed by how many I never watched and have no interest in watching. I am clearly not so much a television viewer as I am a viewer of some programs on television. I abandon programs with little provocation. I anticipate disappointment as I pick out artistic or sociopolitical flaws in even the most enjoyable programs. I want to be entertained, but on my terms, which are probably unreasonable. But I also believe that some of the best TV series have unfortunately been cut short, leaving their fans with unfinished stories.

CODA: In addition to the shows I’ve already mentioned, here are a few of my other favorite unfinished stories.

  • “Alcatraz,” Fox 2012
  • “Bedlam,” BBC 2011-2012
  • “Carnivàle,” HBO 2003-2005
  • “Caprica,” SyFy 2010
  • “Day Break,” ABC 2006
  • “In Treatment,” HBO 2008-2010
  • “John from Cincinnati,” HBO 2007
  • “Key West,” Fox 1993
  • “Rubicon,” AMC 2010
  • “The Riches,” FX 2007-2008
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