We watch... so you don't have to.


It's May, and you know what that means -- time for May sweeps, when the great community of television viewers is tormented by a process that is outmoded, silly, ineffective, and horribly wasteful.

No, not sweeps themselves, although they are a silly addiction that's going to drive the networks to their death. I'm talking about season-ending cliffhangers.

Watch enough TV, and you'll tremble with fear at the mention of the words "season-ending cliffhanger." Every year, the last episode of just about every series on television -- be it drama or sitcom -- ends with a purportedly shocking conclusion that leaves the storylines up in the air until the season premiere in the fall.

Or until someone leaks the spoilers to Entertainment Weekly. Whichever comes first.

Television producers will explain their rationale to you -- so long as you go and visit them in their small padded rooms. "We need a way to entice our viewers back to our shows in the fall, after our long summer breaks," they'll mumble into their drool cups. "Without cliffhangers, the audience might never come back!"

That's right. TV producers give you cliffhangers because they think that you're ready to abandon their shows for other pursuits -- other shows, movies, even outdoor activities, God forbid -- but will be hoodwinked into staying around because you just can't resist finding out whether Daphne and Niles hook up, if Ross really will marry what's-her-name, if Mulder really is dead, if a member of the president's staff was killed by those fiendish skinheads in the building across the street, ad infinitum.

Because you're really that stupid, apparently.

There was a time when nothing like this ever happened -- or, at the very least, happened only rarely. Time was, series episodes were interchangeable from one another. Once a series went into syndication, the theory went, the episodes could be mixed around in any order with no fear of confusion. Viewers could drop in, watch an episode of Magnum P.I., and not have to worry whether this was the early 1980s Tom Selleck or the older-but-wiser version. The exception to the rule? Soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty, because they were all about the continuing story.

Me, I blame Star Trek for this latest wave of cliffhanger-itis. The first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation ended with Captain Picard giving a pep talk about how exciting it was to go exploring the far reaches of the galaxy. The second ended with a clip show. But the third... well, that one ended with Picard turned into an automaton by the evil Borg, and with Commander Riker ordering the firing of a weapon that would surely bring about Picard's demise.

It was great! It brought buzz to the series like never before. But since then, with each passing year, the TV world's addiction to cliffhangers has continued to grow. Even sitcoms do cliffhangers now, usually with ridiculous premises and predictably poor results.

I'm looking in your direction, Ross and Rachel.

"But sometimes the cliffhangers are really great!" the producers shout from behind the double-locked doors. Of that, there is no doubt.

But even the best cliffhangers are often cheats. Because how ground-shattering can the cliffhanger's results be when you've got an entire hour to fill, not to mention a whole season of episodes to produce? Star Trek's excellent cliffhanger ended up being resolved by having Riker's ultimate weapon sputter and fail after five seconds of use. D'oh!

(Speaking of which, yes, The Simpsons did a cliffhanger one year. But it was a parody of cliffhangers, especially the "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas. And it still sucked.)

"But... the ratings!" the insane shouts continue. "By leading up to a shocking development, we guarantee Event Television and bigger ratings!"

There's some truth in that. However, having your season's ongoing plot climax in May doesn't necessitate a cliffhanger ending.

The best recent example of this thinking is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Creator Joss Whedon had no idea, when he was producing the show's short first season of episodes, whether his series had even a snowball's chance in hell of coming back for a second year. So he decided to create a story arc that concluded in the season's climactic last episode. In the final episode, the year's archenemy was defeated with enough time for a pleasant conclusion in which all our characters went off into their summer vacations. It was exciting, dramatic... and when it was done, nobody felt ripped off.

Cliffhangers, on the other hand, are rip-offs. You end up spending three months waiting for the plot to resolve itself, and it's almost always disappointing (see Riker, Inability to Fire Ultimate Weapons). And some times, it's an extra special rip-off. Because, as Joss Whedon knows, sometimes shows don't come back. You see, there's this little phenomenon called cancellation, and it happens to the best of shows.

Too many series have ended their runs with never-to-be-resolved cliffhangers. The excellent Now and Again concluded last year with the main characters on the run from a government committed to finding them and executing them. What happens next? Ask the Fan Fiction writers, because there will never be an official answer.

Just this past Friday, The Lone Gunmen -- an excellent series that was much, much better than its pilot episode (but that's another story) -- aired a cliffhanger episode. Pretty ballsy, given the reportedly poor chance the show has of coming back this fall.

My advice to you TV producers, before my tranquilizer blow dart kicks in: Don't do it. Make your season finale a special event, a la Everybody Loves Raymond (flashbacks) or NewsRadio (silly modifications of the series premise). Can't come up with a clever last episode? Just end with a strong one, and your viewers will find you in the fall.

And if you must end with a bang, do us all a favor -- end with the bang and the aftermath. Oh, go ahead, give us some loose plot threads if you must. But enough with the suspense already. We don't need it. It needlessly harms your series, and cripples the opening episode of your next season. It's not worth it.

And be careful to heed my advice. If you don't, you risk winding up in terrible, terrible trouble. If you don't listen to what I'm telling you, if you laugh in the face of my warnings, you could end up just like the one series whose cliffhanger episode led directly to its downfall. You know the show I'm talking about. It was a little show named...



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