THE BACK PAGES

The death of the J.R. cliffhanger

JAIME J. WEINMAN September 25 2006
THE BACK PAGES

The death of the J.R. cliffhanger

JAIME J. WEINMAN September 25 2006

The death of the J.R. cliffhanger

tv

JAIME J. WEINMAN

As seen in this week’s reruns, season-enders have given up the bang for the whimper

If you watch CBS this week, you’ll be seeing a lot of episodes that don’t quite end. The network is showing reruns of all its season finales that ended in cliffhangers—unresolved endings that are supposed to keep viewers frustrated until the fall. But today’s cliffhangers are shaping up differently from the shooting of J.R. on Dallas, or the transformation of Captain Picard into a member of the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Look at the way many shows ended last season, and you’ll see that they broke off without anything violent or suspenseful, and the only things unresolved were the characters’ emotional issues. Call it the touchy-feely cliffhanger.

Traditionally, when a show ended a season on a cliffhanger, it put the characters in a sticky situation—usually the threat of death or destruction—making us wonder if they’d get out. The point was to suggest that things might never be the same; then viewers would tune in for next season’s premiere and things would be the same after all.

This past season, though, saw the most violent and twist-heavy shows go out without anything spectacular. Over on HBO, The Sopranos had closed previous seasons with big, violent plot twists. But in its most recent season, it put the big murder scene in the nextto-last episode, and closed out with a mostly non-violent story: creator/showrunner David Chase presented the personal problems of each character, and expected us to come back later in the year to see if they’d get over those problems. The show NCIS had the hero, played by Mark Harmon, go through an explosion and a coma, but he recovered before the episode was over, and the end of the season merely suggested that he might decide to re-

tire. It seems that in this era of loud, fast television shows, the trend is toward surprisingly low-key season-enders.

The king of dour CBS procedural shows, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, ended by emphasizing the self-doubts of the hero, Grissom (William Petersen), and hinting that he might, perhaps, be having an affair with a co-worker, Sara (Jorja Fox). Like The Sopranos and NCIS, CSI moved its most violent moments to an earlier point: a character got shot at the beginning of the season finale, but he was all right by the end of the episode.

Naren Shankar, one of the executive producers of CSI, says that shooting a character wouldn’t have been an effective season-ending simply because everyone has seen that too often: “The whole notion of one of the regulars getting shot, and his life is on the line, has become so familiar as a season-ender that it’s boring. I remember watching a bunch of season finales of a bunch of different shows, and the promos started looking the same. ‘Who is going to die? Who will die?’ ” Instead, he and the other executive producer, Carol Mendelsohn, focused their first-ever cliffhanger on the characters’ emotions and relationships—the things that aren’t related to the violent plot lines.

Part of the point here is to acknowledge the increasing sophistication of viewers, and

their familiarity with TV formulas. Audiences can be turned off when they are teased with the possibility of death or violence: we know that the lead character won’t die. “The death of a character is one of those very commonplace things that has sort of become a cliché,” Shankar says. “There are other ways to do things, that don’t require you to commit some act of violence.” So the emphasis has shifted toward the things that actually might happen: the hero won’t die, but he might have an affair or feel bad about himself.

The other point of adopting this strategy is that it seems to work. CSI fans reacted to the season-ending touch of romance as if it were a huge, shocking plot twist. Shankar proudly points to the intensity of fan reaction to the hints of an affair between Grissom and Sara, saying: “It’s nice that so many people are so vested in the characters that it generates that kind of response.” It’s a device that is particularly effective on shows like CSI, which aren’t known for character development. Fans were surprised, he says, “for a show like ours, that is so procedural, to do what I think is a very justified character moment after six seasons.”

Not that the would-be-shocking cliffhanger is gone altogether. At least three shows ended last season with someone getting shot. But they were E.R., House and Grey’s Anatomy, all hospital shows. As the violent cliffhanger leaves action shows and comedies, it’s being wheeled into the TV emergency ward. M