Cliffhanger Television in the Age of Netflix

I don’t have cable and I don’t foresee ever having it again. (It’s not you, cable. It’s me.) Initially, my motivation for abandoning cable was a sloppy combination of a classic college “holier-than-thou / kill your television” attitude mixed with a more utilitarian desire to have more beer money. That reasoning doesn’t seem terribly relevant anymore, but neither does cable.

That’s not to say that I don’t watch and enjoy television. I do. A lot. Cable just doesn’t have anything to do with it anymore. I’m sure none of this is odd or novel to anyone reading this, but I’m starting to wonder about the effects of this media shift on the way in which TV narratives are (or will be) structured. What does it mean that I only engage with shows that I can watch on my own terms, often in multi-season chunks on Netflix?

For one thing, it means that cliffhangers, now stripped of their power, really call attention to themselves and make my viewing experience less immersive. I wouldn’t suggest that cliffhangers ruin an otherwise excellent storyline, but when I’m engaged in a marathon viewing of a series on Netflix and I notice a show is putting all its narrative eggs in the cliffhanger basket, I start to imagine a packed writers’ room discussing viewer retention rates and I loosen my grip on the thread of the story. It becomes an art form emphasizing the form rather than the art.

Perhaps, if I knew I had to wait a week for the “exciting conclusion,” the cliffhanger would be both invisible and enticing. But, I don’t. I click “play next” and shift to a different viewing position to avert bedsores. The meta experience of television has changed drastically, but the narrative sensibilities don’t seem to be changing with it.DOCTOR WHO S11.3

Cliffhangers aren’t, of course, the only holdover from an age of more cable subscribers and less instant gratification. Consider the recap. The spinoff cameo. The hyped-up season finale. They all rely upon and draw attention to the structure of the medium, a structure that is becoming less and less dominant in the media landscape.

I’ve observed this shift in other mediums as well. It’s been a long time since I had a pull-account at the local comic store and eagerly waited for a new monthly issue. These days, if I’m interested in a comic, I wait for the trade paperback, a larger volume that cobbles together entire series of monthly editions. Again, the same problem arises with cliffhangers, recaps, and my expectations.

As fewer and fewer of us are willing to engage in the old wait/payoff models of entertainment, I have to imagine that we’ll see a shift away from the kind of narratives aimed at putting you on the couch every week “same Bat-Time, same Bat-channel.” That doesn’t mean we won’t be on the edge of our seats to see how The Doctor outsmarts the Daleks this time, or if Downton Abbey will survive a woman wearing pants, but that narrative tension needs to ditch the gaudy desperation of the cliffhanger model and return to the quiet confidence of craft.

(Easy for me to say.)

One thought on “Cliffhanger Television in the Age of Netflix

  1. “… the quiet confidence of craft.” ~ I love that concluding line… My husband and I have noticed, watching old Western re-run series from 1950s and 1960s television, that even though the viewer can often argue with the depth of the storytelling, each episode can stand alone. Characters reoccur, but every story has a beginning, a middle and an end; and the story structure in the best of these episodes is expertly and eloquently accomplished, depending on the writer and the quality of the acting.

    Was it the 90s when television began to move toward the “soap opera” model of continuing story lines? They can be satisfying. Several of our current favorite series have continuing story lines, but the recap at the beginning of the episode serves to remind the viewer of where the series left off, and the new episode continues where the last one ended. Often with the best of these series the only true “cliffhanger” comes at the end of the season (but, as seasons become shorter and shorter those Cliffhangers become more frequent). So, I know what you mean. It would be great if the writers would engage in “the quiet confidence of craft” and networks would let them. Viewers would appreciate the change.

    I actually don’t watch much TV, but when I find a series that engages, I do look forward to watching it. We’ve started using our Cable Services “On Demand” to catch up if we’ve missed something.

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