06 August 2012

Television Hierarchies and Cliffhangers

I enjoyed Emily Nussbaum’s essay in The New Yorker on what American television-watching has become, at least on the high end:

As viewers, we rely on hierarchies to govern our notion of television ambition: cable trumps network, drama is better than sitcom, adult is worthier than teen, realistic is more grownup than sci-fi, grim beats sunny, PBS documentary tops Bravo reality show, and “as good as Dickens” is superior to anything resembling a soap opera.
In particular, Nussbaum highlights the ongoing serial drama—a significant change from television shows a generation ago, when the basic situation in most television shows evolved as little as possible.

Sitcoms used to be, as the term implies, based on a rarely-changing situation. Miss Brooks never married, no matter how much she tried. Sgt. Bilko never got a promotion. Col. Hogan neither escaped nor won the war. Seinfeld was always about nothing.

Similarly, in dramas the basic premise remained the same. There was a detective squad, or a sheriff, or a hospital, and in sixty minutes it solved a problem and returned the world to the status quo ante. Dr. Richard Kimball was never caught until The Fugitive’s last episode. Sheriff Matt Dillon never married Miss Kitty.

Major changes came only when a show’s producers were forced by desperation or shifting casts. The medium fought against them—hence the two Darrens on Bewitched, the four sons on My Three Sons, the move of the entire cast of Laverne and Shirley to California all at once.

Today, however, many television fictions, and particularly those on the high end, are based on the possibilities of change. (Ironically, this was always the case in soap operas, a genre that Nussbaum notes we pooh-pooh.) In drama Hill Street Blues started to associate high-quality television with long-run character development and revelation. More recently we’ve watched The Sopranos, Lost, The Wire, and other drama play out in true serial form, each season a step beyond the last. Even a sitcom like The Office, based on the never-ending monotony of work, depicts great changes in the characters’ lives.

When shows don’t necessarily return to the status quo ante, that opens the door for cliffhangers, and Nussbaum meditates on the technique:
Narrowly defined, a cliffhanger is a climax cracked in half: the bomb ticks, the screen goes black. A lady wriggles on train tracks—will anyone save her? Italics on a black screen: “To be continued . . .” More broadly, it’s any strong dose of “What happens next?,” the question that hovers in the black space between episodes. In the digital age, that gap is an accordion: it might be a week or eight months; it may arrive at the end of an episode or as a season finale or in the second before a click on “next.”

Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying—when, as the cinema-studies scholar Scott Higgins puts it, “curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction.” They are sensational, in every sense of the word. Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told in this manner, the way it tugs the customer to the next ledge. Nobody likes needy.

But there is also something to celebrate about the cliffhanger, which makes visible the storyteller’s connection to his audience—like a bridge made out of lightning. Primal and unashamedly manipulative, cliffhangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling.
Of course, having seen through such manipulation, I’m above it all. As long as Cartoon Network gets back to broadcasting more episodes of Young Justice soon.

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