Should Shows On The Cancellation Bubble Do Season-Ending Cliffhangers?

Senior Television Writer
05.13.18 26 Comments

NBC

Thoughts on the end of Timeless season two — and the tricky question of bubble shows doing season-ending cliffhangers — coming up just as soon as I can read Klingon…

I’m writing this on Friday afternoon. At the moment, there’s no news about the ultimate fate of Timeless, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes soon, and this post will have some acknowledgment of that it if comes(*).

As it turned out, NBC still hasn’t decided, and may not for a bit, as the actors’ deals don’t have to be picked up just yet.

I’d been waiting to write this recap until I knew for sure, but then I saw this tweet from Lucifer showrunner Joe Henderson in the wake of that series’ cancellation:

I’ve been doing this job a long time, and getting my heart broken by TV cancellations even longer than that. Henderson’s sentiment isn’t new to me. Glen Gordon Caron said basically the same thing about Now And Again, a fun superhero-type show CBS canceled after only a single season in the late ’90s, and for years afterwards when I mentioned that show in my newspaper column, I’d get letters from readers still angry about the cliffhanger Caron went out on (the show’s hero becoming a fugitive from his government handlers) in an attempt to dare CBS to cancel him.

It didn’t work for Caron, just as it didn’t work for Henderson, just as it never works in and of itself. TV executives have never made renew/cancel decisions based on whether the latest season finale will give the viewers closure(*), not even in these #EndTimes for the broadcast networks where any semi-engaged audience can be a reason to keep a show around. When showrunners assume a cliffhanger will save them, they’re ignoring decades of evidence to the contrary, and often leaving a bad taste in the mouths of their fans, all for a futile gesture that will have no impact on survival.

(*) Though in a few rare instances, a series-ending cliffhanger was enough to spur a loud enough Save Our Show campaign to make a revival happen, as CBS did with Jericho in the mid-’00s.

I’m not picking on Henderson, by the way. I haven’t seen Lucifer since the second or third episode ever and have no idea what the show evolved into, nor how natural the cliffhanger felt given what had come before. But the way he phrased the tweet made it sound like he only did the cliffhanger as a hedge against cancellation, and it echoes similar sentiments I’ve heard from Caron and many others. It’s naive at best, and self-destructive to the work they’ve been doing for months or years.

And having said all that, I love the way the Timeless creative team chose to end season two on a cliffhanger, regardless of what decision NBC makes after I’m done writing this.

At the start of this season, Shawn Ryan told me that the show’s brush with cancellation last spring — in the wake of another cliffhanger, albeit not one nearly as crazy as this — wouldn’t make him and Eric Kripke any more conservative in their storytelling, nor try to wrap things up just in case they couldn’t fool the cancellation gods twice in two seasons.

“We are using all our best ideas,” he insisted, and “will end the season in what we think is a fascinating place and will then attack Season 3 if and when the time comes.”

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