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

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.”

On paper, that attitude doesn’t seem too different from the cliffhanger dare approach I complained about above, but it’s not quite the same thing. The angle Ryan, Kripke, and company took with the finale is the one they took throughout this shorter second season, and it’s what made year two such a notable improvement over the already entertaining first. These episodes didn’t leave anything on the table, didn’t hold back ideas because they might be better saved for a fourth or fifth season, or because the audience might not be ready to go with a new storytelling model where the history we know could be so easily and frequently changed. They went for it, and the new structure of having Rittenhouse seed the past with sleeper agents in order to rewrite history to its benefit was much more exciting than last year’s Team Lifeboat vs. Flynn dynamic. (Goran Visjnic also got to have, and be, a lot more fun once Flynn became a reluctant ally of our heroes than when he was the big bad.) The danger built, the various romances and bits of romantic tension built (with Jessica’s resurrection servicing both the Rittenhouse arc and the will-they-or-won’t-they of Lucy and Wyatt), and it all came to a head in tonight’s second episode, “Chinatown.”

The mission to retrieve Jiya from old San Francisco goes pear-shaped for both sides, as Emma murders Nicholas(*) and Carol to use the Mothership for her own ends, and Rufus is only able appears to escape Jiya’s prophecy for a few extra minutes before still dying in the past.

(*) Who had already had a child before being brought to the present, thus sparing Lucy from fading out like Marty McFly.

This would be a real bummer to end the series on, since the chemistry between Malcolm Barrett, Abigail Spencer, and Matt Lanter is the heart of the whole show, and since Barrett’s particular gift for playing both comedy and drama helps make a lot of the show’s tonal shifting possible. Fortunately, the finale still has a few minutes left, and those minutes tear up the series’ time travel rules and lights the scraps on fire to fuel a wild cliffhanger where a second, slightly fancier-looking Lifeboat materializes next to the one that just came back from San Francisco, and out of it emerge Combat Lucy and Bearded Combat Wyatt, ready to kick ass, take names, and bring the past versions of themselves on a mission to save Rufus.

It’s simultaneously a thrilling cliffhanger and a cruel one, especially since the show’s future was so precarious going into a second season that almost didn’t happen. If there’s no season three, then Rufus stays dead, we don’t get an explanation for what Lucy and Wyatt have been doing and how they’ve managed to break all the established rules, we never get to see the loop closed where an older Lucy gives Flynn her journal, etc., etc., etc.

But I’m glad Timeless did it, even if there winds up never being another episode, for two reasons:

1) The momentum of this season was so fast and thunderous, especially at the end, that any attempt to slow things down and give us a faux finale (like Chuck and Parks and Rec had to do every half season or so in their later years) would have felt clumsy at best (which season one’s finale did, since at the last minute, NBC didn’t order as many episodes as the creators were expecting), and contrary to the spirit of the season at worst.

2) It’s in many ways the platonic ideal of the unresolved cliffhanger, in a manner that so many are not. Yes, we want to see Rufus get saved, want to know more about the Combat Lucy and Wyatt, want to see everything else that’s hinted at over these last few episodes (like Jiya’s increased control over her time vision powers). But there’s a level of hopefulness to the moment where the story stops (as opposed to, say, when Rufus dies) that makes the Choose Your Own Adventure of it all a fun game to play, rather than a frustrating one. (Which is usually what happens with these “Bet the network will be afraid to cancel us now!” cliffhangers.) Clearly, good things are coming for our heroes, as promised by the expressions on the faces of the new Lucy and Wyatt.

It stinks if we don’t get to see those things, but the promise of them still exists in our imagination. It’s not perfect, but it’s honestly better than some rushed, half-hearted stab at closure where the good guys are bruised but unbroken, and vow to fight another day. This is one of the most fun and exciting moments of the show’s entire run, and I value the delight I felt when I saw it far more than I do the frustration over the possibility of never seeing what happens next.

Every show ends sooner or later. In an ideal world, all of them would bring their stories to some kind of conclusion before that happens. But we know it’s not an ideal world, even if no one is going into the past to rewrite history for the worst. (That we know of.) Sometimes, the best you can hope for is a closing note that’s crazy, memorable, and fun in what it promises, even if that promise never gets fulfilled.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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