Does the Renewal of Fringe Mark a Turning Point for Sci-Fi TV?

I want to talk about endings, specifically the final episodes of TV shows. Endings are tough.

There’s just so much that go wrong. A single mention of the final episode of Battlestar Galactica (00s version) still sends me into a HULKRAGE; the last episode of Star Trek: Enterprise left a very bad taste in the mouth; and the final Lost episode was, well, um… what exactly was that? All that time and effort, not to mention emotion, invested in something that just leaves you feeling a bit conned, a bit stupid, a little bit dirty.

And even when things don’t go completely down the toilet, final episodes can still be a bit underwhelming, leaving you deflated and nursing a big sense of “so what?” — yes, I’m looking at you Alias, you too, West Wing… and X-Files, stop hiding in the corner, we all know you’re there with the big dunce’s cap on.

Watching a great TV show hit the home stretch is like watching a gymnastic routine so stunning that the closer it gets to the end the more excruciating an error would be, and you start watching through your fingers, praying they nail the landing.

When a good, or even better a great final episode caps a show you love there’s a sense of completion and satisfaction that’s hard to beat.

For my money the most entirely perfect TV finale ever was the 90 minute ending of The Shield, about which I could wax lyrical for ages, but for my money Angel, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, ST:TNG, and Babylon 5 all nailed the landing too, as did Moonlighting and Due South.

But worse, far worse than a bad or indifferent ending is the never-ending cliffhanger. I don’t mean the finale where the hero kind of loses and which some fans petulantly refuse to accept as an ending — Sapphire and Steel, Blakes’s’ Seven, Quantum Leap — I mean the show that gets cancelled mid-run.

I sat down earlier today and made a list of all the shows I followed religiously that got canned without resolution. In no particular order:

  • Space: Above and Beyond
  • Strange Luck
  • VR-5
  • Earth 2
  • American Gothic
  • Crusade (more of a mercy killing)
  • The Dead Zone (ditto)
  • Odyssey 5
  • Firefly (IT STILL HURTS!)
  • Twin Peaks (although it kind of worked as an ending)
  • Nowhere Man (ditto)
  • The 4400 (ditto)
  • Stargate: Universe (ditto)
  • Carnivale
  • Good Vs Evil
  • Farscape (thanks heavens for PK Wars)
  • Survivors (00s version)
  • The Fades

I’m sure I’ve missed a fair few, but that is one hell of a lot of disappointment for one man to take. I’m sure you all have your own lists of shows that left you hanging.

Over time, this endless grief forced a change of behaviour. At some point I stopped watching new series. I refused to jump on board a new show until it at least limped past five episodes and had started to get good buzz.

When even that wasn’t enough to weed out the soon-to-be-culled I stopped watching shows until they got a second season, upon which I’d go back and catch up. But still some disappointments caught me out.

My father, who is not a sci-fi fan by any means, but who had learned to live with endless bitter disappointment in other areas of his life (he’s a Birmingham City fan!) for some strange reason got hooked on Invasion. When he found he had been left on a cliffhanger by a cancelled show, he simply failed to grasp that this could happen. He was briefly engulfed with uncomprehending fury.

I, world weary veteran of many cancellation campaigns, merely shrugged and said “that’s war, Pops” or words to that effect.

Proof that my father is a smarter man than I will ever be came recently when, having learned the lesson after one cancellation (as the list above attests, it took me LOADS before I wised up!), called me to ask whether Homeland was worth watching. He wouldn’t bother, he told me, if it was going to leave him hanging.

Now just pause and think about what just happened. Here was a viewer who was interested in watching a TV show but who felt screwed over by a previous cancellation so, eventually, didn’t bother.

And who can blame him?

In the end it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — if enough once-bitten people don’t watch new shows until they know they’re going to be a success, it makes it harder and harder for new shows to become a success in the first place, which leads to more never-ending cliffhangers, more disgruntled viewers, and fewer eyes on the next premiere. Sooner or later it becomes a ratings death-spiral.

For my part I barely watch TV anymore. I pretty much only watch box-sets of shows that have finished. For example, I know I’d love Fringe. Have known I would love it from very early on. But I’ve not watched a single episode. But this week’s announcement that they’re getting a final season to wrap up means I know I have a box-set in my future that I’ll adore (that’s assuming the finale isn’t another Lost and I’m put off by a flood of furious tweets).

I understand that TV is a business. I realise that low viewing figures equals low ad revenue and shows that don’t pay their way need to be canned. I get it, I’m not naïve.

But the short term thinking behind the ruthless decision to can shows like Drive, Alcatraz, Firefly and others has built up resistance in the viewing population, like a bacteria exposed to enough unfinished antibiotic courses becomes immune. The networks have treated their audience with too much contempt for too long, and now they’re paying the price.

Media is fragmenting, TV networks are struggling to maintain their audiences in the face of Netflix, YouTube et al. But the networks’ desperation to pull in the masses is leading to the kind of wrong-headed decision that only turns them away again – for example, their decision to end the first season of the U.S. version of The Killing on a cliffhanger, which has really cheesed a lot of people off.

The network, insecure because of general falling ratings and increased competition, probably thought people wouldn’t tune in to season two unless forced to by a lack of resolution, that a cliffhanger would make S2 Ep1 a must-see event.

Whereas in actual fact the best way to get people tuning into to season two would have been to make season one really, really satisfying.

And here’s the truth that they are only just starting to grasp: in a world of subscription channels, streaming on-demand media and box sets, cancelling failing shows ruthlessly and without any closure is no longer a sustainable business model.

Maybe Fringe is the first sign of the growing awareness of this.

Fringe isn’t making money, but the network greenlit a final season anyway. Admittedly, there was an economic imperative to reach 100 episodes and get syndication — but the exec who greenlit the final run also made it clear that he had a sense of duty to the creative achievement of the show, and that there was a compact between network and viewer, a compact that he felt cancelling such a beloved show would be breaking. That’s pretty evolved thinking for a network exec!

And I think it shows the way forward.

From now on every new show that launches should come with a guarantee like this:

We, the Network, reserve the right to can this show if it doesn’t become the success we’d hoped it would be, but we solemnly swear that we will, at the very least, ensure there is time and budget provided to enable the programme makers to put together a final episode that will provide narrative closure. Financial considerations may force us to can the show, but we promise not to leave you hanging.

Such a pledge wouldn’t solve all ills, not by a long shot. But it would at least acknowledge that the networks understand that they have abused their audiences for too long, that they are contrite and understand the need to regain some element of trust and goodwill from an audience that no longer buys what they’re selling.

It would also be good business.

Dad didn’t watch Homeland in the end. I recorded it though, planning to watch the whole series once it was finished. But I heard the other day that they’ve done it again, and ended it on a cliffhanger. And I’m just too old and wise and too-many-times-burned to put up with this nonsense. So I deleted the whole damn show from my hard drive.

I’ll get the box set, thank you very much.

Scott K. Andrews writes the weekly Farscape re-watch for this very site. 


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