To convince viewers to sit through commercials or binge the next episode, a TV show has multiple cliffhangers or dramatic pauses. Proportionally, when a season ends, a show must have a big enough cliffhanger to entice viewers to come back next season. Therefore, a show usually needs its characters to take drastic action, or a twist needs to be revealed.
Here’s the tricky part: the perfect twist must be SURPRISING, yet, in hindsight, INEVITABLE.
Naturally, a twist that’s just inevitable is boring and obvious. A twist that’s surprising but NOT inevitable is a betrayal of the characters that the audience has come to know. Hitting both at their juncture is a microscopic bullseye.
One of the best twists in television history is the season three finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Within, Captain Picard has been captured by The Borg, a technological hive mind that aims to assimilate all sentient life. Upon seeing Picard’s zombified visage, acting captain Riker orders the Enterprise to open fire, then the screen cuts to black.
This twist is surprising because, until this point, Picard was the calmest of minds, with a warm, genteel voice. That he would become so zombified to attack his own friends was hitherto unthinkable!
In hindsight, though, Star Trek had planted the seeds for this showdown over a season ago when a different antagonist set the Enterprise on a path to meet The Borg. It was inevitable that one of the crew would become assimilated.
Many TV shows don’t have a creative team with that amount of foresight or execution. Additionally, due to increased demand for streaming content, more producers and writers are being promoted higher up the chain without the necessary experience.
One could argue, however, that NO ONE has much experience with executing TV twists in today’s landscape. Enter episodic television’s estranged sibling–serialization!
Serialization media, as opposed to episodic, is the concept that an audience MUST consume each part of a story in order to understand what’s going on. A first-time viewer wouldn’t watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers before Fellowship of the Ring.
Serialization was present at the dawn of primetime television, but fell to the wayside in favor of episodic structure because people had lives that couldn’t revolve around the exact time a program aired.
Today’s viewers, by contrast, have been living in a streaming world for the past decade. Now viewers of EVERY show watch EVERY episode and are familiar with EVERY bit of mythology. To top it all off, serialized television is exhibited to viewers before it’s actually a completed project. This would be the equivalent of writing a novel with readers only a few chapters behind you.
So, we currently expect our shows to consistently deliver surprising yet inevitable twists staffed by inexperienced management using an artistic structure only elevated ten years ago all while fans and executives clamber to have their expectations met. That microscopic bullseye was already hard enough to hit…
So should we just give shows with bad season finales a break?
SURPRISE! Here’s my narrative twist for this article: I think many of these demands are necessary to the process. Because of streaming on-demand, TV is now permanent. Before 2007 or so, who cared if a show made a bad episode? The network would skip it during rerun season, and viewers would remember the good ones. With streaming, all the bad Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes are on Paramount+ too!
More than ever, that means that creatives need proper time, support, and guidance from producers and executives to craft compelling content. That ideal answer, however, withers in the face of feasible budgets and deadlines.
Will the two parties strike a balance? Will viewers ever be satisfied? Or will all of television collapse in on itself, save for the 57 variations of Chicago Law & Order: Los Angeles? Find out in the decades ahead!
Did you already watch Thor, but now need MORE Tessa Thompson in your life? She’s in this show, too! Season four of the theme-park attractions run amok is here, and boy howdy have they long since left the theme park. This show is like watching a domino world record being broken: it’s a huge mess, but you’ll have a blast watching it fall apart.
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