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How To End A Season

I’ve been watching through Supernatural lately (which is fun, and I’ll probably write a post about that show specifically some time), and it’s led me to think a bit about the structure of television shows.

In particular, the nature of the season.  (And not The Fifth Season, mind you.)

Note: I’m not going to bother marking spoilers, since I’ll be referring mostly to older TV shows, or earlier seasons of them.

A TV series often has the problem that during production, it’s not clear whether they’re going to get another season or not.

If they do know?  Perfect.  If there is another season, they can wrap up some plot threads neatly, and maybe set a few hooks for the next season — or, alternatively, go with the most dramatic imaginable cliffhanger.  If there isn’t, they know that they need to wrap up the story and create a satisfactory ending.  Either way, fans of the show can rest assured that they won’t be left hanging forever.

If they don’t, there’s a dilemma.  The show will often be filming while the decision is still being made.  There are two main cases here — the decision is made before the final episode is filmed, or after.

If the decision is made before the season ends, there’s still hope.  The season’s structure is often set so that major climactic events are going to happen in the last episode anyway.  I’ve noticed that in many shows I’ve watched that did have a subsequent season, only small changes in the last episode would be needed to tie up all of the ongoing plot points.

I’ve been watching Supernatural lately, and it’s definitely had that for each of the three seasons I’ve seen.  First season?  All you have to do is tweak how the MacGuffin works, and skip the dramatic car crash at the end, and you’re done.  Second season?  Have Sam survive the battle royale, and give the protagonists a shot at the big-bad demon.  Third season?  Have Sam handle the latest big-bad demon before Dean dies, instead of having her escape after.

I think something similar could be said for the second season ending of Haven, as another example.

I’ve seen this less in Star Trek, where the original series lacked the serial nature common in more recent shows.  For the rest of the different Star Trek series, I suspect the producers knew early whether or not there’d be another season.

On the other hand, the makers of the show could just choose to leave the cliffhanger in.  Maybe the fans will protest in hope of another season; maybe they’re hoping for a tie-in deal; or maybe filming just ended before they knew for sure they wouldn’t have another season.  Or maybe given the heroes a neat ending wasn’t in the cards, as in Angel.

Some series end on one of the small “teaser” types of cliffhangers, where a new plot point is introduced at the very end, to set up a new story that never happied.  This applies to the endings of both Lois & Clark and Agent Carter.

The worst result, however, is thinking you’re going to get cancelled, not actually getting cancelled, and then making a terrible next season.  That’s what happened to Babylon 5.  They planned a full story arc for five seasons.  It looked like they would get cancelled after four, so they pulled out the stops on that season to get all the plot threads tied up in a bow.

And then, at the last minute, they got another season.  Then they proceeded to have all the characters they had so carefully plotted earlier… do all sorts of out-of-character things.  It was not good.

In short, there are ways to work around uncertainty… but it’s better for the creative process to know which way the wind is blowing.

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