Category: Television


Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying—when, as the cinema-studies scholar Scott Higgins puts it, “curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction.” They are sensational, in every sense of the word. Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told in this manner, the way it tugs the customer to the next ledge. Nobody likes needy.

But there is also something to celebrate about the cliffhanger, which makes visible the storyteller’s connection to his audience—like a bridge made out of lightning. Primal and unashamedly manipulative, cliffhangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling. They expose the intimacy between writer’s room and fan base, auteur and recapper—a relationship that can take seasons to develop, years marked by incidents of betrayal, contentment, and, occasionally, by a kind of ecstasy.

That’s not despite but because cliffhangers are fake-outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 70.

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In the late nineties, television took a great leap forward. This story could be told in many ways: by focussing on the quality cable dramas, starting with “The Sopranos”; by emphasizing luminous genre myths like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; or by highlighting experimental sitcoms, such as the British version of “The Office,” themselves a reaction to the advent of reality television. Pugnacious auteurs emerged, resistant to TV formulas. The result was one innovation after another: juggled chronologies, the rise of antiheroes, and a new breed of challenging, tangled, ambitious serial narrative. Dramas often combined a plot of the week with longer arcs, a technique pioneered by “The X-Files,” allowing for subtler levels of irresolution. Some ambitious comedies incorporated serial elements, while others, like “Arrested Development,” satirized cliffhangers in much the way that “Soap” had.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 74.

It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder. Which points, in turn, to a dog-not-barking-in-the-nighttime detail that may be significant. In the Better-Never books, television isn’t scanted or ignored; it’s celebrated. When William Powers, in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” describes the deal his family makes to have an Unplugged Sunday, he tells us that the No Screens agreement doesn’t include television: “For us, television had always been a mostly communal experience, a way of coming together rather than pulling apart.” (“Can you please turn off your damn computer and come watch television with the rest of the family,” the dad now cries to the teenager.)

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

Adam Gopnik, “The Information”, The New Yorker (14 & 21 February 2011), 130.

When done poorly, the cliffhanger is all about shoddy craftsmanship, the creepy manipulation by a storyteller who has run out of tricks. When done well, however, it can be about much more: surprise, shock, outrage, and pleasure—the sort of thing that might send you dancing off the sofa. The cliffhanger is part of some of the silliest shows on TV; it’s also key to understanding many of the greatest ones. It’s the visceral jolt that’s not so easily detached from television’s most erudite achievements. But, then, that’s the mind-body problem of TV, a conversation that has only just begun.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 74.

In Alaska today, it’s difficult to find a profession that hasn’t been turned into a TV show….
It’s hard to miss the paradox in this. Half a century ago, the notion that most Americans would soon be at least a generation removed from skilled manual labor would have seemed remarkable. But now that’s where we are, our relative comfort gnaws at us. The frequency that we respond to in [these types of shows] is the same one that makes suburban accountants buy Ford Super Duty pickups and Brooklyn graphic designers grow fake lumberjack beards. And yet this very desire for authenticity has turned some of the last truly unreconstructed frontiersmen in America into that least authentic of creatures: the minor celebrity.

Charles Homans, “A Soap Opera on the High Seas,” The New York Times Magazine (16 December 2012), 50.