If you happen to follow a decent number of TV critics on Twitter, you may have noticed a minor eruption of late. A schism has emerged, prompted by accounts like The Cancellation Bear
, which concerns itself solely with the topic of whether or not series are likely to survive based on current ratings patterns. That may sound perfectly innocent on its own, but quite a few admirers have expressed the notion that they refuse to dive into a series if they get the sense that it will come to a premature end, thereby robbing them of closure. This idea has, naturally, left many critics incensed: isn’t TV a medium founded on chaos, on the thrill of working within limitations and at the whims of fickle audiences? Moreover, isn’t it silly to always want tidy resolution in the context of such an inherently complicated medium?
For most TV fans, this debate must feel weirdly antiquated by now. Sure, network TV is still subject to Moneyball-style behind-the-scenes data crunching, but everywhere else, the traditional metrics are beginning to fall away, and with them, the traditional pilot-to-series model. In other words, a hell of a lot more series are being produced a season at a time, and many notable ones are being unleashed by streaming services simultaneously, without the need to wait between episodes. The opportunity for showrunners to craft cohesive, well-structured, easily digestible narratives has never been greater. Despite that, 2014 has been a remarkable year for series that experiment with tone, pace, form, and narrative expectation, proving that the increased security offered by newer production models don’t have to mean we’re stuck with safer content. If anything, creatively speaking, TV’s actually getting riskier and more experimental despite the increase in stability of production.
While it’s not part of the streaming/binge-watching model, HBO’s The Leftovers is an excellent case study of what the medium is capable of in 2014, for better and (occasionally) worse. With Lost celebrating the tenth anniversary of its premiere this year, that series’ legacy has been freshly debated, along with the merits of one of its principal architects, Damon Lindelof. Lost, however one feels about it, was pitched almost perfectly between old-model and new-model production; yes, it had to deal with cast changes and various network forces, as it aired on ABC, but its writers also decided on a concrete end-date and overarching direction midway through the run, signposting the way for many series to come. The Leftovers marks Lindelof’s return to the medium (aided by co-showrunner Tom Perotta, who authored the book the series is based on), and many who saw his name attached refused to even give the series a try, fearing that they’d be led on a Lost-style journey with a (to many) infuriating conclusion. In a sense, they weren’t wrong to be afraid: if Lost‘s tendency to meander down apparent blind alleys and proffer metaphysical theories in place of traditional narrative momentum set your teeth on edge, The Leftovers is probably not the series for you. If, on the other hand, you’re invested in the elastic possibilities of the medium in terms of form and content, you could do a hell of a lot worse. Most tellingly, the episodes where the show changes perspective completely to focus on a previously tertiary character have been by far the most lauded. If it hadn’t been renewed, no one could have complained that the “story” ended prematurely, since the series is about a state of existence, not a sequence of events.
The Leftovers is part of a wave of recent series that are more concerned with how characters experience their universe than what they do, or how they fit into a larger mythology, all of which have found a grateful viewership. The most brazen but least-watched of these is probably Sundance TV’s Rectify, an ostensible murder mystery that uses a pulpy premise to smuggle in enough pensive melancholia to fill seven Romanian arthouse movies. Yes, there’s a murder to be solved – eventually – but the dead aren’t going anywhere. That’s not the case on Les Revenants, the gloomy French export where a town’s departed loved ones (and not-so-loved ones) return to an emotionally scarred landscape soundtracked by Scottish masters of gloom Mogwai. While it’s too early to tell where it’s going, Showtime’s The Affair completely upends the notion of narrative clarity through a deliberately disorienting ose of extreme subjectivity from lead characters at cross-purposes. Literally all its bifurcated format allows for is that it will reflect absolutely the inner lives of its characters – anything else is incidental. And hey, how about the second-most-watched series in all of television right now? The whole conceit of The Walking Dead is that its heroes struggle in the face of a world so harsh and unrelentingly cruel that existence itself seems to have become an eternal series of trials, with no end in sight. (No, really: no end. AMC will keep it shambling for as long as possible, regardless of whether it remains creatively viable or not.) The series makes a constant, grim mockery of the very concept of resolution.
It’s actually more difficult to try to identify contemporary, creatively worthwhile series that are telling an overarching story in a relatively straightforward fashion, with an expectation of a “palatable” ending; several of those that qualify are on their way out. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, currently wrapping up its final season, is bound by history to certain conclusions, as is Showtime’s Masters of Sex, though both series have been able to jolt viewers with unexpected time jumps. Mad Men, airing its final season next year, frequently flirts with impressionistic aesthetics and writerly flourishes, but still seems bound by its soapy underpinnings to provide its many beloved characters with an appropriate sendoff. The most common place to find traditionally “satisfying” stories these days comes in the form of self-contained murder mysteries like True Detective, Broadchurch/Gracepoint, the Sundance miniseries Top of the Lake and the recently concluded The Killing. It’s telling that of these, the most creatively successful – Top of the Lake – is the one that leans the least heavily on the whodunit aspect. When True Detective, one of the most widely buzzed-about series in recent history, made an attempt to wrap up its ambitiously atmospheric first season with a pat conclusion, resulting in many disillusioned viewers. Had the season ended on a grand Lovecraftian note without explicit explanation, would anyone have complained? Increasingly, viewers care more about being immersed in a compelling universe than precise narrative geometry. How else to explain the popularity of American Horror Story, whose enveloping sense of style, genre pastiche, and campy excess accounts for nearly all of its appeal?
Moreover, what’s in an ending? Ratings hawks and corporate executives can accumulate all the data they like, but there’s no telling what will or won’t develop a cult following over time after cancellation, and increasingly, that means revival. HBO’s Lisa Kudrow comedy The Comeback
is returning for a new season nearly a decade after it was pronounced dead. Veronica Mars
was able to (over-)fund a feature film, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t make a proper televised return at some point. Arrested Development
spent years in the ground before Netflix
acquired the rights to at least one reunion season, albeit a middling one. There are surely many more revivals to come, not to mention reboots, reimaginings, sequel series, etc. Virtually any and all worthwhile ideas can be counted on to recur in one form or another.
Tying it all together: Twin Peaks. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark series redefined what a television series could be – and what it was allowed to do. None of its “story” elements beyond the murder of Laura Palmer are what make it a still-beloved series. Twin Peaks remains a pop-culture touchstone because of its unprecedented (and still rarely matched) command of setting and atmosphere. In a single episode, or even a single scene, it could swerve between humor, terror, inscrutability, and even chaste eroticism, all thanks to Lynch’s emphasis on impressionistic and abstract visual storytelling. Its series run featured a tremendous, scary cliffhanger, one that the ostensible “followup” film, Fire Walk With Me, did little to even attempt to resolve. In the 25 years since the series aired, it’s been able to garner one of the most devoted cults in pop-culture history, all without the aid of “closure” or a traditionally satisfying story structure. Since Showtime has announced that it’s picking up a concluding nine-episode season, some have expresse delight that Frost and Lynch will finally have a chance to “resolve” the series’ lingering mysteries (good luck with that, by the way), but I suspect that many more are happy just to get another chance to luxuriate in the indelible world Lynch and Frost created. Laura Palmer’s prophecy of return has inavertenty set the stage for a pop-culture landscape where the inmates – the creatives and the fans – are running the asylum, and cancellation is merely a pivot point.