Serial killers: the strange case of the missing end

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Serial killers: the strange case of the missing end

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good stuff · Thursday 01 Feb 2024
Tags: NarrativeTVstreaming
Harlan Coben's Shelter  ©  Amazon

It happens. You invest a good few hours in a TV series on a streaming platform, which ends on a cliffhanger, and you think, okay I'll wait for the next season, and then the platform turns round and cancels the future.

It's like reading a book only to find the closing pages have been ripped out. When you start a story there's an implicit contract with the viewer/reader, that the story will come to some kind of conclusion. It's a strong reason why we like to immerse ourselves in fiction in the first place, because these stories offer a closure we seldom find in real life.

The joy of ambiguity
Things do come to an end in our lives, including those lives, but there’s a difference (and sometimes a tragic difference) between something that’s finished, and something that’s simply over. Life, as they say, goes on (a point brilliantly and very satisfactorily nailed by the controversial ending of The Sopranos).

Endings are critical to our enjoyment of stories. A bad ending can ruin everything that went before it, no matter how much we might have enjoyed it on the way. A good ending equally can compel us to reconsider any prior reservations we might have.

Story endings can be satisfactorily ambiguous. Dickens understood that when he succumbed to popular pressure and softened the ending of Great Expectations, but did so in a way that left enough ambiguity to continue the play on our expectations of the story. Something similar happens when studio pressure forced Hitchcock to lighten the darkness at the end of Suspicion.

Managed expectations
Streaming services have changed our habits, and increasingly our expectations, creating new questions about narrative structure. For many years broadcast TV (taking its cue from a much earlier age of cinema, or even from 19th century periodical publishing) would dish out series in weekly episodes. Waiting patiently for the next instalment was part of the experience.  

TV schedulers then became nervous about audience attention spans, a fear that still shapes many decisions, but the thriller series 24 showed that with the right ingredients a large audience would gladly stay with you week after week for an extended run.

Cable services like HBO led the field in wrenching TV away from the blandness of an ad-led model, opening possibilities for serious dramas with extended narratives, even if they get delivered through smaller screens. Streaming services built themselves on that success, often wooing big name directors and writers to the changing medium.

Netflix broke another mould with David Fincher’s House of Cards, releasing the entire first series in one go, boosting binge watching through our natural hunger for resolution.

But if streaming has offered interesting new possibilities, we have a problematic disconnect between old and new ways of working.

The plot thickens
One way of developing a plot is to plan everything in detail, and then execute the plan scene by scene.
Even if you're working to a rigid plan there will still be times along the way when you find yourself going on a detour, exploring a different or supplementary idea. That's alright, because it's your story, but the possibility points at another way of doing plot, which is to start with a broad idea, perhaps of the beginning, middle and end, and then to take a more open road, and let the plot develop as you go, perhaps even taking you to a different destination.

I imagine this is how things have to work when you have showrunners and a team of other writers working for them, particularly over multiple seasons.

But it raises a practical question. When Harlan Coben and his team sat down to work on a Prime Video adaptation of his Shelter source novels they clearly assumed that they would have multiple seasons to work with. So his first season ends answering just one burning question raised from the beginning, but in doing so creates an almighty cliffhanger. Then, and it should come as no surprise in the current climate, Amazon turned round and cancelled further series.

Follow the money
Whose fault is this? The streamers are guided by their algorithms and viewing figures, so for them it's a straightforward commercial decision: do we invest more money in a show that's had a disappointing response, or do we look elsewhere?

I'd argue that it's not quite that simple, because irritating your paying customers doesn't seem a good policy, especially when most of us feel we can only sensibly choose to take up perhaps one or two of the multiplying options among streamer subscriptions.

More than this, the German mystery thriller 1899 was still on my watchlist when the news came through that Netflix had ditched a second series, so I never even started it. Who knows how many others planned to watch it, who might even have tipped the balance for renewal, if they'd been given a chance to catch up with themselves?

The medium matters
But the writers and producers also need to get real about the nature of the medium they're working in. If a showrunner believes it will take two or more seasons to tell a story, that assumption needs to be part of the initial negotiation and agreement with the platform. If the platform managers are not willing to make that agreement, then the showrunner needs to restructure the narrative so that it can reach some kind of natural end at the close of each season.

It can be done. The dystopian series Sweet Tooth has been a success for Netflix, so much so that the second and third seasons were shot back to back. For me the series walked an awkward line between being mostly compelling and occasionally irritating (really did you have to Disney-fy the hybrids?), but I always wanted to know what happened next.

The second season delivered, completing its major story arc while leaving enough threads for the third season to pick up. In this case we know there will be a third season, and it seemed there was quite a lot more to be said, but enough had been said for me to accept that life would go on for the other story threads without needing my attention.

Because not everything needs to be neatly tied up in a bow. It's probably better if they're not: good narratives must be aware that there's life beyond their timelines. It's not that complicated, because in older TV times series creators usually understood that they had to earn a sequel, and wrote accordingly.

The difference is that in the age of streaming the life of a series doesn't end on its broadcast date (it remains on the platform).

There are worse problems in this world than truncated stories, but since (unlike those problems) this one is relatively easy to put right, it would be cheering to see it done.

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