Thursday, May 29, 2008

One Big Seriously? My Relationship With Cliffhangers

I was a big Friends fan. Ross/Rachel was one of my very first OTPs, and I still hold a special place in my heart for them. Generally, the format of Friends is extinct. With the exception of 30 Rock and The Office, I don't watch anything half-hour anymore, and nothing I watch has a laugh track, either. Friends was also big on the over-hyped melodrama, too. I literally can't believe I survived ten years of will-they-or-won't-they. That's a decade, folks! And it wasn't even that big of a payoff! WHERE'S MY EPILOGUE!??

I will say, though, that I had a ton of fun at my Friends series finale party. It was dress-up mandatory. My high school newspaper co-editor-in-chief, Bobby, and I went as 80's Monica and Chandler. This would be funnier if you knew what I looked like—I am very small. I'm a small person, but I was decked out in my mom's 80's gear and rockin' some big hair. Anyway, it was a good time. But it has nothing to do with this discussion.

What I want to talk about is cliffhangers. Timely, no? Considering that it's season finale time, it seems like an appropriate conversation to have.

Friends had nine season finales. Seven of them ended with cliffhangers. Like BIG cliffhangers. Let's recap.

Season one: Rachel waits for Ross at the airport with flowers. Oh, pre-9/11.
Season three: Rachel and Ross's bald girlfriend Bonnie are in separate rooms at the beach house. Ross opens one of the doors (which?!?) and says, "Hey."
Season four: LONDON OMG. Monica and Chandler sleep together and Ross accidentally says the wrong name at his wedding to Emily.
Season five: Vegas, baby! Monica and Chandler plan to elope, but their plans are thwarted when a whoa-drunk Ross and Rachel beat them to the punch.
Season seven: Monica and Chandler get married for realsies, but the real cliffhanger is that Rachel is pregnant—OMG.
Season eight: Baby Emma is born. Joey accidentally proposes to Rachel and she says yes.
Season nine: Barbados. It's stupid.

Like, it's kind of ridiculous how many cliffhangers this show had.

So far this year—and, really, in the last few years in general—there haven't been ridiculous cliffhangers. And I appreciate that shows and networks are realizing that they're just not really necessary. Keeping us on the edge of our seat for the summer doesn't have the effect they once thought it did. Sometimes, it's just frustrating. Here's what I think are the real keys to making sure we tune in next season.

1. Quality of finale. Leave me with warm, happy thoughts about the show. NOT like Grey's Anatomy did last year by making everyone miserable and pathetic and annoying. And the writing was bad, too.
2. Tying up loose ends. Desperate Housewives's first season finale solved the Mary Alice mystery—if we've been following a storyline all season, we don't want you to dangle the answers in front of our face and then deny it to us at the last minute. We're bored already—another four months is just going to kill us. Like think about Lost’s first finale—thank goodness I was watching the boxed set and could just move on to iTunes for “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” because I would’ve been pissed if I’d waited all summer to find out what was in the hatch after having waited for so many months already. GOSH! Grey's did this quite well last night (Mere's therapy, Ava's personality disorder), The Office failed miserably (Jim not proposing).
3. Setting up themes and big story arcs for next season. This, The Office did well: Michael as a dad equals awesome. Last year, Jim asking Pam out on a date equals squee. Liz Lemon adopting on 30 Rock equals can't wait.

You may be thinking: but a cliffhanger quite easily fulfills Caroline Qualification Number Three. No, it doesn't. Because cliffhangers don't set up themes or story arcs for next season. They set up about six seconds of resolution for next season. Friends's season four began with the "revelation" that Ross had actually walked in on Bonnie and Rachel hanging out together. One quick laugh and the cliffhanger was resolved—stupidly. Think about Alias’s last two “cliffhangers.” We were so worried for nine months (they did that whole January start date for season four) that SpyDaddy was going to be evil, that Project Christmas was, like, this incredibly elaborate thing that Sydney Bristow had been involved in… It was intense. I mean, the project was coded SAB-47, so it clearly should have involved Sydney Anne Bristow and Rambaldi. And then it was like this huge cop-out that took three seconds to explain—SpyDaddy killed SpyMommy. Over and out.

Don’t get me started on how stupidly long I worried that Michael Vaughn was going to be evil. Seriously.

Now, the focus is on realism and quality—and rightly so.

I meant to post this blog before the Grey's finale, but my Chaos time has been usurped by podcasting, and my TV focus time has--as usual--been usurped by Lost. There wasn’t really a cliffhanger for Grey’s this year, and it just wasn’t necessary. Those Caroline Qualifications were all met (quite beautifully, actually), and the finale exemplified realism and quality. It was by far one of the best episodes I’ve seen all year, and I wasn’t rolling my eyes at it too hard. (The most unrealistic element was how did Meredith Grey manage to put those candles in such straight lines?)

The thing was—and we discussed this on the podcast—there easily could have been a cliffhanger. Derek could have gotten in a car crash on the way back to Meredith, and the finale could have ended with Mere sitting there in the grass with a look of hopeful trust while the audience knows Derek ain’t gonna make it back to her in the near future.

That did not happen, and for that I say thank you, Shonda Rhimes.

30 Rock actually had multiple cliffhangers this season, but they were silly. They were for quick laughs in the moment, not to keep us hanging on for the summer. They’re not expecting us to be waiting all summer to find out if the Gay Bomb is actually going to make Jack Donaghy and Dick Cheney hot for each other. I’m not stressed about the possibility of Kenneth getting killed in Beijing. Using those outlandish “cliffhangers” was just another way for 30 Rock to masterfully poke fun at its own genre.

Now, today is Thursday, May 29, 2008, and I have a feeling that at least one show I watch is going to give me a cliffhanger. Lost promises to blow everything out of the water, and it seems like it actually has the possibility to. For three seasons, we faithfully watched a show that, despite its insanity, stayed pretty true to a format: on-island “real-time” events peppered with flashbacks providing relevant backstory for the castaways. The flashforwards threw us for a loop at first, perhaps, but it’s still the same concept. Now that the Oceanic 6 are apparently getting rescued, how will this format continue? Will “real-time” become off-island, with flashbacks to previously unseen events of the island? Will we see flashforwards to them being BACK on the island? Will episodes alternate between O6 stories and left-behinder stories? Or will something so radically affect Lost storytelling that the whole flashback/flashforward convention will have to be disposed of? Will time stop mattering? Will we start seeing flash-sideways, as Losties travel through time?

I have no freaking idea, and it’s probably not even a good idea to talk about it, since I’ll know before I go to sleep tonight whether or not I’ll even be tuning in to Lost next season.

Let’s just hope it meets the rest of the requirements. (And those other Lost-specific Caroline Requirements…like little girl baby Shephards.)

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