The “King” is dead…and the right way to end a cancelled TV series

I’ve written more than once about the Canadian TV mystery-drama, King — citing it as, in my opinion, one of the best shows currently on TV. Not, mind you, simply, one of the best Canadian shows, but one of the best, period.

So, naturally — it’s been cancelled.

At least, that seems to be the general assumption. Initial reports seemed a bit vague — anonymous message board rumours saying it was “officially” cancelled, or official reports…saying it was “rumoured” to have been cancelled. I’m still not sure if any one has put out a press release saying: “Buh-buh, buh-buh, uh, that’s all folks!”

But the general consensus is that King is done.

Alas.

One can point fingers — bad time slot, poor marketing and publicity. But whatever the reason, its ratings weren’t good and I can’t really argue too strenuously with the programming decision to pull its plug. It wasn’t fair, in a cosmic sense…but it was fair.

It was a shame because as much as I liked the first season, and it was already among my favourite watches, I do think the second season was in some respects even stronger. Or at least, the character dynamics were firmed up with the addition of Rossif Sutherland and Karen Robinson to the cast. Not to the point where they took away from the established leads — King was still about Jessica King, and Amy Price-Francis was most definitely Jessica. But their addition just made for an all around engaging ensemble.

Still, to read me gushing about King you can go here. Right now I want to talk about the dos and don’ts and rights and wrongs of cancelled TV series. (I’ve mused about this before — but the nature of writing a regular blog is that I’ll return to the same well of inspiration a few times; you can call it a recurring motif…or repetitious!).

Series get cancelled all the time, often leaving their fans to declare they’ll never watch that network again in protest — though they usually do. I can still pause, a little melancholic, about some American series like Better Off Ted, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and even the too short lived Mr. Sunshine. Although a series’ length can mute one’s regret: having run four or five seasons, I can say it’s too bad New Adventures of Old Christine was cancelled…but it had a good run.

Still, I try not to get too involved in this stuff anymore. I think it was the cancellation of the U.S. series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, that really made me swear off getting too caught up in any series. It really depressed me when the plug was pulled on that. So in that light, King’s cancelation has left me melancholic…but nothing clinical. I like The Good Wife, I like Revenge…but if they were cancelled I’d probably just shrug, sigh, and move on.

But there may be another reason for my resigned acceptance of King’s end.

Often what’s particularly depressing about a cancelled TV series is the sense of a promise unfulfilled, like an unfinished symphony. Part of what depressed me about the cancelation of Sarah Connor was there were all the brooding undercurrents, the hinted at character arcs, and sub-plots — plus the fact that it ended on a rather major cliff hanger. I mean, the series’ two seasons are still worth watching — there were enough self-contained episodes, or story arcs that were resolved, that you can still enjoy what there is. But there was a lot that was enticing because you wondered where it was headed…and now we’ll never know.

Though conversely, maybe that means it never has a chance to disappoint us. The series can forever seem brilliant and astonishingly profound in its moral complexity and its psychological and emotional undercurrents…because it never had to deliver on the potential. Was the relationship between John and Cameron going anywhere? Or was she, ultimately, just a machine?

A lot of modern series are so caught up in on going story arcs, a premature cancellation can’t help but leave loose ends. Or with the tendency toward season finale “cliff hangers” it can even mean series not even especially prone to on going threads can end with the hero lying in a pool of blood, or dangling from a precipice…their fate never to be revealed.

But King — King, bless its heart, was classy enough to avoid that.

However King did have its sub-plots and character undercurrents, threads teased along and drawn out. But even in that sense, the series maybe ended the best way it could — or, among the best ways. The series finale seemed to bring certain long bubbling threads to a head. It both changed a lot, and changed nothing. No one died, nothing was irrevocably altered…yet nonetheless it allowed the two season, 21 episode run of King to feel like we’d followed an arc to a resolution. It was, to use that by now overused phrase, almost a novel for TV.

Jessica King split from her husband and their up and down marital problems had been a constant issue in the series. So had the series resumed, perhaps the two would’ve reconciled. Or perhaps King would’ve moved on to other romantic options, such as fellow detective Spears. Fans can imagine whatever they want…but perhaps best of all, they can imagine the characters and their stories continuing.

As I say, you can feel sad because King was cancelled…but at least you can feel satisfied that the run feels like a body of work. It can feel like the series did take us somewhere…it didn’t just end where it began. But it wasn’t an end that had us white knuckled in our chairs wondering what was going to come next. (for an ironic postscript to that thought, see the addendum at the end of this post)

The big problem I have with a lot of modern series is that the creative process isn’t keeping up with the market place. Cancelled series don’t just disappear, as they used to, but can live on in re-runs and DVD releases. So producers need to think in terms of posterity — of realizing even their cancelled series still has the potential to make them money in DVD sales years down the line…and if a series ends unsatisfying, in mid-story, or on a cliff hanger, then that might discourage later viewers from trying it, and make its existing viewers remember it, not with fond affection, but vague dissatisfaction.

Some modern series recognize this, and others don’t — others clearly don’t care about the work, or their audience, and when cancelation looms, seem to just say: screw it, we’re outta here. Supposedly (and maybe this was just a popular rumour) the makers of the U.S. cable series Carnivale were offered an olive branch by the network after cancellation — a four hour mini-series to wrap it up (Carnivale being a serialized epic — all about the cryptic foreshadowing and where the story was headed being its raison d’etre). And supposedly the producers refused, feeling it would compromise their “vision” (the original arc intended for another two, 8 episode seasons). Now aside from the fact that, to my mind, Carnivale was a bit plodding and probably could’ve used being shoe horned into a shorter time frame, now instead of having a “body of work” with an ending, eagerly waving at you from the DVD shelf and saying “hey, try me!” — now you have two seasons that, frankly, I feel no desire to revisit or recommend to friends because the story is unfinished and never went anywhere!

Some series I suspect deliberately throw in a cliff hanger in a mad attempt to stave off cancellation (“Oh, the network won’t dare cancel me now — my fans won’t let them!”…but, of course, they get cancelled anyway).

I was thinking about all this watching the recently cancelled U.S. series, Ringer, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Ringer was a bit of guilty pleasure, the twists and turns so rapid and convoluted, it could border on camp, but it was fun because of that. But looking back, I realize the producers did something clever. Ringer was not intended to end after one season, and certainly the season finale left some relationships in tatters, some threads unresolved…but they had basically tied up most of the outstanding mysteries posed over the course of the season. And, best of all, the heroine didn’t end up in a pool of blood or dangling from a precipice in the final shot.

The makers of Ringer clearly were hoping for subsequent seasons, but they shaped their single season into enough of an arc that it can sort of satisfy, even by itself, as a body of work.

Carnivale I have little desire to revist…while Ringer I could see re-watching some day.

And more series should think in those terms. In recognizing that even if your series is cancelled prematurely, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a work that still invites viewing just for what it is. A cancelled series can be re-labelled as a…mini-series. (Granted, that opens up its own contentious can of worms, as I’ve seen plenty of series that are marketed as “mini-series” but were clearly intended as an on going series and end on blatant cliff hangers).

The Canadian series Shattered had sub-plots over its single season that resolved by the end. I didn’t particularly like Shattered (though, ironically, I think some of the people who worked on King worked on Shattered). But at least they shaped it into an arc — something that those who do like it can look back on with some satisfaction as almost a mini-series.

While Endgame, though primarily about the self-contained mysteries of the week, ended with its central arc (involving the murder of the hero’s wife) unresolved. Admittedly, a problem I had with Endgame — and I’ve written this before — is it never fully convinced me they had a solution in mind, anyway. Though I repeat: with Endgame, the cases of the week resolved at the end of each episode, so reruns certainly can be watched even with that unresolved mystery.

The American series Buffy The Vampire Slayer ran seven seasons and took an approach that was remarkably different from most TV series which, as I said, often tend to favour the season finale cliff hanger meant to hold your attention over the summer break.

In Buffy, each season was fashioned as kind of a novel-for-TV. Each season would introduce some looming antagonist early in the season (what came to be known as The Big Bad…a term latter appropriated by other TV shows but I think originated with Buffy fandom) then Buffy and her friends would confront the villain in an apocalyptic season finale — bringing the arc to a definite close. The result is that each season — though part of the whole, with plot and character threads teased throughout — has its own tone, its own flavour, shaped not just by The Big Bad but, perhaps more ambitiously, by themes and sub-plots that would play out in that one season. Even when the seasons did end on what might be construed as “cliff hangers” (the 2nd season has Buffy leaving town, the 5th season has Buffy dying!) they actually could serve just as well as series’ finales — downbeat finales, perhaps, but finales.

With most series when fans talk about favourite seasons, they usually just mean the overall quality — a season that seemed better written, with more engaging plots. Story arcs are rarely confined to a particular season, so even if you fondly recalled a particular plot line — it might actually be stretched from the middle of one season into the first few episodes of the next. With Buffy, you really could just collect seasons out of order and feel that each one will tell an arc with a beginning, middle and end — as well as stand alone adventures and, of course, the overall character evolution that developed over seven seasons.

I’m sure Buffy isn’t alone in doing that — but it seems fairly rare (Veronica Mars would have various mysteries and arcs that would be teased along and usually dealt with in single season arcs). Though even many series that do promise the season will form an arc, can cop out with a cliff hanger finale, or will answer some questions, but don’t really resolve anything. I seem to recall Heroes claimed it was going for that “single season arc” idea — but though things did build to a climax, of sorts, in the first season…it left more questions than answers, even adding a cliff hanger where a main character ended up lost in the historical past. The current espionage drama, Homeland, did build to a climax in the first season finale…but it still felt more like a pause, gearing up for season two, than a true resolution of anything. If the series had been cancelled, fans could at least feel the ten episodes had gone somewhere…but they’d still probably be unsatisfied.

Perhaps it relates to ones viewing habits. If you have some favourite series on DVD that ran multiple seasons, you don’t necessarily want to watch the entire run every time you feel a hankering to revisit it — you might not have the time. But if each season forms an arc, you might decide to watch one season again over a few weeks, then watch something else for a while, then watch another season in the series a few months later…happy knowing each season tells a finite story.

Getting back to King — it’s not like King really had a “story arc” per se, or a mystery that was being teased along. King could just as easily have ended without any particular “finale” at all. But in a way it probably does feel more satisfying ending with an episode that does seem to at least acknowledge and confront some of the on going character stuff, even as the door is left open to assume an imaginary third, fourth, fifth season might have ensued.

Obviously, there are series that don’t really warrant any kind of “end” — comprised of stand alone episodes, they can form a kind of endless narrative Ouroboros. But with the modern penchant for series with on going sub-plots or romantic entanglements, all the way to major plots/mysteries that are serialized throughout the series, how a series (and its makers) face the end is at least as important as how they face the body of the episodes (to, uh, paraphrase Captain Kirk from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). As I say, in this day and age of DVD releases, no series truly dies — so there’s something to be said for making sure what episodes you do have leave the viewers satisfied, are worth revisiting, and encouraging for a later audience to discover.

Not by “ending” a series — far from it. If every series had a final where the characters were killed off, or went their separate ways, that might be just as disappointing (and depressing). More than a few series have ended with seeming down beat finales where everyone dies — but I suspect were actually intended as cliff hangers to be resolved in the next season!

The first season of the comedy Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays finished, presumably, meant to tease us into the next season — but it was cancelled. However, one can look at it as an “end” as it involved suggesting Michael was going to move out of town, ending the relationship, and so bringing the saga to a close. BUT…because Michael: T&T was a humourous comedy, one could argue such a finale was disappointing to fans…they might’ve preferred a “non”-ending suggesting the status quo would continue indefinitely. After all, often the fun is imagining the heroes’ exploits continue on unabated (though, yes, sometimes a definitive end can be good, too).

All I mean is try not to leave too many threads dangling — and certainly avoid the cliff hanger. Because, let’s face it, the producers usually have a pretty good idea ahead of time that renewal is looking, at best, uncertain.

So what’s my point? Yeah — I’ll admit, sometimes even I lose the thread of my thought in these posts only to realize, weeks later, that I never really did articulate my thesis.

Well, my main point is to say…enough already with the dangling cliff hangers! If you know your series is tumbling in the ratings, then plan for a graceful exit.

As well, given all the modern series with their story arcs or even just on going soap operas, maybe a page could be taken from Buffy (and Veronica Mars) and plan, right from episode one, an arc that will climax and, more important, resolve by the end of the season. Whether it be a token arc — a romantic thread between two supporting characters — or a major plot line involving a murder mystery or something. So that each season can feel a bit like it had a beginning and an end, and the audience will tune in next season (assuming you get renewed) not because they are desperate to see how a cliff hanger resolves…but because they really liked the first season, and were duly impressed with your ability to tell a story…and they want you to tell them another one.

To be fair, I think this is becoming more common (Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, for instance, had a sub-plot involving a character writing a book, getting it published, facing reviews, etc.). But even though series do come up with arcs that develop over a single season…as mentioned, many still find a way to end on a cliff hanger!

I’m sad that King ended — but I’m happy that the fans, and the creators, can look back on it as a reasonably satisfying body of work.

Addendum July 27: An irony is that different people react to, and focus on, different things. After my writing that King felt that it had arrived at a (character-based) denouement, I subsequently came upon a reference at TV Guide complaining about the series ending on a bit of a cliffhanger! Perhaps it depends on how much emotional stock you put in King’s relationship with her husband. If you felt it was the emotional core of the series then, yeah, the split is a dilemma waiting (forever) to be resolved. If you did not, then, as I say, it served as a resolution to a long brewing sub-plot involving their roller coaster relationship and her husband’s increasingly questionable behaviour (and reinforced King’s character as a woman of integrity who puts principles over personal wants).

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