a.k.a. How I learnt to hate cliffhangers
This post is based on a NaBloPoMo prompt: Are you annoyed by what you don’t know, or do you like a good mystery?
What I find annoying
When it comes to books and films, I do like a good mystery – unless it is unsolvable. Sure, I hate overexplaining – e.g. when a character explains the ins and outs of a mystery, especially when the explanations aren’t required because it was as mysterious as the writer(s) seem to think. But nothing annoys me more than to have a book or film end without a proper conclusion. I don’t want to spend sleepless nights wondering whether the spinning top ever stopped spinning, nor whether or not the heroin was indeed in love with her best friend and will spend the rest of her life with her. I need to know.
That’s why I remember quite fondly the last episode of Charmed in which we get to see the evolution of the Halliwell family as the sisters age. And that’s part of the reason why I absolutely love Neil Gaiman’s book Stardust and its film adaptation of the same name: while the book and the film have different endings, both tell us quite clearly what happens to the protagonists. (Full disclosure: I prefer the book’s ending.)
Usually, the characters don’t die with the book, film, or series that brought them to life; there is often room for a new tome, a sequel, or another season. Sometimes the medium changes, as was the case with Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly, three series among my favourite: all three live on as comic books and the third one has a sequel in the form of a film, Serenity.
Other times, the book, film, or series ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the fans waiting for a resolution that never comes, as is so often the case with series. I’m looking at you, Flash Forward – I may not have liked you very much, but I absolutely hated the cliffhanger you left us with. I can’t express how relieved I was to learn that Person of Interest had been renewed for a fifth season – turns out we may actually get Sameen back!
Still, a good mystery…
I will always remember Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers (a.k.a. in the US And Then There Were None). I was never particularly fond of crime novels, but I enjoyed this book way more than I should. I think I actually watched Identity, a film inspired by the book – although with an original storyline – before I even read the book, so the big twist didn’t come as a surprise, but I loved it anyway.
But has an avid watcher of TV series, I must admit that I love drama. I am a big fan of the British Sherlock TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, mostly because the actors are excellent and fascinate me. But I also enjoy many series in which crimes are minor plots and take as long as a season to be solved, leaving the audience plenty of time to make hypotheses. That’s what got me hooked on Desperate Housewives many years ago and on Devious Maids more recently.
However, in many series, it seems difficult to strike a balance between too many clues and not enough. With too many clues, the audience figure out the mystery before the characters, which can be really annoying: what is the point of watching if we already know what is going to happen? There is also a risk of making the characters look dumb – we have figured the truth out, why haven’t they?
The opposite can be frustrating as well: too often, the resolution to a mystery is so surprising that we have to wonder how many episodes ago the writers came up with it – it feels rushed. That’s usually when they decide to have a character overexplain what the audience couldn’t have figured out on its own, giving us the impression that the writers thought about this resolution at the last minute and went to a lot of trouble to make it consistent with the rest of the series.
So of course I like a good mystery, but it isn’t good unless it is hard enough and can actually be solved.