The Extended Hiatus

21 Oct

In his essay “From Beats to Arcs,” Michael Newman reads into the methods that television writers use to keep viewers both engaged and wanting more. As his argument walks through the strategies that storytellers use to form a successful TV serial narrative, he moves from small scale to large scale building blocks. When he spoke about the macro blocks, such as the character arc that develops across multiple episodes, I could not help but wonder what would happen if this narrative structure was unexpectedly interrupted, either temporarily or permanently.

A few years back, we saw an example of a temporary interruption of the traditional TV narrative when the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) went on strike for nearly four months.  Now obviously this would affect the physical schedule of television broadcast, seeing as the networks had no new material to air during that time. Yet there were also many smaller consequences of the unexpected hiatus. One of the most extreme examples is the popular NBC drama Heroes. Heroes was extremely popular because of the creative ways it kept people simultaneously confused and wanting more.  Yet when the strike began, NBC was forced to cut the second season from its usual 25+ episodes down to 11. They had to reorder some of the episodes and get rid of many others to make it appear like they were planning for only 11 episodes all along. While the microstructures of TV narrative, the beat and the episode, allowed for this truncated season since they were contained in only one episode, the macro arc was irreparably damaged. Since many of the episodes were already shot, character arcs began but were never finished; long-term conflicts were introduced but never resolved.

Not only did this long and unexpected hiatus affect the narrative arc of the series, but it also changed the viewing habits of its audience. In the case of Heroes, not only did the season have a scant 11 episodes, but the next season also did not return until almost 10 months later. People not only had more to speculate about because of the truncated season, but they also had more time to speculate about it. This led to an increase in Internet presence among fans, which ultimately altered the reception of and expectations for the narrative in the next season. This also may have, among many other things, led to a drop in the show ratings since people had more time to build up hopes and imagine their own version of what should happen.

Another form of narrative interruption is the cancellation of a show. As Newman points out, the way in which stories are crafted for television allows for ease of viewing and relating to characters. Viewers are encouraged to invite the television characters into their homes and integrate them into the tasks of every day life. They easily become the background for tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and even homework. When this is abruptly taken away there is the potential for a strong backlash from the audience that can also lead to a larger Internet presence.

I will be curious to see the reactions to the return of Arrested Development since it was cancelled and is now slated to return six years later. So by the time it returns it will have gone through both the effects of cancellation and an extended hiatus. With character arcs continue to be effective from the previous seasons given the long break after its initial cancellation? Will audiences perceive it differently now that they have had time to watch and re-watch what they thought was an entire series?

6 Responses to “The Extended Hiatus”

  1. Allison Elizabeth October 21, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    I think there is another side to the hiatus. People can build a lot of anticipation in the time between and work on theories about what has happened. I think this works well with a show like Lost or Pretty Little Liars where viewers are scouring the screen for clues in any possible place. I bring up Pretty Little Liars because it is a show that is currently doing this. I will admit to watching it and you can tease me if you want, but it is addicting and stupid which I love in my guilty pleasure television. It runs from June to March, which is a unique schedule in itself. In this time period, it has 22-25 episodes. That means around 22 episodes during the 43 weeks that comprise its season. Barely a show every two weeks. But its off season is only 9 weeks. It’s fall finale was the final week of August and it will have an episode on Tuesday. That is a month hiatus, but it goes back on hiatus until January after that one episode. Fans don’t stop watching the show because of this. No, instead they spend the weeks in between episodes concoction bizarre and detailed theories about what is going on in the show. They rewatch and screenshot the episodes breaking down not only what we are pointed to by the characters themselves, but also the things that you can only really notice if you pause the episode. The showrunners have admitted to this (Lost had an incident where they put a DHARMA logo on a shark which should have been barely visible, but was caught by viewers and believed to be huge clue), but the viewer has no idea what is a real clue and what is a red herring. Hiatuses allow them to discuss their theories and little clues they have noticed with friends or anyone on the internet. Pretty Little Liars will probably use the episode they show on Tuesday to drop a few huge bombs for fans to play with in the 2 month hiatus that follows it.

    The Heroes example is a good one of what damage a hiatus can do especially when unplanned, but I think that the fact of how shows can use a hiatus (and have been ever since season finale was born– summer hiatus is a thing) is also worth considering,

  2. ambailey9113 October 21, 2012 at 11:12 pm #

    I think that this raises an interesting question about the influence of services like Netflix/Hulu have on programming breaks or hiatuses. In some ways, I feel that these services have erased these breaks, or made them less effective. In the case of Arrested Development, how does the fact that the show is not only on DVD but also available Netflix affect the sense of time between one season and the next? One of the points raised in the McGrath article is that TV shows “use time the way serial novels used to, incorporating the intervals between installments, and the tension between what we’ve learned and what we fear or hope, into the experience of the story itself” (250). Does the experience of marathon TV watching (made possible by streaming services) negate this tension?

    • katherinesnyder14 October 21, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

      I think that, if anything, on-demand streaming services only serve to heighten tension and anticipation. In high school, I watched Gilmore Girls as it aired, and my interest would peak in the days after a finale, and leading up to a new season premiere. In the middle, though, it was almost as if I forgot about the show. There wasn’t much to keep it fresh in my mind or make me agonize over cliffhangers. Netflix and Hulu, on the other hand, allow the viewer to rewatch their favorite shows again and potentially reignite interest and anticipation even when there are no new episodes. Also, marathons of a show don’t add more information, move a plot forward, or resolve a clffhanger, so it would be difficult for a marathon to negate anticipation or tension.

      • Allison Elizabeth October 22, 2012 at 12:12 am #

        I think Hulu or Netflix might almost heighten the need to continue watching. There are plenty of shows that people watch large numbers of episodes of simply because they are available. The whole idea being that I liked this why not keep watching and suddenly you are 7 episodes in.

  3. Keegan Hankes October 21, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    I think Mittell’s “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” offers a relatively compelling answer to your questions regarding the impact of cancellation and hiatus on the return of Arrested Development. He identifies it specifically (along with shows like The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm) as using “televisions episodic form to undercut conventional assumptions of returning to equilibrium and situational continuity while embracing conditional seriality—some story lines do in fact continue while others are never referred to again.” (34). His observations about the show’s avoidance of equilibrium and situational continuity make it seem likely that the new season will smoothly adapt and fold into the existing body of work. As a show that falls into Mittell’s genre of “narrative complexity” – “a redefinition of episodic forms under the influence of serial narration” – I think it will most likely be able to avoid the dangers posed by cancellation or hiatus suffered by serial dramas like Heroes or Lost (32).

    Another interesting aspect to consider about Arrested Development (in light of
    Amber’s comment) is the fact that all of the season four episodes are going to be released on Netflix at the same time in the spring ( It’s not altogether surprising given the qualities Mittell attributes to the show in his piece, but nonetheless creates interesting implications for the viewing experience. I personally think that given the show’s post-cancellation life on Netflix (with binging being the primary mode of viewership, especially given the short length of each episode), this shift in form will be wildly successful.

    • leemac113 October 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

      While I agree that Arrested Development’s post-cancellation life is going to make the new episodes, which will air at the same time on Netflix, wildly successful, I think this is an exception rather than the rule. Arrested Development is particularly unique in that it has become immensely more popular since it has come off the air, and this is due to the effect that the Internet (not just Netflix, but social networking websites) has had on its popularity, and a general trend of outrage that the show was cancelled in its infancy.

      Many shows get cut before an audience might expect it to end, but often it is for good reason, and their resurgence in another form or medium is more often than not unsuccessful. An example of this might be The X-Files, which was seriously declining both ratings-wise and (in my opinion) quality-wise when it got terminated after nine seasons. Still, the writers decided to make a movie out of the series, and while many people came out to see it, most were rather disappointed.

      In an even clearer example of this, you have a show like Wiseguy, which was a pioneer of mob-related television series with captivating arcs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which featured an outstanding cast which included Ken Wahl and Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad), and great villains like Kevin Spacey (who arguably began being typecast as a psychopathic genius because of his role in this series). However, when Ken Wahl ran into alcoholism and other health-related issues and the writers ran out of ideas to keep the series going, it was cancelled in the middle of an arc in its fourth season. Still, because the series had once been very popular, they attempted a supplementary TV movie years later which Ken Wahl came back to act in, with a plot which presumed the fourth season had never even happened. The story was disconnected at best, and the ratings were poor.

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