Emily Nussbaum on Cliffhangers!

Some of the greatest shows on television today owe a debt to the serially told forms of the past, such as novels and soap operas.

 

The New Yorker has a terrific piece on Cliffhangers – pointing out the form’s long history and currency on television. Nussbaum traces a pretty clear trajectory from serials to daytime TV to prime-time dramas and thrillers. Her point that the cliffhanger crosses taste cultures and market identities seems to me pretty important. I’ve written here on the BBC’s Sherlock, which in the US has a snooty appeal, but Nussbaum’s opening example is the equally venerable Melrose Place. Melodrama is not as class-based as it once was thought to be (e.g. 19th century — though Brewster and Jacobs even dispute that). I am intrigued with the resurgence of the form on TV from the late 1990s onward. I’ve noted elsewhere that situational sound-serial plotting made a vengeful resurgence in shows like Alias and 24 about a decade ago. But the connection between these action mellers and the romantic/family soaps of day and night is certainly worth pondering. Alas, I’m spending my days and nights pondering The Drums of Fu Manchu and Daredevils of the Red Circle, so TV will have to wait for another summer.

Incidentally, I did finally catch up with season 2 of Sherlock and can report that the solution to the problem space was in the room the whole time. It isn’t particularly clever and not half as elaborate as the scenarios I’d built in my mind — but, that is the beauty of a good cliffhanger. For the interim, the viewer becomes the showrunner/filmmaker/storyteller. And like a serial, the show moves on quickly and never looks back.

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