With a Whimper: How Science Fiction Shows Die

I’ve just finished watching the fourth and final season of Continuum, a show I raved about back in 2013. By the final episode I was watching just to get it over with. I’d come this far with the show, I’d be damned if I’d quit before I found out how it ended.

Continuum

There’s nothing left now but the Continuum trading cards.

It was a disappointing experience. Continuum had barely managed to win renewal for a six-episode final season and felt drained of energy as it trudged toward the finale. The budget appeared to be lower than in previous seasons, which is not necessarily bad in itself — Continuum isn’t a show that needs the sort of spectacle it had back in its first year — but there didn’t even seem to be enough money for retakes. If an actor gave a flat line reading, it was in the episode. And the actors were moving through the scripts like zombies. Maybe cast morale was low. After all, they were six episodes away from being out of work.

The last episode, where we finally learned whether Kiera Cameron was able to return to her son in the year 2077, was perfunctory. It more or less resolved the story, albeit with a sad twist at the very end, but there were too many plot threads from earlier seasons that went nowhere and seemed utterly pointless in retrospect. When the final episode arrived there were far too many characters and way too many of them were uninteresting. It was quite a comedown from the brilliant first season.

Continuum. And a bearded guy.

Who is that bearded guy, anyway? And what’s he doing on what used to be a good show?

Yet when I gave it a nanosecond of thought I realized that this is the rule for science fiction shows, not the exception. Remember the wonderfully conceived Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy/Sci-Fi? (Of course you do. It was only six years ago.) It was a beautifully filmed, morally complex show, much like Continuum, yet by the final season it had degenerated into mystical BS. And then there was Lost, which ultimately managed to give mystical BS a bad name. (The other day I came across a blog post by Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach explaining that Lost ended exactly the way they’d planned from the beginning, which didn’t make me feel any better about the hot mess that the show turned into in its final year.)

What about other great science fiction and fantasy shows? Firefly never had a chance to jump the shark because it was cancelled after only fourteen episodes, but that other Joss Whedon show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had a funereal, almost tedious final run. (Sister show Angel pulled off a decent final season by the skin of its canine teeth.) Fringe managed to keep it — mostly — together, but it was clear that the six-episode final season renewal (apparently this is a thing now) didn’t give the writers enough space to resolve everything that needed resolving. Characters alluded to events that we hadn’t even seen, suggesting that entire scripts had been dropped. Too bad, because the last season involved a nifty twist that had clearly been planned from the beginning. (Watch the first two seasons again and notice how many hints are dropped about what eventually happens in Season Five.)

The iconic example of a science fiction show that ends with a long, drawn-out whimper was The X-Files. Creator Chris Carter has said that they expected to run for five seasons and they had just enough story for that many, which explains why by the sixth season the show was monotonously vamping its way through its so-called mytharc episodes. Frankly, I still don’t understand what the show’s underlying mythology was about, but maybe the miniseries this coming winter will explain it.

To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with science fiction shows. Most successful shows are allowed to stay on the air until they reach their level of incompetence, with only a few gracefully stepping aside once they’ve put together enough seasons for a syndication package (or a Blu-Ray set). It’s harder to name a show that stayed good until the end than it is to name a show that fell apart. Those two AMC stalwarts Mad Men and Breaking Bad pretty much pulled it off, though both had seen better years than their last ones. Despite a calamitous dip in the middle when showrunner Aaron Sorkin left, The West Wing came close, finishing with a bravura two-season election arc that only faded at the very end, when the death of star John Spencer forced a hasty rewrite of the election results.

In the age of serial television, though, the tendency of shows to plummet in quality toward the end seems particularly regrettable, given that viewers caught up in the continuing plot arcs are reluctant to abandon shows that just aren’t as good as they used to be. (Okay, I’m reluctant. I can’t speak for anybody else.) With a standalone show like Law & Order, there comes a day when you simply stop watching and never look back. But if I’d given up on Continuum, I’d be forever wondering whether Kiera Cameron eventually got back to the future.

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2 comments on “With a Whimper: How Science Fiction Shows Die

  1. I was just about to say I don’t think it’s just science fiction shows and then you said it. It’s so annoying when we love a show at first and then by the end, as you say, we just keep watching to get it over with. Sit coms do it too, where the characters end up becoming caricatures of themselves, repeating the same tired lines and behaviours. That’s one of the reasons I loved Friends, and why I think it’s still popular now, because it maintained the same quality till the end – obviously not everyone liked the show, but for those of us who did, it didn’t disappoint, and it knew when to quit.

    We watch quite a lot of series on Netflix and often find ourselves giving up half way into the second season, or in some cases, skipping ahead and watching the first and last episodes of each season just to see what happens but without having to endure drawn out, less and less convincing, storylines. We did that with Prison Break, I found the first season really exciting and then after that it got really got ridiculous, but I still wanted to know the final outcome, so we skipped and skipped!

    Sometimes it takes a while to realise yourself that you’re no longer enjoying a show doesn’t it, you’re still in the mindset of “I love this show!” and then finally it dawns on you that you’re no longer excited to watch the next episode.

  2. Prison Break was terrific, right up until that grueling second season. (I gave up after that.) And I watched Friends until halfway through its last season, even though I thought it had stopped being funny years earlier. And the odd thing is that I still want to go back and see how those shows ended, even though I gave up on them because I wasn’t enjoying myself enough to keep watching.

    I think there are (at least) two reasons why we watch TV shows. One is because we enjoy them. The other is because we want to see what happens to the characters. In older shows the characters didn’t change much from episode to episode. Even on The X-Files, which had serial content, the relationship between Scully and Mulder was pretty much fixed, at least in the standalone episodes. But now the networks and producers are okay with character development, which has a fascination in its own right and makes it difficult to back away from a show even after it’s become a chore to watch.

    Don’t tell me if Ross and Rachel ever got back together, okay?

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