Audiences Grow Weary of Stories that Never End
Disney and Netflix make billions by creating a culture without closure—but viewers are starting to resist
A backlash is brewing among Netflix watchers.
Viewers are upset at TV series getting cancelled with the major plot points unresolved. This happens again and again—it’s almost the norm nowadays. Industry insiders fear that audiences are now reluctant to commit to new shows for this very reason.
Who can blame them?
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Would you start a novel, if you weren’t allowed to read the final chapters? Would you play a video game, if there was no winning solution? Would you watch a movie if the last 15 minutes were missing? Would you go on a date if it ended after you picked up the restaurant tab?
Of course not.
Stories without closure collapse into unruly disorder—the narrative arc reduced to “one damn thing after another.”
Netflix has created a self-fulfilling doom loop, according to media expert Paul Tassi. Audiences withhold loyalty from shows because they might get cancelled—and this behavior pattern actually makes it inevitable that these series will get cancelled.
Something has broken with this model. It’s now created a system where creators should be afraid to make a series that dares to end on a cliffhanger….And viewers are afraid to commit to any show that isn’t a completely aired package lest they spend 10-30 hours on something that ends up unresolved, which has happened dozens and dozens of times, creating a vast “show graveyard” within Netflix, full of landmines viewers are going to be discovering for years
Many viewers will watch anyway. But even they must feel less loyalty after getting jilted by Netflix so many times in the past.
One ingenious TV fan even constructed a prediction model—with the hope of figuring out which shows might survive long enough to deserve his attention. In other instances, viewers lash out at the network. When Netflix cancelled 1899, an intriguing sci-fi series, with so much of the story unresolved and a cliffhanger in the final episode, an angry fan launched an online petition. Within a few days he had almost a hundred thousand signatures.
“1899 was clearly created with multiple seasons in mind,” the petition declared. “We want a renewal of the show and a proper end to the story.”
Netflix ignores these complaints. And execs will tell you that they need to optimize short term results. They can’t hold on to losing cards in the IP poker game. But do they grasp the price they pay in the long run by jerking their audience around?
If you ran a business and kept hiring and firing your key workers—in some brutal and endless process of optimization—you would eventually suffer for your fickleness. Word would get out, and talented people keep their distance. The same is true with Netflix’s churning of series. And in this case, word has clearly got out.
You hear the grumbling everywhere.
Of course, our entire culture is now built on stories without closure.
Hollywood is so obsessed with sequels, prequels, reboots, and spinoffs that they can’t afford to let any good story come to an end.
How far can they push this? We may soon find out.
Of course, even a successful brand franchise can die. But this happens for financial reasons—the movies stop making money—and not to achieve narrative coherence. So the closure will happen in a behind-the-scenes meeting at a Hollywood studio, and not on the screen.
And these cancellations happen more now than ever before. In the mad rush to maximize their ‘content’ (ugh!), the major media platforms need to launch something new almost every day. This creates an over-saturated marketplace, where failure is far more common than success.
James Bond might appear invincible, but that’s only because box office receipts are still healthy. Yet if 007 does die, it won’t happen on screen. It will take place in a meeting at Eon Productions (owner of the franchise) at 138 Piccadilly in London.
This is not how our most cherished stories should reach closure.
Things weren’t always like this. Homer didn’t write the Odyssey as a sequel to the Iliad, although it might seem that way to a Hollywood producer. Around the time publishing got turned into a business, you started to see actual sequels—but they were happenstance. Cervantes did write a sequel to Don Quixote, but he probably didn’t decide to do this until he saw others making money off his character. Shakespeare kept Falstaff around for new plays, but this was an exception to his modus operandi. If you track down those various lists of the “100 greatest books,” you will only find completely realized stories with beginnings, middles, and ends.
A great story requires all three of those.
But now even literary fiction has been corrupted by movie economics. That’s why so many novels nowadays are constructed as film treatments—but this corrupts the idiom. I remember how shocked I was, a few years ago, when I read a highly touted debut novel, which I was enjoying—and I planned to give it a glowing review. But in the last chapter, nothing was resolved, and the author devoted all his energy to setting up cliffhangers for a sequel.
To say I was disappointed is putting it mildly. I was shocked that a young author publishing his first novel would do this. But nowadays I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. I understand that this is how the book business rolls in the current day.
But it’s not how human psychology operates.
That’s why media businesses will pay a price for pursuing a business model that operates in conflict with our psyches and the most basic rules of aesthetics. They’re already starting to feel the consequences, as the Netflix and Disney situations make clear.
“It is one of the great charms of books that they have to end,” writes literary critic Frank Kermode in his sagacious study The Sense of an Ending.
Kermode was obsessed with endings. But we all are, he insists.
We begin reading (or watching) a story with the sure expectation that it will come to an end. These endings have changed over the centuries—Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) pursues a very different form of closure than, say, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) or Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). But each is effective in its own way.
Stories without closure collapse into unruly chronos—the passage of time reduced to, in Kermode’s words, “one damn thing after another.” But that chaotic narrative-without-destination is increasingly the norm in contemporary storytelling.
Even when an auteur tries to disrupt audience expectations—as do Godard and Polanski, or others in different idioms such as Robbe-Grillet or David Chase—they can only achieve the shock value they are seeking because audiences desire closure. Without that expectation of resolution, even avant-garde works lose their sting.
Just consider those instances in which a writer (or other artist) dies before a major work was completed. From Mozart’s Requiem to Berg’s Lulu, the rules of composition changed enormously. But in both instances, others felt compelled to step in and finish an uncompleted work.
We just can’t stand to leave things of this caliber unresolved. We feel cheated.
The most striking instance in literary history is Dickens’s final uncompleted novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This was supposed to run in 12 installments, but only 6 were finished before the author’s death in 1870. Readers couldn’t deal with this 150 years ago, just as Netflix viewers can’t stand incomplete stories nowadays. In the aftermath of Dickens’s death, many offered their completed version of the story–and not just in print. Movies and TV series have also tried to provide closure to this half-finished tale.
In an especially striking instance, the ghost of Charles Dickens communicated to Vermont publisher (and medium) T. P. James the true ending of the novel. Or so we’re told. I’m not entirely clear why Dickens’s ghost traveled to Vermont instead of relying on his original publisher. But the result was a completed story, which James published in 1873.
But this story gets better. The spiritualist was so delighted with the publicity he received, he managed to convince the ghost of Dickens to write another novel with him—entitled The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickleheep.
Here was a man who understood the power of sequels long before Hollywood.
You can laugh at this if you want. But our desire for narrative closure is so intense that we can get duped by scammers in our quest for a holistic aesthetic experience.
Something unprecedented happened on TV on August 29, 1967. A cancelled series set the record for the highest Nielsen rating for a TV show. Even more people watched the final episode of The Fugitive than had tuned in for the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show—a mind-boggling 78 million viewers in total.
Just a few months earlier, The Fugitive had been lurking near the bottom of the Nielsen ratings. It ranked a dismal number 50 in its fourth season—and was facing inevitable cancellation.
What caused this unprecedented turnaround? How do you set a record for the largest audience on TV with a failed show?
Producer Quinn Martin gets the credit. He decided to create a special ending for The Fugitive—with the hanging elements of the plot all resolved.
This seems like a no-brainer nowadays. But nobody had done this before in a network TV series. Episodes were always self-contained stories, and showrunners didn’t worry about creating a larger narrative arc to a series, let alone providing tight closure.
The Fugitive was the perfect occasion to test this. The series had focused on the travails of escaped convict Dr. Richard Kimble, who is determined to prove he is innocent of his wife’s murder—and pursues the mysterious ‘one-armed man’ who actually committed the crime.
Few loyal viewers remained by season four, but they deserved closure. At least Quinn Martin believed they did. Yet even he must have been shocked by the outpouring of public interest in the final episode. It achieved a staggering 72% share of American viewers.
Even if every previous viewer of The Fugitive had tuned it, it wouldn’t have been enough to reach that level. Clearly the idea of narrative closure was sufficient to attract millions of first-time viewers.
The Fugitive success story is the exact opposite of the Netflix doom loop described above. By creating a satisfying holistic story, with all plot points resolved, The Fugitive grew its audience even in its final moments. As a result, the show made bundles of money in syndication, and enjoyed a hugely successful film reboot, years later, starring Harrison Ford.
That’s how much audiences crave narrative closure.
The Fugitive was the first example of this in TV history, but hardly the last. If you look at any ranking of the best all-time TV shows, it’s filled with series that resolved the story in the final episode. There we find The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, M.A.S.H., Seinfeld, and others that rewarded audiences with a fully completed story line.
What happens when a fickle media industry, obsessed with brand franchise extensions, forgets these lessons?
That’s what we are discovering right now. We are still in the early stages, but the eventual result will be the same as it always has been when Hollywood follows the same game plan too many times.
Fifty years ago, Hollywood killed the movie musical by saturating the market. They did the same with western films—and motorcycle gang movies, beach blanket blowouts, and all those other subgenres they turned into stale formulas. And now they are doing the same with superhero sequels, spin-offs, and reboots.
There is, of course, a solution to all this. The movie moguls could return to holistic storytelling. They could build their offerings with aesthetically pleasing beginnings, middles, and ends. If those basic storytelling principles were good enough for Shakespeare, they ought to be good enough for Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Studio bosses will tell you that they can’t make money that way. There’s no cash in closure, they’ll insist—in a refrain that oddly reminds me of Big Pharma preferring to treat diseases instead of curing them. Recurring cash flow is the goal, baby! And more today than ever before.
But if the current rumblings of discontent get much worse, the moguls may have no choice. And if they continue to ignore the basic psychology of audiences, those studio heads might achieve a different kind of closure—but to their careers, in this case.
I hate to see anybody lose their job but, from a larger cultural perspective, that might be the most promising Hollywood ending of them all.
One interesting note about “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was that there was a Broadway adaptation of it. (Loretta Swit, post-M*A*S*H, starred in it.) At one point late in the second act, one of the actors broke the fourth wall and announced that “At this point in the plot, Mr. Dickens unfortunately died.” He then invited the audience to help choose the ending. The audience was given four questions, where they could chose how that plot point was resolved (e.g. who was the murderer?). Multiple endings had been written (and rehearsed), so that the story ended the way that particular audience preferred. So nearly everyone went home happy.
An important story to tell Ted.... So many times I've watched many seasons of a TV series and at the end thought.... what was that all about? Why did I waste so much time on something that could have been told succinctly in just two hours? Too many series are just designed to keep you on their platforms rather than telling you what they have to say so you can move on with life.... I mean, even the longest Mahler symphony is done after an hour and a half....