5 Cheap Tricks TV Shows Use To Keep You Watching

5 Cheap Tricks TV Shows Use To Keep You Watching

Not many of you are watching TV any more, or at least not as many as in years past. And as more people tune out (or just steal the shows off Bittorrent) the networks think up more and more cheap tricks to keep you hooked.

Well, here's some we've decided we won't be falling for any more. After next week.

Cliffhanger Cop-Outs

Major Offenders: 24, Alias, Nip/Tuck, Star Trek: TNG, many others.

This is when a show teases us with a cliffhanger, followed by an episode that returns everything to normal within minutes.

So, in 24 Jack Bauer winds up in a Chinese prison at the season finale. How will he possibly get out of this one? Oh, wait, he just walks off a plane in the next season opener, back in the good ol' USA and with a kick-ass beard for his trouble.

In one season finale of Star Trek: TNG, Commander Riker has to make the terrible decision to destroy the bad guys' ship with a captured Captain Picard still on board, ending the season with his pivotal decision to "Fire." We wait for the next season and, wouldn't you know, the weapon has no affect. Nevermind!

We can thank the 80s drama Dallas for starting this. They cashed in with the biggest cliffhanger of all time, when villain J.R. Ewing got shot in a March 1980 episode. After a long summer break (when "Who Shot J.R." became an international catchphrase) it was revealed that J.R. was alive, his would-be assassin was let go without any criminal charges, and the whole thing was barely spoken of again.

Dallas, determined to top this retarded publicity stunt, years later opened a season by declaring everything that happened in the season before it was a dream.


Why it Works:

Production schedules force most shows off the air for months, up to a year in some cases. The problem has always been that fans can wander off during the down time, so cliffhangers keep people talking through the dry months (in the case of "Who shot J.R.," the next episode got a then-record 83 million people to watch).

And, once the show comes back, who cares that we bailed out of the cliffhanger with an unsatisfying resolution? You should just be glad the show is back at all, you ungrateful fuckers!

Why it Shouldn't:

It's in these cop-outs that a cliffhanger is revealed to be purely a marketing gimmick, having no actual impact on the storyline. These cop-outs let the writers off too easy, since they get to put the character through some kind of life-changing trauma, then just have them get over it (Jack Bauer recovers from his lengthy Chinese imprisonment just a few hours into the new "day.")

Where's the crippling depression that leads to alcoholism, or the post traumatic stress and years of counseling? They turn our surviving heroes into heartless bastards who don't care about anyone or anything for longer than a 2-hour season premiere.

Couples That Constantly Break Up and Reunite

Major Offenders: The Office, Friends, Sex and the City, Scrubs, countless Soap Operas.

After months or years of increasing sexual tension, two leads finally admit that they love each other and want to be together. This usually occurs with a passionate kiss and a high pitched "Whoooo" from the studio audience. We at home get to believe that we, too, will one day find true love with the one hot girl in our circle of friends.

Then, tragedy strikes in the form of a breakup. The sitcom gets serious for a while, showcasing the tension between the ex-couple. The exes start dating new people and we get all sorts of jealousy and wacky misunderstandings, based on the fact that the couple is really still in love. Eventually then they get back together, only to do it all over again (if the series runs long enough).

Why it Works:

Romantic love is an emotion that supersedes all others--at least on television--and there's no better way to engage the viewers than by constantly giving it to them and taking it away again.

Also, the breakup stage allows shows to introduce guest stars to be the new love interests for a few weeks or months (Sarah Jessica Parker went through several in Sex and the City) which they believe will sustain the ratings until the next sweeps period, where they will reunite the beloved couple again.

Why it Shouldn't:

Repetition. This is the writers just going back to the same well for storylines again and again. Yes, we realize there is some realism to it, because we all know real couples that do the constant "get together and break up" cycle. You may recognize these couples as the ones who you constantly want to punch in the face.

Keeping the Villains Around on Reality Shows

Major Offenders: The Apprentice, Hell's Kitchen, Rock of Love, any reality show with a "boss."

Reality shows are always accused of being rigged. Who knows if American Idol is intentionally losing some votes along the way, right? Or if the judges' comments are meant to sway vote totals rather than give feedback?

But then there is a whole category of reality show that that just advertise the fact. These are the shows where a "boss" type decides the outcome, rather than by a vote from the audience or other contestants.

Behind that boss is, of course, a team of producers who keep or kick off whoever the hell they feel like keeping or kicking off. And that means that the nastiest, most arrogant character you're most desperate to see go, will almost certainly be kept to the end. The show needs a villain, and the producers' job is to keep the best cast of characters, not the best contestants.

So, on the first season of The Apprentice, millions of people were introduced to the queen bitch of the universe, Omarosa. With a resume that included being fired four times over two years for not being able to get along with anyone, and a part time job as a succubus, she was picked from thousands of people as a candidate to become a high paid employee of Donald Trump. Why? Because producer Mark Burnett knew that she would stir up some shit on camera.

Why it Works:

The cheapest way to get drama out of a show is with conflict. The hardest part about reality shows, where there is no script, is making sure the conflict still shows up right on schedule, to keep the audience from getting bored. That's the villain's job.

Why it Shouldn't:

Reality show producers seem to think that drama and conflict can only come in the form of petty screaming matches. But how much screeching can we be exposed to before we go from being entertained, to bored, to just depressed?

Of course the show is forced to undermine its own competition along the way, as the boss character is forced to fire more qualified contestants week after week, saving someone like Omarosa for as long as possible (in her case, 9 episodes into a 13 episode season, only to be brought back in an all-star edition). Weeks and weeks of a villain skating through each challenge without having to be accountable for anything tends to make us lose faith in the show, and humanity in general.

Characters Returning from the Dead

Major Offenders: Battlestar Galactica, X-Files, Star Trek: Voyager, Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under.

Science fiction shows are especially bad about creating a world where no one is ever permanently dead. Cloning, alien abduction and interference by a higher life form are just a few of the ways that shows can bring a deceased character back to life. And then there's the human-looking Cylons on Battlestar Galactica, an entire species that can be shoved out an airlock on a daily basis only to come back once again with perfect hair and slinky dresses.

Why it Works:

Note that this technique often overlaps with the Cliffhanger Cop-Out. Six Feet Under ended Season Two with main character Nate boarding a bus to the afterlife, only to get a poorly-explained resurrection in the Season Three premier. In Nip/Tuck, Dr. Christian Troy is apparently slain by a serial killer in a season finale, gets a funeral the next season, only to have the funeral turn out to be a dream and the serial killer attack having left only a minor cut on his face (you had to be there).

Just as with the Cliffhanger Cop-Outs, this lets the writers have it both ways. They get their dramatic death scene one week, without having to deprive the show of a favorite (that is, ratings-boosting) character. Besides, did we really think Buffy would stay dead all of those times she got killed? Her name is the title of the show.

Why it Shouldn't:

You can see the problem on shows that abuse it, particularly sci-fi or fantasy shows where audiences have gotten used to the idea that anyone can come back (we imagine that very few people actually believed that Kara Thrace died when her ship exploded in a wormhole on Battlestar Galactica).

Viewers saw Jin get exploded on a boat in the finale of last season's Lost, but know that he could be back as a ghost, or through some kind of time travel. Or the healing powers of the island could fix him somehow--hell, it's Lost. There's like two dozen ways he can come back. At this point when somebody gets "killed" we just roll our eyes.

Misleading Editing on the "Next Week On..." Teaser

Major Offenders: Almost every single drama or reality show on television.

These come up mostly on shows that hit a dramatic dry spell during the season, when it's up to the promotional "teaser" clips at the end of the episode to promise big things anyway. For instance, look at the last two seasons of The Sopranos.

Once upon a time when Tony Soprano said "We've got to deal with this guy" it meant "The guy" was soon going to be thrown into the ocean with a dozen new holes in his body. What we got in those last two seasons, however, were previews for next week showing Tony saying something like, "We have to deal with Paulie", along with a scene of some dude on a dark street getting shot in the head.

Then the new episode arrived and, no, nothing happens to Paulie. Tony's "dealing" with him winds up being a harsh word while they're eating at a buffet. The dude who got shot turns out to be some nobody we had never seen before.

This is happening more and more with other shows, as the guys in charge of editing the preview for the next week carefully construct an outright lie about what the episode will be about. They'll dub in dialog where it doesn't belong, they'll use misleading edits to make it appear a main character is in danger. Lost took it to a whole new, silly level when the announcer just started lying to our face ("Next week, the entire secret of the island will be revealed!")

Sometimes you'll even spot a scene or a line in the episode itself that seems to have been filmed specifically to include in the preview, as it winds up being totally pointless and out of place in the episode (look for lines of dialog like, "Guys, this could change everything" followed by absolutely nothing changing).

Why it Works:

They know that we tune in for months at a time waiting for some massive shake-up in the plot, either a major character dying or the answer to a lingering secret. But, that important stuff has to be handed out sparingly, you can't have that shit happening in every episode. So, they keep us tuned in by promising next week will be the episode you can't miss.

There seems to be two ways the producers make it up to us when the actual show fails to live up to the promise of the teaser. Either they replace the fake important scene they teased with a real important scene ("OK, so they didn't reveal the whole secret of the island but Locke got shot so that was pretty cool") or, more likely, they give us an episode of filler that ends with another teaser that promises the next episode will be the one we can't miss. Even though we totally could have missed the one we just saw.

Why it Shouldn't:

What could be worse than the kind of "it could only happen during sweeps" ratings stunt that we've all grown to hate? Falsely promising one and not following through. Every week.

Lost and The Sopranos both saw the law of diminishing returns on this, as audiences basically gave up the idea that anything earth-shattering was ever going to happen. By the time it did, most of us had stopped watching.

You can see more of Jonathan Kimak's writing at his blog.

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