Streaming Cliffhangers Are Trapping Us In A 19th-Century Grift

It never had anything to do with satisfying storytelling.
Streaming Cliffhangers Are Trapping Us In A 19th-Century Grift

For all the commentary on the effects of binge-watching, the pros and cons of binge-watching, and the insulting pop-up wellness checks that are all too often the reality of binge-watching, it's increasingly disappearing as an option. Whether that's cool with you or you writhe in the agony of not knowing what happens next on The Mandalorian ...

... or The Handmaid's Tale ...

... for weeks at a time, you can bet their corporate daddies are largely unconcerned. If anything, they want you cursing their name after leaving you hanging off the proverbial cliff. It never had anything to do with satisfying storytelling -- or at least, it had a lot more to do with the waning attention span of the kids these days, and by "these days," we mean Victorian England.

The idea of the cliffhanger had been around for centuries, most famously in the encyclopedic One Thousand and One Nights, but even there, the concept of cutting off a story right when it gets good is used by one character against another, not the reader. That's because it, like most stories in those times, was told in a fairly complete form. It's not like a medieval peasant could just hop on Kindle and download the next installment, so you really just had the one shot.

That all changed in the 19th century when reading material became so accessible to the average person that publishers had to fight for their increasingly fickle attention. Books fell out of fashion because they took too long, so many writers began telling their stories in serialized form in magazines, to the tune of hundreds of millions of stories updated on a daily or weekly basis. How was a writer supposed to stand out in such a glut? A well-crafted narrative and resonant characters? Don't be silly. They made sure they always ended in the middle of the action, so readers were forced to dole out more shillings or whatever just to get the rest of the story. Charles Dickens became so good at it that American readers started hanging out at docks expecting ships from England, where the stories were published earlier, to beg the British for spoilers.


In fact, if you read Dickens's books today, you can tell where he ended each volume when it was a serial, and it feels as weird and unnecessary as old TV cliffhangers in an era when you can skip straight to the next episode. TV was actually reluctant to adopt the cliffhanger model, but not for any less cynical reasons: They wanted every episode to be a self-contained story that they could run over and over whenever they liked. It took until the '80s, with Dallas's famous "Who Shot JR?" storyline ...

... for networks to learn what Dickens had a century earlier, and it had a good long run of ... about 20 years. That's when streaming services got wise to the fact that many viewers were DVR-ing entire seasons to watch at one time, figured they should just release them all at once and replaced constantly climaxing narratives with more complicated stories that took advantage of the binger's heightened capacity for keeping dozens of characters and plotlines straight.

But then they had a new problem: Viewers would turn up when the new season dropped, pay their $14.99, stay up all night with their TV friends, and then dip. How was a streaming giant supposed to reel in those consistent monthly fees? A wide variety of quality programming? Don't be silly. Netflix is sticking it out, but Disney+ and Hulu, among others, returned to the weekly model and the practice of teasing Boba Fett at the end of the season premiere, not the finale. They can posture all they want about "shared experience and the joy of the water cooler," but it's awfully convenient that they also keep getting your subscription fee. At least this time, England isn't getting it first; in fact, England doesn't get Hulu at all. Suck it, England.

Top image: The Walt Disney Company

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