Are ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘Leftovers’ Risking Viewer Loyalty With Cliffhangers?

Forgive loyal TV viewers lately if they’re beginning to feel like Charlie Brown, with writers of their favorite series playing the role of Lucy, tantalizingly dangling a football in front of them, only to snatch it away.

Certainly, “The Walking Dead” has played a version of that game, based on recent events (and SPOILER ALERT for those who aren’t caught up). Not only did the series strongly imply the death of a significant character, Glenn (Steven Yeun), on screen, but then compounded that by removing his name from the credits and issuing an extremely cryptic statement about his future via the program’s companion discussion show, “The Talking Dead.”

In that same on-air forum, guest Damon Lindelof noted that one would hope “Dead’s” producers weren’t engaging in “a shenanigan,” a rather quaint way of saying that someone has pulled a devious trick. Yet Lindelof could easily be accused of the same, given the resolution of the most recent installment of the producer’s HBO series, “The Leftovers,” which also toyed with killing off a key player, Kevin (Justin Theroux), before a stunning (and not particularly convincing) reveal at the very end of its most recent episode.

The heightened pressure created by today’s ambitious programs, coupled with evolving scheduling patterns, is driving much of this. Not only have cable shows adopted shorter orders, but even series with longer annual runs are now dividing their seasons into “A” and “B” editions, doubling up on cliffhangers.

The poster child for this delicate balancing act, perhaps, was “Breaking Bad,” a show that developed a hard-earned reputation for creative genius by writing itself into what appeared to be impossible corners time and again, finding some equally clever way out. Yet with more programs trying to perfect that art, there are also more opportunities to go tumbling off a cliff in terms of plausibility — which can happen, creatively speaking, even in post-apocalyptic or other fanciful settings. (It remains to be seen whether “Game of Thrones” was guilty of being too cute, or perhaps flippant, in pronouncing the character of Jon Snow dead, based on the recent promotion for the upcoming season, but at least in that series there’s a stronger foundation for the supernatural.)

When playing a game, to “call shenanigans” is another way of saying that your opponent is cheating. Granted, one can argue that such flourishes are simply the new rules of the TV-viewing equation, and while fans are permitted to grumble, like Charlie Brown, no one should be surprised to wind up lying flat on their backs, wondering what happened.

As for producers, most have become reasonably sophisticated about downplaying the importance of Internet griping, however vociferous, recognizing that the popular shows can likely survive such blowback. Still, there’s always the threat that at least part of the audience — should they feel tricked one time too many — will simply take their ball and go home.

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