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

The Walking Dead Cliffhangers Brand Loyality
Courtesy of AMC

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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  1. Ken S says:

    Well my partner hasn’t watched any more Walking Dead since Glen’s apparent death, because of how mad he was about his favourite character dying. Even after I watched the subsequent episodes and suggested to him– trying to avoid outright spoilers– that he ‘should’ too. He says he doesn’t care anymore. So, file that under anecdotal evidence.

  2. Anthony says:

    Yes it almost did

  3. AD Bruns says:

    I won’t quit, because I rarely quit TV shows. But it does make it feel cheap, and therefore like a decline in the writing. I appreciated what they’ve tried to do on Walking Dead 6a, having it all be on one awful day for the most part, but I really hope 6b gets back to their more normal, linear pacing.

    As for split seasons, I think it can be beneficial for story, pacing, having less gaps between episodes, fewer filler episodes, and so on. What I hate is when the two halves are a year apart and released separately on dvd, because, no, that’s two separate seasons. Marketing those as one is clearly a contractual issue with the cast or network generally.

  4. I wanted to quit WD during Lori crapfest. But I read CB and knew that she was a toast and since the character was so unpopular and fans demanding that she gets off’d, there was no way they spared her forever. So I stick with the show, the witch is dead and the show’s better for it. I don’t mind Glenn’s miracle escape because I like the character.

    IMO, annoying, awful characters (like Lori) are worse than cheap cliff-hangers. Cliff-hangers come and go but stupid, irritating regular characters are always there, can’t escape them and that ruins the show.

  5. Rob Rosado says:

    Honestly, I have yet to see anyone complaining about “The Leftovers”. In fact, the viewer feedback for this season had been kind of amazing. So I’d say no.

    • Troy Wagenstaff says:

      I’ll complain. I think Lindelof is a hack and has been since Lost. Stories without a storyline that get twisted and turned every week by a whim to try and be weirder than the week before. It’s like they have no idea where it is going, ever. The Twilight Zone was great because it had a strong story line with a clever preconceived twist. The Leftovers just flounders. It’s worse than leftover oysters!

      • I’m lost with your comment,but TWD RULES! I’m’s faithful fan,I’ve even won tickets to TWD WORLD PREMIERE S 6,And myself and my family 8 deep every week,I personally don’t agree with the hiding under the dumpster but I LOVE all the SURVIVOR’S,and I know TWD writers going to give us all what we been waiting for,Shit about to get REAL, WAR on TWD s6 episode 8!

  6. Nathan says:

    well first off i don’t consider glenn’s death/undeath a cliffhanger….as it was just plain stupid. i thought it was a very simple oh he’s dead, and i was a bit shocked that they decided to kill him off….then the nitwitnet came ablaze and i read the exact same scenario of his “escape” on other articles by commenters, “oh he’s not dead he crawled under the bin” “oh it was Nicholas’s guts” so this wasn’t exactly A.) Original B.) shocking C.) a cliff hanger….and quite frankly it’s stupid enough for me to lose interest in the show, this isn’t the first time they played with glenn’s death, it happened in terminus he was just about to get his head cracked in and throat slit…oh boom explosion carol saves the day. this isn’t creative writing…’s dumb.

    I don’t subscribe to cable, i watch the show streamed i hate television and i can count the # of shows in the last few years i was interested in 1) Dexter 2.) the walking dead and 3.) Hannibal.

    i tuned in for 6 seasons of TWD, so it beat Dexter as that show got stupid around season 3 and Hannibal was fortunate enough to get cancelled before it get turned into utter trash

  7. Jon says:

    I don’t know that the problem is cliffhangers per se, but rather lazy writing that negates the consequences of actions and therefore ruins the dramatic stakes. This isn’t a problem specific to TWD and I’m sure we can all think of plenty of movies and TV shows that have engaged in this sort of cheap trick. Like in the 1978 Superman, where Lois Lane dies and then there’s the idiotic “turning back the world” sequence that erased the last half hour of the movie. Or in Superman II, the even more idiotic “super kiss” at the end that makes Lois forget every single thing that happened in the entire film. (Not to pick on the Superman movies!) And of course, Bobby Ewing in the shower. It’s not that we can’t still enjoy the show or movie when they pull this kind of stunt, but it’s irritating and kind of a wasted opportunity. Imagine if Superman II had ended with Lois telling Clark “I’m pregnant”. Or if the last episode of TWD had shown a reanimated Glenn at the dumpster, following the herd toward Alexandria. And then maybe he bites Tara or Maggie in the midseason finale. I just wish the writers would have more respect for audiences and their own craft. They’re so much better than this.

  8. Bill B. says:

    I don’t think they are risking viewer loyalty with cliffhangers, but I do think they are risking viewer loyalty by fake outs such as removing Steven Yeun’s names from the credits. It was a gimmick unlike they have ever done before and I think in the future it may cause fans to wonder if what they are viewing is really happening or another trick being pulled on them. This is a show that has taken itself very seriously. I don’t think getting cutesy with cheap tricks is beneficial in the long run.

  9. Patrick says:

    I don’t understand what the big deal is here. It’s a TV show for cryin out loud. You either have fun watching it or you don’t. In the case of the WD, I do. If Glen was dead, I’d watch and enjoy. Now that he is alive, I’ll watch and enjoy. People who take things too seriously make my ass itch……(thanks Abraham, I use that one all the time now).

  10. Reni says:

    It is completely ridiculous to compare The Walking Dead with The Leftovers. TWD does this all the time and is jerking around its viewers for several episodes. With The Leftovers, nobody thought we weren’t going to get an answer to that, and we got it right away.

  11. Joe G. says:

    I agree with the premise of your column, but I disagree with your inclusion of The Leftovers. I cannot imagine anyone actually thought the character in question was truly dead at the end of the previous episode, and I don’t think Lindelof wanted the audience to either. Otherwise he wouldn’t have included the final shot of him being dragged away. The whole scenario had been set up with very little ambiguity by Erika and Chekov’s bird in a box.

  12. alex says:

    it’s not that cliffhangers are bad, it’s that the walking dead was GRATUITIOUS in overplaying Glenn’s “death,”and then making us wait three weeks to find out his fate

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