The case of the midseason finale

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When did winter finales and midseason finales begin? And what did we ever do before they existed?

I ponder this question after having watched the last episodes of “Arrow” and “The Flash” and “Agents of SHIELD” and “The Walking Dead” until January or February – some of them a couple of times now – and thinking about when this trend began.

If you’re not sure what trend I’m talking about: Sometime in the past few years, TV shows, which normally do not air fresh episodes in much of December or January, began calling their last episode before taking a break for a few weeks a “winter finale” or “midseason finale.”

Shows take breaks from new episodes for a few reasons. There’s apparently an ingrained belief that viewers aren’t watching during several weeks before and after Christmas, so there’s no point in burning off new episodes. I question this thinking and point to “Doctor Who,” which gets a new episode on Christmas Day itself each season. But those Brits are different all the way around.

So rather than just limping off our screens for a few weeks, after a Christmas-themed episode that aired just after Thanksgiving, series began airing a climactic episode – well, as climactic as an ongoing TV series ever is, given the need for an ongoing storyline that can run for several seasons – with a dramatic cliffhanger. (Almost literally, in the recent case of “Arrow.”)

And they began calling it a winter finale or midseason finale. So it feels important, you know.

I believe AMC and the producers of “The Walking Dead” might have started this trend. But “Arrow” and a lot of other shows have embraced it whole-heartedly.

So that’s why we see characters die or “die,” why villains are sometimes dispatched, why secrets are exposed.

And why we’re left wondering not only what happens next but how they’re going to top this in the spring, when their regular old season finale airs.

“SHIELD” left us hanging in its mid-season finale but promises something fun in the interim, at least, with episodes of the new prequel series “Agent Carter” beginning in January.

For the rest of these shows, we’ll wait and wonder. And marvel (no pun intended) at how networks and production companies have trained us to expect the middle of the season to end with a bang.

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