How Should Cult Series End?: A Reponse

Last time, I posed the question of how to end a series which has attracted a passionate and committed fan following — using Smallville as our central example. Today, I wanted to give some of the people associated with the series a chance to respond and share some of their perspectives on trying to close out Smallville‘s tenth and final year as a television series. Specifically, I asked them to reflect on how they closed off the Chloe Sullivan storyline which some fans had come to see as emblematic of what it means to be a professional women in the early 21st century. As I mentioned last time, I am grateful to Mark Warshaw of the Alchemists for his help in arranging for these responses.

The first comes from Kelly Souders, an alum of USC’s Graduate Screenwriting Program, who joined the Smallville team, with her creative partner Brian Peterson as staff writers and finished their ninth and final season on the show as Executive Producers and showrunners. Kelly’s frank and intelligent discussion of the challenges of constructing and managing transmedia characters was a highlight of this year’s Transmedia Hollywood 2 conference, as you will see when we release the videos of that event through this blog late next week.

What are some of the challenges you face in trying to bring about closure to something as long-form as a cult television series like Smallville?

Honestly, “challenges” is a polite way to put it. Trying to sum up a decade of stories and characters, trying to sum up that season’s arc, trying to give people as much as they can (knowing even a major feature film couldn’t do it and they aren’t following a nine day shoot and many other tv constraints) is pretty much… impossible. But, the benefit of a ten year show is that the people that are there after so long are there because they are passionate. And everyone gave 150%.

Given the diverse investment fans make in such series, what steps can producers take to live up to their expectations?

You just do everything you can. Everyone does. You try to think of every angle every fan has and try to shine a light in that part of the story. The issue is always that fans don’t agree. Some people loved Chlollie and some people loved Black Queen — bam, right there you’ve failed half the expectations before you’ve even picked up a pen. You simply try to finish the story that was started and you don’t sleep much.

Some fans have expressed concern that the ending of Smallville effectively has “undone” some of the character development from the rest of the series, for example closing off Chloe’s career ambitions. How would you respond to these concerns?

Well, this answer is going to be a bit long because I’m such a big Chloe fan myself. First I have to give a big “HUH?” to the Chloe part. As a woman who has a pretty demanding job and two children at home under the age of four, I have to say I was floored by that one. I’m not sure why anyone thought her reading a book at night meant she wasn’t going to her computer down the hall to check in with the JLA.

I guess the thought never crossed any of our minds or we would have thrown in some line like “Say goodnight to Superman in your comics, I have a co-worker to check in with…”

Because Allison was doing a play during filming, we only had her for one week of the two parter, so that’s why we had to say goodbye to her character for the most part at the end of the first part. It’s also why we were very clear when she was leaving Oliver that she was going off to be a “hero” and to Star City to manage the team. It was important to us that the Chloe career woman kept climbing the career ladder.

The reasons why we book ended with the boy were because we wanted her to be the first person to say “superman” and we wanted the woman we were always rooting for who had some bad luck in her personal life over the years to be victorious in that as well. We wanted her to have it all.

This second response comes from Allison Mack, the actress who played the part of Chloe Sullivan, and has now moved on to do stage work:

I want to begin this response by stating how moved and honored I am to know that a piece of work I was involved in creating over the last decade has inspired such passion, commitment and support. I believe our ability to have deep emotional experiences is what makes life worth living. Knowing that I was and am a small part of inspiring this type of experience is more gratifying than I can express. Thank you.

I will say, I have had the most interesting few weeks. When I was informed of my fans reaction to the series finale I took notice. Throughout my experience on Smallville I have been exposed to incredible amounts of support from several different fan groups. Legendary Woman and AllisonMackonline.com are just two of the many groups doing exceptional things to honor the character I helped to shape, mold, and grow. This has always been a flattering and exciting process for me.

Ten years ago my good friend Mark Warshaw (also the creator of The Chloe Chronicles) asked me what I want to do with my work. I responded by telling him I wanted “To inspire people to do more in their lives”. Over the course of the show I have had the privilege to create a character that stands for nobility, integrity, and honor. As woman of strength and passion, Chloe upholds so many traits I strive to uphold in my personal life and when I heard the fans expressed deep betrayal, I did not take the response lightly.

I thought for a long time about what to do and spoke with several mentors about how to best respond to this reaction. It was amazing to me a dream I recited to a friend over breakfast had come to life and was now at risk. Something had to be done.

Your outcries have allowed me to look at my position as an actor from a new perspective and the potential potency for influence with this is both intimidating and thrilling. I see my responsibility as an actress as being very serious and an incredible privilege. This is not to say that I want to be type cast as a “Chloe” but there are certain characters that portray metaphoric representations that I will not take on.

As for the show, I would prefer not to take a stance on the storyline itself. Not because I don’t have opinions, I absolutely do, but more because I believe this is not about stating if the ending was “good or bad” and “right or wrong”, more it is about learning how to take what was presented and look at it from all angles. What is both good and bad about it? How are the choices the characters made valuable and not?

The point is not the judgment we place on what we watch, but what we do with what we see. Do we use it to explore our own beliefs more deeply? Do we agonize and analyze the potential of choosing one path over another, thereby expanding our own capacity for deliberate choices? Do we allow ourselves to empathize so deeply with the characters we love that we challenge our prejudices and ultimately build our strength for compassionate and humane interactions? This is a process I believe can change the world. It is the reason I love what I do.

What if the result of this ending for Chloe has created an examination of the purpose of media for both the viewers of the show and myself? What if as an effect of this very show we recognize that now is the time for people to start to examine the nature of popular culture and entertainment more deeply? What if a result of this very discussion entertainment itself becomes a tool for education and evolution rather than something used to disappear and regress?

As it currently exists media is more often than not used as an excuse to turn one’s brain off, to avoid thinking or growing. In my opinion this is a tragic misuse of one of the most effective tools developed. This would be a dream come true as it is one of my personal passions for media and technology.

In the end, maybe the metaphor for Chloe in the show’s finale is bad and maybe it is good, but more than that this situation reveals an opportunity to re examine the way we use this force we call “media”. This is not a matter of just ending a story nor is it a matter of just having a resolution for a character. This is an opportunity to create new archetypes and change the face of our interactions with entertainment.

So, I believe, what is important about this whole experience is understanding it. Taking the lessons from our responses and seeking to more thoroughly investigate our perceived adversaries, our archetypes and ourselves. Whether it is “good or bad” remains to be seen. That part is in our hands.

I would love to hear what you are thinking. As I did with the discussion of committed relationships and Castle, I am going to suggest you send your responses to me directly via e-mail at hjenkins@usc.edu so you don’t have to face the headache of my spam catcher. I will post as many responses as I can through the blog proper. Please be clear if you are sending this personally to me or want to see it published.

So, if you are a Smallville fan, what did you think about how the series ended and how might you like to see the series extended in new directions, as Mack suggests here?

And if you are not a fan of Smallville, share your thoughts about the endings of other cult series. Which ones were handled the best? Which were handled the worst? What steps can producers take in responding to fan disappointments around the series? What would you like to tell “The Powers That Be” about how cult series should end?

Next time, I will share some closing thoughts and we will hear from Flourish Klink, a former student of mine who is now Chief Participation Officer for the Alchemists, and perhaps from some of you.

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