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Over the weekend, fans of Freeform's Stitchers were saddened to learn that the series had been canceled. As is so often the case, Season 3's cliffhanger ending will never be resolved. We'll never learn just who was forcing Kirsten to fake amnesia, or how they were doing it and e'll never see how the NSA react to the awakening of Kirsten's mother. As always, though, the cancellation of a series is a moment to take stock and reflect. What went wrong with Stitchers? And how can future shows avoid the same fate?
The Concept Behind 'Stitchers'
The basic concept behind Stitchers is an intriguing one. The series imagines a world where the NSA has unlocked a powerful new technology; they can "stitch" an agent into the memories of the recently deceased, and use the information to help solve crimes. Emma Ishta played the starring role of Kirsten Clark, the beautiful student whose mind proved to be mysteriously skilled at "stitching."
It's a fascinating idea, and the show carefully emphasized the mystical nature of the concept; there was a Halloween special, and several episodes saw Kirsten noting that she essentially speaks for the dead. Meanwhile, the random and confusing nature of memory ensured Kirsten only ever found clues to various murder mysteries, rather than simply "stitching" in and identifying a perpetrator straight away. As a result, the show combined a fascinating blend of science-fiction and police procedural.
Unfortunately, Stitchers tried to be too many things at once. The series added a strong young-adult vibe into the mix, with will-they-or-won't-they relationships between most of the major characters. Essentially, Stitchers tried to be a science-fiction, young-adult, police-procedural — all at the same time!
What 'Stitchers' Did Right
Stitchers wasn't a perfect #TV show, but it was a lot stronger than its rating on Rotten Tomatoes (29%) would suggest. The actors were perfectly cast, and some of the character arcs were well handled. Take Salli Richardson-Whitfield's Maggie, the sinister black ops leader who runs the Stitchers Program. We swiftly learn to trust her character, and little by little, Richardson-Whitfield revealed her beating heart behind a steely exterior. By Season 3, we'd learned that the troubled Maggie considered the Stitchers team to be the only good thing she'd ever built. Tragically, though, her own team never trusted her and they had no idea how much she truly cared.
Here's another example of a character arc that worked; Allison Scagliotti's Camille. Introduced as Kirsten's roommate, we swiftly learned that Camille had been paid to spy on her for the NSA. Technically, Camille was a student, but the show gradually saw the character develop into a fully-fledged NSA agent. Scagliotti gave the role just enough passion and drive to make the arc believable, portraying a haunted vulnerability that dovetailed perfectly with gradual revelations about Camille's past. For example, there was a moment during a visit from her brother when Camille used her combat training to prove that she could handle herself with fierce snark;
"Who do I think I am? I think I'm NSA, bitch!"
The show was at its best when writers were given the room to be creative. Take the Season 1 episode 'Future Tense,' which saw Kirsten stitch into the mind of a psychic. It was an excellent plot, with poor Kirsten left utterly confused by the psychic's precognitive powers; she couldn't tell the difference between memories and visions of the future! Another strong episode was 'Just the Two of Us,' a Season 3 episode in which Kirsten and Cameron found themselves alone in the Stitchers lab. Little by little Kirsten began to realize that she was actually still inside somebody's mind, but that their memories were somehow being interpreted by her brain. It was a sinister plot, executed with tremendous skill, and it even subtly broke the fourth wall. These were the stand-out episodes, playing their part in building the overarching narrative, but also allowing viewers to toy with some intriguing concepts and ideas.
Core Character Dynamics Never Settled
Unfortunately, not every character arc was handled quite so effectively. In fact, if you watch seasons 1-3 in succession, you'll note that major elements of the character dynamics are radically changed between seasons. Take, for example, Kyle Harris's Cameron. We're introduced to Cameron as an intriguing character, a man who clearly cares for Kirsten, but is also wary of hurt. Season 1 gradually revealed that Cameron went through surgery when he was younger, and that he'd lived his life carefully watching for potential harm lest he trigger a fatal heart attack.
A near-death experience at the end of Season 1 completely transformed the character though, turning him into a rule-breaking risk-taker. Viewing life as a gift, he resolved to live it to the full, so much so that he terrified the rest of the team. A couple of episodes in Season 2 played up the dramatic nature of the change, and then the plot just rolled on, assuming that audiences were now used to a character who wasn't quite so familiar to us any more.
That was one of the more jarring changes, but it sadly wasn't the only ill-advised one. When we were introduced to Kirsten herself, she suffered from a rare psychological condition that meant she couldn't process the passage of time, and thus couldn't interpret emotions. It was a fascinating concept, and it led to some remarkably thoughtful scripting in Season 1. "Stitching" into another's memories gave Kirsten her first chance to experience emotion, and seeing her deal with this was wonderful. Unfortunately, the climax of Season 1 magically 'fixed' her psychological condition, presumably because Kirsten hadn't proved to be relatable enough as the star of a young-adult show. Again, in Season 2 we essentially had to become reacquainted with a major character all over again.
The Important Lesson: Character Dynamics Matter
This was the greatest problem with Stitchers; that in attempting to resolve the show's underlying problems, the writers inadvertently ensured we couldn't become too familiar with the characters. Characters and relationships changed shape between seasons, with no transitions to ensure that the developments felt natural. Instead, they simply felt forced.
You can understand what the writers were doing, and how they were trying to save the show. Unfortunately, the way they went about this was actually a core problem. Rather than choose sudden, shocking changes, they'd have been wiser to go for gradual character growth. The reality is that #Stitchers was a strongly character-driven series, and each episode gave the writers plenty of time to make organic changes.
This was a series with real potential, but it just couldn't quite realize it. What's more, the writer's efforts to save the show largely contributed to its greatest problems. As a result, characterization became both Stitchers's greatest strength, and its greatest weakness.