Just three minutes to go, and Sydney Bristow is about to die. The season finale of “Alias” has you so far on the edge of your seat, you’re about to knock your forehead on the TV. The action is reaching a fever pitch. You glance at the clock. You start to fidget. Two minutes left. They’ll never make it. How in the world will they ever wrap this all up?
The screen goes dark. And then those three simple words: “To be continued.”
Have a nice summer, folks.
It’s the season-ending cliffhanger: frustrating, heart-palpitating, frenetic…and a welcome throwback to the thrilling days of yesteryear.
Rooted in the tradition of movie serials, end-of-year cliffhangers were once as big a part of the television landscape as remote controls and TV dinners. Decades ago, you couldn’t turn a channel without running into a Carrington trapped in a burning building or a Ewing with a bullet wound. In 1979, there was even a whole show devoted to celebrating the form. Called — duh — “Cliffhangers,” the show crammed three tense moments into each hour.
On Friday, SOAPnet airs the pinnacle of this once-proud tradition, the most-talked about — and most-watched — cliffhanger in TV history: the classic “Dallas” cliffhanger “Who Shot J.R.?”
But in addition to rekindling fond memories of Reagan-era excess, huge cowboy hats, and Major Nelson plugged full of lead, revisiting that 1980 episode serves as a melancholy reminder of just how infrequent well-done season-ending cliffhangers have become.
Sure, savvy TV writers still employ tense moments at commercial breaks to make sure audiences are intrigued enough to return after a trip to the fridge. And they’re often utilized at the end of episodes, an electronic bungee cord designed to yank viewers back to their La-Z-Boys the following week.
But today, with a few notable exceptions, the tried and true dramatic device of leaving viewers staring at their screens in disbelief at the end of the season has faded to nothing more than a cathode-ray memory.
Modern cliffhangers owe a lot to their cinematic forbears. Kicked off with the tame-by-today’s-standards “What Happened to Mary” movie serials in 1912 and “The Perils of Pauline” in 1914, the cliffhanger quickly evolved into the form today’s audiences are familiar with.
Fan favorites like Tom Mix, Flash Gordon and Captain Marvel rode the bandwagon into the ’30s and ’40s, entertaining throngs of matinee-goers with unresolved episodes full of harrowing stunts, many of which ended with huge explosions, bottomless pits, or — of course — someone dangling precariously from a cliff.
Often, filmmakers threw their heroes into impossible situations, then backtracked a bit the next week to suddenly explain that, oh, by the way, Flash Gordon and friends had actually found a hidden trap door before the building they were trapped inside exploded. The hero survived, writers found an easy way out, and audiences suspended their disbelief and kept coming back for more.
Today, only soap operas continue the tradition with any regularity, luring back viewers by ending their episodes with a startling accusation or the cocked eyebrow of a scheming villain — or something a bit more hit-you-over-the-head obvious, like an explosion, car wreck or gunshot.
With every daytime drama wrapping its hour on a nail-nibbling note, it’s no surprise that the once phenomenally popular nighttime soaps incorporated cliffhangers into their repertoires as well. “Dallas” was the unsurpassed cliffhanger king (remember “dead” Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower?), but “Dynasty” reveled in them as well, ending each season with a bang. Most times, literally. The fifth season ended with a volley of gunfire and the entire cast lying in a pool of blood. Who would live? Who would die? Producers were banking on the fact that viewers would tune in three months later to find out. And tune in they did.
High drama, but in the mercurial business of television, a show can sometimes get cancelled before a cliffhanger is resolved. The final episode of “Dynasty” served up a doozy of deferred gratification: Patriarch Blake Carrington took a bullet, and left viewers hanging until a TV movie wrapped up the loose ends several years later.
When most of today’s dramas close up shop for the season, every frayed plot point is tied tightly, every character is neatly tucked away. A conspiracy? Nope, just plain economics. Syndication likely killed the cliffhanger. In the old days, you knew that a second part of a “To be continued…” would be on the next week or the next season. But today, showings on multiple stations or out-of-sequence syndicated schedules make it tough to find the resolution to a two-parter. Producers may be focusing on more self-contained tales to make things easier to sell to audiences who tune in only occasionally.
Another suspect in the demise of the cliffhanger? The Internet. In today’s world of split-second communication and instant indulgence, there’s no need to wait until fall to find out what happens. Spoiler sites abound, and it can take the fun out of waiting for a cliffhanger’s resolution when a leaked plot point or posted script page blows the secret. Even when a set is extremely tightly controlled, you can’t Google a show without reading about some unsubstantiated - though sometimes true - rumor.
Though far less common today than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, the season-ending cliffhanger hasn’t completely disappeared from the airwaves. When it does work — and it can indeed be done well — it’s like a jolt of electricity, shaking audiences out of their TV-induced haze and reminding them that they actually care about the characters they’re watching every week. Theories abound, rumors flourish. It’s a commercial for the upcoming season that plays over and over in viewers’ heads, keeping fans buzzing about the show — and catching their breaths — all summer long. Recently, three shows have generated plenty of attention for their creative use of season-ending tension.
“Alias” creator J.J. Abrams must have watched a lot of “Dynasty” growing up. The show, featuring the adventures of superspy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), makes the best use of cliffhangers in prime time, at commercial breaks, ends of episodes, and, most notably, season-ending zigzags that have audiences waiting by the TV for the next season to start.
At the end of the first year, a horrified Sydney discovered that supervillain “The Man” was actually her mother. Could Abrams come up with something to top it? Uh, yeah. To finish the second season, after more or less wrapping up nearly every dangling plot thread in a matter of minutes, Abrams took a turn so wild, no doubt a few fans fell off the roller-coaster: Sydney awoke in Hong Kong with a mysterious scar across her belly, then discovered that not only had two years suddenly slipped away, but the love of her life, Vaughn, went and got himself married. Fade to black. Slack-jawed viewers buzzed about the turn of events for months. And now that Season Two is set to be released on DVD Dec. 2, fans can relive every frame of Sydney’s heartbreaking discovery.
A close second is “24.” Low blood pressure? Just try watching Kiefer Sutherland and company keep Los Angeles safe from baddies and not feel your heart jackhammer against your chest. In the same vein as “Alias,” viewers of this Fox show signed on for a wild ride, and the cliffhanger is part and parcel of the deal, complete with ticking clock and all the storylines converging — often literally all at once, in multiple boxes — at the exact same time. Cliffhangers on top of cliffhangers! “24”‘s creators threw fans for an “Alias”-style loop at the end of Season Two. After wrapping up much of the nuclear bomb storyline, a nearly forgotten character from the first season reappeared in the last few minutes of the show — and left in her wake President Palmer crumpled to the ground, infected with a biological virus. Good luck getting that startling image out of your head over the summer — and not tuning in the next year to see how it played out.
NBC powerhouse “Friends” has invoked its cliffhanger privilege, too, certainly more often — and more effectively — than most of its comedic brethren. By their very nature, sitcoms provide less opportunity for suspense than dramas, but “Friends” has wrung every bit of dramatic tension from Ross, Rachel and the gang. The biggest moments of the show have all been season-enders: Ross calling Emily “Rachel” at their wedding; Monica proposing to Chandler; the revelation that someone was pregnant; Joey and Rachel kissing in Barbados. There’s a reason “Friends” consistently sits at the top of the TV heap.
Over the past years several other shows have given cliffhangers a shot as well, to various levels of success. “Cheers,” “NYPD Blue,” “Star Trek: TNG,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “King of the Hill” have all embraced the form with, on the whole, originality and aplomb. But those well-done episodes are the exceptions to the rule; most season-ending cliffhangers end up as cheesy clichés, ripe for parody. They’re so over-the-top, so melodramatic, viewers can’t help but giggle.
Cliffhanger? Excellent …
Few shows have skewered the form as sharply as “The Simpsons,” with its celebrated “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” episodes. After dropping clues — both legitimate and not — and introducing a gaggle of suspects, producers returned for the seventh season and revealed that, uh, baby Maggie was the shooter, not Burns’ lickspittle Smithers as many suspected. “That would have made a lot more sense,” shrugged a frustrated Lisa, still stewing about the lame conclusion … two years later. In on the joke, viewers continue to rank the episodes among their favorites.
And, most subversively, “South Park,” which promised viewers the identity of Cartman’s dad — The Denver Broncos? Officer Barbrady? Chef? — and instead pulled an April Fool’s prank on its up-to-then loyal audience. With viewers anxiously clutching their plush Cartmans in anticipation of the cliffhanger’s resolution, “Park” served up a not-so-sweeeet episode starring Terrance and Phillip that sent fans flocking to online message boards (and tying up Comedy Central’s phone lines) in frustration. “South Park” producers later admitted that they hadn’t expected the reaction from livid fans, and they hurried a new episode into production to appease viewers.
With shows like “Alias” and “24” embracing their birthrights as the next generation of small-screen suspense-peddlers, maybe the cliffhanger’s not completely extinct after all. In fact, let’s not forget the biggest, most shocking revelation about cliffhangers of them all. It really boils down to one thing, one piece of information that will blow the lid off the entire TV industry. And that, of course…
To be continued…
Brian Bellmont is a freelance writer living in St. Paul, Minn.