Television is the perfect medium for the cliffhanger. The annual TV season is the perfect platform to leave things unresolved; we know there will be another season and waiting four months (or so) is enough time to build up interest to bring us back in the fall. It’s what makes watching TV so great: it’s fun, engaging, and just a little bit frustrating.
However, not all shows do it that well. Some cliffhangers make the viewers scratch their heads in confusion saying, “Who cares?” While the cliffhangers we’ve chosen make viewers pull their hair out in pure agitation shouting, “AHHH WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!”
Ah, the big one. The one to rule them all. At the end of the second season J.R. is shot twice and for nine painful months the entire country waited to find out who did it. No, seriously, everyone was wondering. The debut for the third season became (at the time) the most watched episode of television ever (for those wondering: Kristin did it).
Is that enough for you? They did again at the end of the seventh season when the main character, played by Patrick Duffy, returned (he had died at the beginning). Then at the start of the eighth season it turns out… it was all a dream. It was a cheap cop-out to play up the cliffhanger, but hey, it worked. We’re still talking about it. (And I apologize. I would have put in the real video but the embeds were disabled, boo!)
Of course, if something is popular eventually South Park or The Simpsons will get to it and since South Park hadn’t been created yet, parodying Dallas fell on The Simpsons shoulders. So, instead of wondering who shot J.R., we were left with the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns (it was Maggie). My only question though, was if Mr. Burns was willing to block out the sunlight from the town of Springfield, why would they care if he got shot? Either way, The Simpsons managed to faithfully pull off one hell of cliffhanger making fun of cliffhangers. Yep, The Simpsons did it.
Most Romantic Cliffhangers
Let’s switch gears for a second. Not every Cliffhanger deals with a life and death situation, though that’s an easy way to ramp up the stakes of a story. Sometimes simply wondering if someone will go out with you is enough. That’s where The Office comes in. In the earlier episodes of the series, Jim and Pam’s relationship plays more prominently through the season-enders. But as the show went on and Jim and Pam got together, got married, and had a kid, the show had to find other ways to leave the viewer wondering. And when Michael Scott left the building before the seventh season was over with no replacement in place, the show still hadn’t been able to recapture the magic. Have no fear though, it will return.
But the biggest cliffhanger? Easily the end of season two, “Casino Night.” Surprisingly written by Steve Carrell, the episode ends with Jim’s teary confession of love which Pam rejects. Heartbreak? Oh, you have no idea. But then things get tangled when Pam is talking to her mom in the dark office when Jim suddenly walks in and kisses her, no words. Nothing. It was one hell of a way to end a season. Luckily, I first watched it on DVD with the third season ready to go but had I watched it when it aired I would’ve been so pissed. So, thanks technology!
(This isn’t the Cliffhanger I’m talking about, but still a good one!)
Doctor Who has been on a long time. Like a Guinness-Record-holding long time. No, seriously, they have the record for longest running sci-fi show of all time. And in the nearly 35 years the show has aired, they have created some incredible cliffhangers. Companions are constantly in trouble and in need of the Doctor’s rescuing; evil alien races have surrounded the TARDIS in seemingly insurmountable traps; and the entire universe has been in danger a time or two.
So which is the best? Well, we’ll just go with the latest since it’s the only one yet to be resolved. The Doctor finally finds out that River Song is Amy Pond’s daughter (who had just been kidnapped, this is a time traveling show, so this stuff happens) and he starts giggling while running off in the TARDIS. Needless to say, we might have gotten one answer but there are still a thousand questions left unanswered.
Most Confusing Cliffhangers
If you’re confused by this one, don’t worry. Pretty much everyone who watched this show is confused about it too. Which means its perfect for cliffhangers list! In fact, most of the show is built around a central cliffhanger of who killed Laura Palmer? But with declining ratings, that was answered pretty quickly through the second season (it was her dad). Did that stop David Lynch though? Hell no. He turned up the weird and soon the show was dealing with midgets talking backwards, prophetic dreams, aliens, and demon spirits. And then the show had the audacity to end with Agent Dale Cooper (our main character throughout all this) being inhabited by the evil spirit that had killed Laura Palmer (we told you it got weird) and banging his head against a hospital mirror asking “How’s Annie?”
Most Frustrating Cliffhangers
There hasn’t been an end of a series in recent memory that had so much discussion and controversy simply because… it was so damn ambiguous! Tony’s sitting at a diner having dinner, someone walks in, and then BOOM BLACK SCREEN. Journey starts playing and that’s IT. That’s the end to one of the best television series of all time and it ends on a hard cut to black. No wonder so many people were upset with it. Answers? Nope, none. Did he die? Probably but no one can say for sure. This is quite easily the most frustrating cliffhanger of all time.
Lost is practically Cliffhangers: The Show. What season didn’t end on a huge unresolved problem? Hell, what episode did leave you with more questions than when you started? Unfortunately, the mysteries tended to get a little ahead of themselves and get swept away with too many questions and not enough answers. But that’s okay! There isn’t a better show on television that played with the mysteries of storytelling along with the actual medium. Locke uncovering the hatch and THEN the light turns on? End of Season! Ben wakes up in the middle of a desert? Boom! Commercial! It was frustrating, but it was amazing to go through the ride.
However, we have to pick one cliff hanger and it has to be the end of season five. We knew for a few seasons prior that the sixth would be the final season so the writers knew they had to end on something huge and holy hell did they ever. Everyone is thrust back in time, they have a nuclear bomb to detonate, and suddenly a gigantic magnet is pulling everything toward it. Cue to Juliet getting sucked down slipping through the fingers of Sawyer (SO SAD) and then she WAKES UP. The bomb hasn’t gone off so she begins bashing it with a rock and then BOOM: WHITE SCREEN. Yep, they cut to a white screen instead of the usual black. That’s how you end a season.