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Cliffhangers: No Instant Gratification Here, Folks. (Jerome A. Holst © 2005)

Frank ConverseBack in the late spring of 1967, CBS introduced a summer replacement series called CORONET BLUE starring Frank Converse. The series told the tale of a man named Michael Alden who was fished out of the East River in New York City. He had apparently been attacked and dumped into a watery grave, but he survived. Unfortunately, the trauma of the incident gave him amnesia. All he could remember were two words: "Coronet Blue" (As the theme song proclaimed "Deep down inside my brain, I keep hearing that wild refrain").

Through the ensuing weeks, the TV viewers learn along with the character that he can speak Spanish, sail boats and perform a variety of other skills. Sadly, the series ended in September and we never learned the fate of the man nor the meaning of "Coronet Blue." This has bothered me for years and is testament to the power of the cliffhanger and its ability to keep someone on the edge and in a constant mode of antici........pation.

While Coronet Blue's unintentional "cliffhanging" due to cancellation left many unanswered questions and disappointed viewers, the cliffhanger formula when done properly still remains a great way to lure TV viewers to watch future episodes by promising a resolution to a character's dilemmas.

Of course, the cliffhanger is nothing new. It's a tried-and-true method developed by filmmakers in the early days of the movies that left audiences in suspense from week-to-week as their heroes and heroines faced dangerous situations that were resolved in the following episode. The term itself comes from the fact that, in many of these films, the hero was left dangling precariously off the edge of a cliff at the conclusion of these "to be continued" action packed thrillers.

Movie serials like The Perils of Pauline and Flash Gordon kept the kids coming back to Saturday morning movie matinees for years in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s to make sure their favorite movie idol survived the trials and tribulations that beset them the previous week.

As a matter of homage, the 1950s song "Along Came Jones" by the Coasters paid tribute in spirit to the cliffhanger with the song lyrics:

I plopped down in my easy chair
And turned on Channel 2
A bad gunslinger called Salty Sam
Was chasin' poor Sweet Sue
He trapped her in the old sawmill
And said with an evil laugh:
"If you don't give me the deed to your ranch,
I'll saw you all in half!"

And then he grabbed her! (And then)
He tied her up! (And then)
He turned on the bandsaw! (And then, and then...)

In the 1960s, the ABC fantasy series BATMAN starring Adam West and Burt Ward became famous for including a cliffhanger at the end of each episode (which at one point ran two episodes a week). By the end of each episode Batman and Robin were placed in jeopardy (like being lowered into a toxic substance or strapped to an ominous conveyor belt sending our heroes to their doom). As death loomed closer and closer the program announcer (William Dozier) encouraged us to stay tuned for the next episode's exciting conclusion at the "Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel."

Batmam and Robin about to be impaled by a deadly wall of spikes

One of the early notable TV cliffhangers was on the show SOAP/ABC/1977-81. The 1977-78 season ended with Robert Urich's character, Peter Campbell (a lothario tennis player) being shot. Astonished viewers tuned in by the millions the following fall season to discover that Chester Tate (Robert Mandan), the husband of Jessica Tate, had confessed to the crime, and he was subsequently sent to prison.

A few years later, the impact of the cliffhanger was used to its full advantage on March 21, 1980 when ruthless oil baron, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) got his comeuppance and was shot, as well. The mystery of "Who Shot J.R.?" created a frenzy of speculation around the country. Small business entrepreneurs created bumper stickers and tee-shirts exploiting the phenomenon ("I shot J.R."). Even Las Vegas was placing odds on the outcome. Did J.R. die?

J.R. Ewing Shot

Happily, the mystery was resolved on the November 21th edition of the prime time soap DALLAS when the viewing public learned that the perpetrator of the crime was none other than Sue Ellen's sister, Kristin Shepherd (Mary Crosby) who had tired of being J.R's play thing and sought revenge. Unfortunately for Kristin, that bastard J.R. survived and went on to cause further infamy. According to the World Almanac, the program garnered 36.3 million viewers of 53% share of viewers.

This J.R. plotline was later parodied on the animated cartoon THE SIMPSONS as it ended its 1994-95 season run with the question "Who shot Mr. Burns." In the fall we discovered that the shooter was the Simpsons' little girl, Maggie, who had unintentionally pulled the trigger of Mr. Burns gun when he was trying to steal her candy. Again, the ratings were enormous and everyone had fun speculating the outcome.

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