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


While the cliffhanger is comfortable with the dramatic genre, cliffhangers also work well with situation comedies. One such memorable cliffhanger occurred on the 1984-85 season finale of CHEERS when bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson) receives a telephone call from a female and subsequently proposes to her over the phone. We had to wait until the fall to find out that it was not the councilwoman Janet Eldridge (Kate Mulgrew) with whom Sam had a whirlwind romance but rather Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) whom Sam asked to marry. Unfortunately, she said "No" to Sam's proposal (at least his first try) and told him to repeat the proposal in a more romantic occasion. Later, when Sam proposes on a boat, Diana again refuses which causes a frustrated Sam to force Diane to walk the plank before he throttled her. Seeing that Sam was serious, Diane jumps overboard to avoid Sam's wrath.

Hey! What are you looking at?
Eric Cartman

The foul-mouthed animated comedy SOUTH PARK on the Comedy Channel also used the cliffhanger successfully on the 1998 episode "Cartman's Mother is a Dirty Slut." At the beginning of the show, an unseen narrator posed the question "Who’s Cartman’s Dad?’’ Cartman, of course, is the meanest, fattest kid in town. Just as Dr. Mephisto (using DNA results) had narrowed the list of possible fathers down to: Officer Barbrady, Chef, Jimbo, Mr. Garrison, Ned, Chief Running Water, Gerald Broflovski, himself, his little friend Kevin or the 1989 Denver Broncos, the show ends.

A few months later on the episode "Cartman's Mother is Still a Dirty Slut", Dr. Mephisto is shot just as he is about to give us the goods. Thankfully, he recovers and reveals that Cartman's father was in reality (drum roll, please)...his mother, Liane Cartman. Confused? Well, turns out that Liane was a hermaphrodite and since hermaphrodites cannot bear children Cartman's mother got another woman pregnant at the drunken barn dance. Some cliffhangers are just silly, aren't they?

Cliffhangers on NBC

In the 1970s, the cliffhanging genre even got its own show. Called CLIFFHANGERS, the 1979 NBC produced series contained three revolving serials that ended each installment with a "cliffhanger" intended to entice viewers back the next week. The storylines included "The Curse of Dracula" (The legendary Count Dracula assumes the role of a South Bay College professor in modern day San Francisco); "The Secret Empire" (Frontier marshal stumbles upon an underground city inhabited by gold-stealing outer space aliens); and "Stop Susan Williams" (journalist investigates the murder of her reporter brother). Although exciting, the series was short lived and the storylines were unresolved at cancellation.

Occasionally, an article will appear in a newspaper that lists the 'Top Ten Cliffhangers of All Time'. Of course, DALLAS always leads the list along with the "Massacre in Moldavia", the DYNASTY 1985 episode where all the guests at a wedding were gunned down by terrorists; The FRIENDS 1998 episode "The One with Ross's Wedding" when Ross uttered Rachel's name instead of Emily's at the marriage ceremony; the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER 2001 episode "Buffy's Big Sacrifice" when Buffy sacrificed her life to save her sister Dawn and the world; and for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION fans, the May 1990 episode "The Best of Both Worlds" when Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) had been assimilated into the Collective and proclaimed "I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile." Man, was that a long summer.

Resistance is Futile!

Currently, the Fox Network drama "24" starring Kiefer Sutherland as government agent Jack Bauer has revived the excitement of the cliffhanger formula by leaving us in suspense at the end of every episode. The whole series is a serial that weekly leaves us on the edge of our seat with action-packed, thought provoking scenarios. And their season finales DIE for.

Now firmly entrenched in TV history, the cliffhanger has become a valuable tool for TV script writers, who more often than not, will routinely conclude their seasons with some sort of cliffhanging moment that will tantalize fans to return in the fall to watch more of the program.

The spring of 2005 helped continue TVs cliffhanger heritage by providing viewers with a few more climactic cliffhanging moments. And I, like others, will be biting at the bit all summer to find out what happens in the fall. Here are my picks to watch.

  • ALIAS: Sydney Bristow has just saved the world from a disaster and so she agrees to marry her spy buddy, Michael Vaughn As they drive off to a new life together (a la the James Bond film Her Majesty's Secret Service) Sydney suggests they blow off the big wedding and elope. Suddenly her fiancée admits he must come clean and reveal a secret, Just as he tells Sydney he is not whom she thinks he is...a car crashes into their vehicle. Was it an accident, or was someone trying to stop him from revealing his secret?
  • Zach holds a gun on SusanDESPERATE HOUSEWIVES: Zach Young, the disturbed teenager across the street, takes Susan hostage. He thinks that Mike is going to kill his father and so he waits for Mike to return. Finally, Mike arrives home and enters the front door. Breathlessly, we wait to hear a gunshot, but there's nothing, just silence. Will Zach kill Mike? Will Mike kill Zach? Will Susan ever learn how to cook? Stay tuned!

  • LOST: The survivors set sail on a makeshift boat and are attacked at sea by a mysterious band of marauders. They kidnap a small boy who frantically screams for his father. Suddenly, the castaway's boat is set on fire. They jump into the sea as the boat explodes and the boy's father is helpless to rescue his son. Meanwhile, back on the island, we still have not learned about the monster roaming the jungle and what's down the shaft way in the concrete bunker.
  • VERONICA MARS: Veronica's father saves her from an insane celebrity who had killed Veronica's best friend. Veronica's alcoholic mother steals a $50,000 check and leaves town. Then there is a knock on the door. Veronica opens the door says "I was hopin' it was you" The question is "Who is he or she?"
Wow! That's a lot of unresolved suspense. Now, if I had a time machine, I'd be the first to fast forward to find out the answers, but since patience is a virtue (and I ain't got a time machine), I guess, I'll just have to wait a few months to assuage my curiosity. But, if there are any fledgling scientists out there who have cracked the secrets of time travel, by all means contact me IMMEDIATELY (pretty please?).

  • For those of you who are fans of the science fiction serial genre, here is list of serials that ran at the movies in the early part of the 20th century and on early 1950s TV, as well.
  • The Vanishing Shadow (1934)
  • The Lost City (1935)
  • The Phantom Empire (1935)
  • Flash Gordon (1936)
  • Undersea Kingdom (1936)
  • Dick Tracy (1937)
  • Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)
  • The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938)
  • Buck Rogers (1939)
  • The Phantom Creeps (1939)
  • Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)
  • Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940)
  • Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941)
  • Batman (1943)
  • Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)
  • The Monster and the Ape (1945)
  • The Purple Monster Strikes (1945)
  • The Crimson Ghost (1946)
  • Brick Bradford (1947)
  • Superman (1948)
  • Batman and Robin (1949)
  • King of the Rocket Men (1949)
  • The Invisible Monster (1950)
  • Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
  • Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951)
  • Mysterious Island (1951)
  • Captain Video (1951)
  • Radar Men from the Moon (1952)
  • Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) [Note: This serial featured a Martian played by an unknown 21-year-old actor named Leonard Nimoy who went on to play the legendary sci-fi alien Mr. Spock on the "Star Trek" series. What a career - from the planet Mars to Vulcan in less than 20 years].
  • The Lost Planet (1953)
  • Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)

NOTE: This article may be linked to other Internet publications with the agreement that you will credit the article to the author, Jerome A. Holst

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