TV’s slow return to cliffhangers

Everyone is familiar with the original Batman series starring Adam West, right? Each episode had the same setup, Bruce and Dick do something normal, a bad guy does something, they put on their costumes to fight them, and then.. TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO SEE HOW THE DARING DUO GET OUT OF THIS PICKLE!

Of course the next episode always started by resolving the problem, then resolving all the other problems, then they went on with whatever happens next.

This is called a cliffhanger ending. It takes the usual beginning, climax and resolution plot and spreads it out, ending the episode on the climax without any resolution. The resolution comes at the beginning of the next episode, then that episode in turn often starts the process all over again.

Cliffhanger endings are completely different from movies to TV shows. With TV you know that they will resolve the ending in the next episode, but it still makes you want to stick around for the next episode to see how it ends. Movies are a bit riskier because fans might have to wait for 3 years or forever. And often the cliffhangers in movies don’t pay off the way you think they should. But that’s not what this article is about!

We are here to talk about cliffhangers in television!

You remember the 90’s? They were ruled by the sitcom. Seinfeld, Friends, Boy Meets World, etc. They all followed a tried and true approach to each episode:

Beginning: a problem is discovered/encountered.
Middle: the problem comes to the turning point/the climax.
End: A resolution is found and the episode wraps up nicely.

This even extended to the few highly popular dramas of the day like ER, Law and Order, Murder She Wrote, Matlock, etc. It was always the same ending, EXCEPT for the season finale.

The season finale of any show always had to end on a cliffhanger to seemingly keep the audience on the edge of their seat wanting more. That meant they would have to wait ALL SUMMER until the show came back.

Finale cliffhangers work quite well because as a viewer, you have already potentially been sucked into the show all season, so you want to know exactly how Matlock solves this weeks crime, or whether or not Corey and Topanga finally get married.

Well these days in television we are all still familiar with the cliffhanger. But I think it’s safe to say we are MUCH more familiar with them now than we were in the 90’s.

How many of you watched Lost when it was on? How many episodes probably ended on some sort of cliffhanger? Go ahead and take a minute to think about.

Yep, probably just about every episode, right?

Writers these days seemed to have found the secret of cliffhangers, and they seem to inject that secret into every show they can get their hands on.

Lost is a prime example because they started the new trend of every-episode-cliffhangers. After seeing how successful their approach was, every new show seemed to try emulating it. Often it failed for various reasons, and sometimes it worked. Invasion is a prime example of a show that failed at the cliffhanger ending.

Many could and should say that it was trying to emulate Lost at every turn, just with a different plot. The series was about some sort of alien invasion slowly taking effect. You never knew exactly which characters were aliens and which were humans. The idea was that it would be a gripping story about people in a small town in Florida dealing with the extraordinary events. It had a solid idea, but it got cancelled after it’s first season.

The blame could be passed around all you want, maybe it was poorly written, maybe the actors weren’t as good as they could have been, but I think the answer is something much more sinister…

The writers didn’t grasp how to make a good cliffhanger ending.

Invasion tried to emulate Lost‘s episode style by ending episodes with cliffhangers that might be resolved in the next episode, but they missed the mark.

The reason it’s hard to write a good cliffhanger in every episode of a show is because of the characters. Often times a show thinks that the audience has to like ALL the characters to get them to come back for the next episode. In truth you really only need a single character that everyone likes. It doesn’t have to be the same character for each person either.

Lost had a plethora of characters for people to like for different reasons, one person might have liked Jack because he’s a cool doctor that knows how to lead a group, so whatever the ending, they will watch to see what Jack does next. Someone else might like Charlie’s lovable drug-addict persona, so they want to see what he does next. We need to have some sort of emotional anchor to hold us down to a show, and everyones anchors are different.

Once the writers have a character that people like, they can then write a good cliffhanger whenever they want and audiences will keep tuning in. Why, you ask? Because even if the cliffhanger has nothing to do with your favorite character, you can’t help but think “well I wonder how this is going to effect Charlie or Jack.” And it obviously grips audiences even more when the cliffhanger involves their favorite character.

Invasion didn’t get that, and made only one or two characters remotely likable, which turned many potential fans off. It made their cliffhanger endings feel empty and meaningless because they always effected characters that nobody cared about, which left many viewers thinking, “Why should I watch the next episode? I don’t really care if the Sheriff is a human or not.

A more recent example of solid cliffhanger writing is True Blood. I’ve talked to many people who watch the show but totally hate at least three characters on the show. But they have those few characters they love, so they stick with it.

True Blood has taken the Lost style of cliffhangers and perfected it. And in many ways it allows the writers to get away with often ridiculous or poor writing that most shows would never get away with so easily. True Blood can fill an episode with some of the most ridiculous fluff throughout an episode, but if they leave you guessing at the end, you always want more.

Viewers sit there and deal with the random stuff about fairies and werewolves through the whole episode, suddenly their favorite character gets bitten by a vampire! Then the credits role.

True Blood has found the loophole in television cliffhanger endings. They have figured out how to make the viewers think the whole episode was AMAZING simply because of the plot-twisting cliffhanger ending.

If you watch True Blood, go back and watch an episode with that in mind. There’s a good chance that the episode is filled with random potentially ridiculous sounding dialog, but at the end you still want to see what comes next. It doesn’t matter if any of the 50 minutes previous made any sense, because they probably didn’t.

All that you or any viewer needs to get hooked into the next episode is a single character you like. The emotional impact of the cliffhanger might not have anything to do with your favorite character, but the cliffhanger makes you want to stay to see what they do with your favorite character next. Often the general emotional impact of a cliffhanger is enough to keep you coming back. The shared emotion of the cliffhanger with how viewers feel about a character makes for a perfect storm.

Now I’m not trying to say that True Blood is a bad show, but I believe that they as well as many other new shows these days rely on cliffhanger endings more than actual character development to keep the audience coming back. And that sucks.

About Jon Q Public

Jon Q Public can blend into any crowd. He is tallish but not too tall, he probably has a light beard or a 5 O'Clock shadow. He wears nice slacks with a fancy jacket. He's your average American Taxpayer: Mr. Jon Q Public.