The season finale cliffhanger has been a time-honored TV tradition ever since ‘Dallas’ left viewers guessing “Who Shot J.R.?” over three decades ago. Nevertheless, when ‘The Walking Dead’ ended its latest season with a cliffhanger last weekend, the show’s entire fan base collectively lost its shit in outrage as if none of them had ever watched television before. For this week’s Roundtable, let’s look back at some of TV’s other most frustrating cliffhangers.
In the instructions I sent out to our contributors, I specifically asked them to focus on cliffhangers that did get resolved in the following season. A huge number of TV shows have ended on cliffhangers only to get canceled afterwards without resolution, but I think that’s a separate topic.
This topic has been very well dissected over the last five years, but boy did I have high hopes for ‘The Killing‘ when it debuted in 2011. A murder mystery set in Seattle, the advertising campaign gave the impression of it being a season-long, self-contained whodunnit. The first episode was promising (if too soggy to convince any Seattle resident that it was actually filmed here), but each subsequent installment was so disappointing, manipulative and just plain clumsy that it soon left me hate-watching this piece of garbage, just to see who did it. By the time the first season finale aired, only to end with the most pointless cliffhanger I can recall seeing, ever – one which attempted to force viewers to wait another year to find out what happened – I was done. I never watched another episode again.
One of the worst TV cliffhangers of all time was the Season 2 finale of ‘24‘. The season itself was intense and satisfying. The ending, an assassination attempt on President Palmer, was breathlessly conducted. It hinted at a smarter terrorist mastermind at work behind the scenes. It left us wondering what we’d get in Season 3.
So, what did we get in Season 3? Well, Season 3 takes place three years after Season 2. That entire cliffhanger was tied up. How was it tied up? Oh, this is rich. Fox packaged up that entire cliffhanger and ported it over to ’24: The Game’, a third-person shooter for the PS2.
Yes, one of the most heart-stopping cliffhangers of the show’s illustrious run was handed off to a videogame. It’s one of the biggest miscalculations in TV history.
M. Enois Duarte
Probably the most frustrating TV cliffhanger I can think of is the two-part Season 3 finale of ‘Lost‘. After a constant back-and-forth tensions with the Others, Jack reluctantly accepts the task of leading the group to a radio tower where they might signal a passing freighter while Sayid and a couple others attack the Others. That episode ends on a hopeful note promising a rescue, and then, the following episode is a strange flash-forward, showing what became of the survivors and them adjusting to some sense of normalcy.
Unfortunately, while sporting a homeless, bearded look, Jack appears to be the one struggling the most and seems to be spiraling into some depressive delusional state. There’s nothing really wrong with the episode itself, and it actually makes for an interesting watch imagining the characters trying to move on with their lives. However, as it continues, the story grows more glum and dispiriting, ending on a frustrating conversation at an airport runway with Jack screaming that everyone needs to go back to the island. That’s a huge WTF moment that left fans waiting months to figure out what the hell any of it meant!
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
How do you bounce back from a nuclear explosion? The first season of ‘Sledge Hammer!‘ ended with David Rasche’s gloriously over-the-top riff on Dirty Harry trying (and failing) to defuse an atomic bomb. Since it didn’t look like a sophomore season was in the cards, why not go out with a bang?
As it turns out, ABC did wind up giving ‘Sledge Hammer!’ a second shot. Rather than try to write themselves out of that corner, creator Alan Spencer and company just turned back the clock five years. Never mind the fact that Sledge was somehow still partnered with Dori Doreau five years before meeting her. This isn’t the type of show where you get caught up in continuity or anything, but that backwards time leap is still kind of a lame cop-out (no pun intended).
The first two seasons of ‘Alias‘ (the two where creator J.J. Abrams ran the show himself) were a tremendously entertaining mix of action-adventure spy thriller and relationship drama that played off the biggest strengths of both genres. The second season ended with a doozy of a cliffhanger in which our heroine, super-spy Sydney Bristow, woke up from a good beating to discover that two years had passed and she had no memory of the missing time. To make matters worse, her boyfriend assumed she was dead and had moved on by marrying another woman!
That’s certainly a juicy setup, and I couldn’t have been more eager to learn what happened when the show came back in the fall. Unfortunately, the third season premiere took an immediate dive in quality. Not only was the cliffhanger not answered, the series failed to do anything at all interesting with the time-jump. Aside from some superficial changes, basically not much changed in the time Syd was gone, and she picked right back up doing what she’d always done. The third season felt like it was treading water, waiting for something interesting to happen. That cliffhanger about Sydney’s missing time wasn’t resolved until the middle of the season, in a talky and anticlimactic episode that was one of the show’s worst. The answer was such an unsurprising “surprise twist” that I frankly couldn’t be forced to care.
At the time it aired, I hoped that Season 3 might have been an anomaly and the show would get back on track the following year. Sadly, ‘Alias’ continued its downhill trajectory and never recovered.
What TV cliffhangers have frustrated you the most? Tell us about them in the Comments.