Weekend Roundtable: Worst TV Cliffhangers

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.

Mike Attebery

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.

Aaron Peck

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).

Josh Zyber

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.


  1. Csm101

    Good one Tyner! I was going to use that one!
    I was really enjoying Blade on FX and the first season ended in a cliffhanger where if I recall correctly, the bad guy told the main girl that he knew she was partnering with Blade ( she was supposed to be working for him). Then the show went and got canceled. It was a good cliffhanger, but what good is it if the show gets the axe?

  2. Boston007

    This season’s TWD pissed me off so much I refuse to watch it anymore. Don’t care who Negan offs. It was a complete insult to the fans.

    • Shannon Nutt

      I agree.

      Josh and I have gone back and forth about this. He seems to think TWD’s finale this year was “just another cliffhanger”, but I’m of the opinion if NOTHING happens that viewers don’t already know is going to happen, it’s NOT a cliffhanger. We knew Negan was showing up. We knew he was killing a cast member. Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman gave viewers NOTHING beyond that. It was a total cop out and an insult.

      • Dennis

        Who’s “we”? People who read the books and already know (a version of) the story? I didn’t know those things.

        • Shannon Nutt

          Chris Hardwick has been talking about it all season long on Walking Dead. Scott Gimple and Robert Kirkman have been talking about it in the press all season long, as have the actors. I suppose if you’re a viewer that ONLY watches the series, never watches Talking Dead and never reads any press and avoids social media, you were “surprised”…but honestly, how many people are loyal fans of a series and don’t read or watch material outside of the actual episodes themselves? I don’t know many people like that.

        • Shannon Nutt

          Okay Dennis, are you honestly telling me that you had NO CLUE Negan was showing up in the finale before you tuned in? I find that hard to believe. I’m guessing you not only knew he was coming, but you knew Jeffrey Dean Morgan was playing him. If you didn’t, I’m impressed by your ability to avoid show information.

          • Dennis

            I assumed Negan was showing up at some point because they talked about him in the show. I don’t know what difference it makes which episode it is. I certainly didn’t know he was going to kill someone immediately, much less a main chatacter, but again, people die in this show. I just started watching Talking Dead, and I scrupulously avoid spoilers for the shows I really care about.

  3. HuskerGuy

    Most recent one to come to mind is a show I no longer watch, Castle on ABC. Two seasons ago (or so) they ended the season where Castle was supposed to marry Kate with some bullshit fiery car accident. Even more bullshit was the explanation the next season. I stopped watching the show with the finale. Castle has historically had cliffhangers like that from what I recall.

    Now, one of the best cliffhangers was in Chuck Season 2. I loved the ending with Chuck getting the Intersect and learning kung fu. Sure, it would’ve been disappointing to not see how that played out the next season if the show was cancelled, but I loved it.

  4. Scott H

    Terminator the Sarah Conner Chronicles. Now if I remember, Sarah, John and Reese arrived in the future and I thought that was a a good finale. Whats going to happen next season. And then fox cancels it.

    • i loved t:scc and was really bummed when they canceled it right as it was getting really interesting switching up the storylines and blowing the continuity out of the water with reese. i blame salvation and the movie reboot hopes for killing the show.

      but i agree that was a great cliffhanger “who’s john connor?”

  5. C.C.

    I hate the shows that have a season end on a cliffhanger, but never get renewed- so the story is hung up to dry forever.
    But, I did love that GET A LIFE was in such a tenuous situation regarding renewal, that they just had Chris Elliott’s Character DIE at the end of EVERY EPISODE! It actually made the show MORE hilarious!

  6. William Henley

    From the instructions, it sounds like you have two different things here – most frustrating, and worst written. A frustrating cliffhanger is usually a really good one – I think the most frustrating was when watching Star Trek The Next Generation at the end of The Best of Both Worlds, and you are waiting the entire season sot see if they killed off Picard. Frustrating, but good.

    However, by Deep Space 9, the show became serialized. There were cliffhangers sometimes at the end of an episode, and they would just wait 2 or three weeks to answer them and throw in a hollodeck adventure between them.

    Some bad cliffhangers were in Doctor Who. Once you learn the Doctor just regenerates, it takes a LOT of suspense out of the show. And because of production schedules, usually the new actor is announced before the previous season ends, so no suspense there.

    However, I would have to say the master at bad cliffhangers was Lost In Space. As the show was serialized, every single episode ended in a cliffhanger, but they were all really bad. You know they are not going to kill half the cast off on the second episode of the season, and many of the episodes end with the cast jumping through the air to avoid an explosion that ends up causing very little damage. The show just got worse and worse with their cliffhangers, until they eventually got to where they were all together goofy (although, truth be told, by the time the show ended, the show itself had gotten goofy.)

    However, the rules state for season cliffhangers. I must say, I am drawing a blank. Out of the shows I watch, either they do not do season cliffhangers, or they are done really well. Star Trek was great with Cliffhangers (although they were frustrating – you would not put it past Star Trek to kill off a main character), I don’t remember if Stargate did cliffhangers or not, and I know Battlestar Galactica did them, but as I was binge-watching the show, I don’t remember how bad it was. Although, with Battlestar Galactica, I did find it frustrating when you would suddenly jump forward six months and they were living on a planet, and you are all like “What the frack just happened?”

    Once Upon a Time didn’t work for me between season 1 and 2. To me, it felt like the show was written with the idea that it was only going to get one season. So, the first season, really interesting, looks like the show is going to be tied up well, then it feels like they were like “oh, we got a second season? We got to write in a twist.” So the last 5 minutes of season 1 is some of the poorest written of the entire series. While it was not a cliffhanger per se, it did set the foundation for the rest of the show. I made it all the way through a few episodes of season 3, the show just got worse and worse. The problem is, clearly season 1 was primetime and meant for an older crowd, but Season 2 started like they were going for a family crowd, and with season 3, it was clearly targeted more at a tween crowd.

    That said, I kinda like how Once Upon a Time does stuff. They seem to wrap up everything in a season, and then setup the next season at the end of the last episode of the season. This is smart – if the show gets canceled, they just cut those last couple of minutes, and the show is wrapped up. Or at least that is how the earlier seasons went, as I said, I stopped watrching halfway through season 3. This is different from what I hated about Lost In Space – in that, they were just showing the first part of the next episode, at the season finalies of Once Upon A Time, they were setting up the entire next season.

    It’s been years since I have seen it, but Heros frustrated me. Once again, this seemed like a show that was written with one season in mind. They wrapped this up pretty nicely, and, oh wait, we are in Japan now. Okay, this could be interesting, but then we get season 2, and the show is just awful. I think I stopped watching the show after episode 3 or 4 in season 2, and from what I heard, I am not missing anything

  7. Andy Barker P.I.

    Sledge Hammer! was a satire on cliffhangers as well as their resolutions, so Tyner including it amongst the worst means he didn’t get the joke and is a bit of a rube.

  8. James Bond

    “How was it tied up? Oh, this is rich. Fox packaged up that entire cliffhanger and ported it over to ’24: The Game’, a first-person shooter for the PS3.”

    I don’t want to seem like fact police, but 24: The Game was a third-person shooter for the PS2. Seriously though, it’s hard to let errors go when the only thing he got correct was the name of the game. Why even state what the game is if you aren’t going to double-check it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *