Did so and so die? What was in the hatch? Did they escape before the bomb exploded and killed them inside the opera house? OK, I'll be honest, I made that last one up. In all honesty though, sounds about right though doesn't it? Cliffhangers are, at least as far as we've been told, a tool that's been around since the dawn of time.
To their credit, cliffhangers accomplish a lot of different things, though most would agree the central goal is to keep the audience coming back for more. Still, why are they used so frequently? It's at the point that each TV guide should list Cliffhanger right next to run time. We know they're coming, so why not just let the audience know it's going to happen? Despite the endless cavalcade of producers, show runners, and exec's telling us how it's just the way of the land, and always has been, their not entirely correct. For a short period of time, television treated cliffhangers as a taboo. Of course, there was a very practical reason for this.
Spoilers lie beyond this line!
The History Of TV Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers, at least in visual media, were often used way back in the early 20th century in the narrative films played at old nickelodeons, which were essentially the original movie theaters, as we know them. They served a very important purpose when used, which was to ensure people would return the following week or month to see the conclusion. This continued, even as cinema became more complex, and the audience was concerned that the damsel in distress would be crushed by the train. Fortunately, when the ending aired, they were able to see the conclusion, for only another nickel or so.
When the 50's and 60's rolled around, and television became the king of family entertainment, studio execs hurriedly had seasons of shows filmed in an effort to meet demands of audiences. This was the group who rebelled, most heavily, against cliffhangers. The problem with cliffhangers is they require continuity, and shows like “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” would have cost too much to shoot in order. The studio execs decided to shoot the episodes, and then release them when they were completed, ignoring an order.
These kinds of shows are generally in a group called “plot driven” shows, because each episode has a singular plot that rarely carries over into the next episode. Shows like “Law and Order”, “Three's Company”, and most animated shows fall into this category. While shows like Law and Order can include cliffhangers, they aren't as frequent as the other type of show, the “character driven” show. These shows focus on the growth of characters over a period of time, allowing each episodes plot to organically occur, and often occur over the course of a season.
So, while some shows still tried to keep the audience talking during the off season, it was much more financially exhausting to do this on 30 minutes, plot driven shows. Of course, that doesn't mean the trend died entirely. I, myself, was not alive when Dallas, the original, was on the air, but the effect it had sent shock waves down the line, still felt today. All it took was one hidden figure taking a shot at J.R.
Still, over time, cliffhangers have been used brilliantly. Who shot Mr. Burns, though a spoof of the “Dallas” cliffhanger, was incredibly interesting. Friends teased us when, right before going off the air for several months, Ross said the wrong woman's name at a very bad point. It's exciting to postulate what will happen, and try to answer the questions before the show comes back on in the fall. That is, until recently.
Shows Have Changed, And So Have Cliffhangers
Networks are getting somewhat desperate, and it makes sense. AMC and HBO seem to produce a hit without trying. ABC and CBS have had huge success, but none that rivals “Game of Thrones”, “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men” or “The Walking Dead”. This leads to them grabbing more programming, and axing more programming when it doesn't perform as hoped quickly enough. This is part of the cliffhanger issue, because studios will often cancel a show after it's too late to change the ending.
Still, Netflix and Hulu utilize cliffhangers, and don't cancel shows as often as NBC or the like. However, they commit the other sin, a sin that only accomplishes making the ability to care almost nil. Shows, my dear ladies and gentleman, have just plain gotten shorter.
Okay, the seasons have gotten shorter. It used to be that the average season was in the high teens, low 20's, pumping out episodes 8 to 10 months out of the year. Shows simply don't do this very often anymore. The rise of character driven shows means that while perhaps TV has gotten somewhat better depending on who you ask, it also means that we're expected to care for several months after the fact. One great example is “Orange is the New Black”.
The first season ends on a cliffhanger, and, due to all the episodes being available at the same time, we had to wait 12 months to wait for a conclusion. “The Walking Dead” asks us to wait for 7 months, not to mention the two month break in the middle. “Game of Thrones” requests a 10 year wait for a pay off. This is just too long for most people to still remain invested. I'm the only person I know who still cares about who Negan killed, and it's starting to become less interesting everyday.
Should We Still Keep Cliffhangers?
The argument, however, for keeping cliffhangers around is just as strong. It would be easy to point out that if you were to remove cliffhangers, there'd be no difference between TV and movies, though this point doesn't hold up. For one, movies frequently end with cliffhangers (as a horror movie fan, believe me, I know). Also, as previously noted, plot driven shows generally wrap up the story at the end of the episodes. Sitcoms are, almost universally with a few exceptions, plot driven, and are often considered one the most important crux of cable television.
In reality though, perhaps we're just too impatient. When those cliffhangers played out in the nickelodeon's so many years ago, I imagine some people were frustrated, but I imagine more were excited. They could talk about if the astronaut would make it to the moon, and it made them feel like important pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps they just hated them and imagined a future where everything was resolved all the time.
So, while I agree many of the cliffhangers as of late have been silly, ill advised, or an excuse to watch the show runners lie to us for the better part of the year, there's good and bad to them. Both sides will make or save money for the studio, but we have to except that there's drawbacks to both sides. Cliffhangers still manage to create tension, and allow us to speculate and feel involved. The absence of them means we can have that immediate release of tension. At the end of the day, all that really matters is....