Here are the top 30 television cliff-hangers of the last 30 years -- in no particular order.
AS PHILO T. FARNSWORTH slaved tirelessly to perfect the first television set during the early half of the twentieth century, finagling cathode-ray tubes into an oblong wooden box, he surely had just one thing on his mind: the cliff-hanger ending.
Okay, maybe not. But even so, the truth is that, along with 1080p clarity, the thinness of the frame, and the seemingly endless choices of programming, the cliff-hanger is -- and always has been -- one of the most appealing aspects of the almighty TV. And as this year’s prime-time shows gear up for sweeps month and vie for the highest ratings, we’re taking a look back at the most memorable, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat cliff-hangers of the last 30 years. (Yes, we’re really that serious about our TV watching.)
“A House Divided”
Original airdate : March 21, 1980
Easily one of the most popular television endings in history, the show’s third-season finale concluded with an unknown assailant shooting J.R. Ewing Jr., leaving J.R.’s fate and the mystery shooter’s identity unknown until the following season. “Who Done It?” -- the episode revealing that J.R.’s mistress, Kristin, pulled the trigger -- is the second most watched TV episode of all time. (Keep reading to find out what is number one.)
Original airdate: April 20, 1981
Soap’s series finale came unexpectedly and abruptly, without allowing much time for the writers to come up with proper closure for fans. Thus, the final episode was crammed with cliff-hangers that were never resolved. Among the best: a homicidal/suicidal Chester planning to kill Danny and Annie after catching them in bed together, Burt about to walk into an ambush, and Jessica facing a communist firing squad. While Soap fans were never privy to the fates of these characters, the show’s spin-off, Benson, did allow for some much-needed closure. (Jessica lived!)
Prisoner: Cell Block H
Original airdate: November 9, 1982
The strain between Bea Smith and Joan “the Freak” Ferguson came to a head in this cult phenom’s fourth-season finale. As Bea and Joan battled it out, a fire started, setting the prison ablaze. Bea had the keys -- and their only chance at being saved. But she refused to unlock the gate, saying she was ready to burn … and that she was taking Joan with her.
“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”
Original airdate: February 28, 1983
After 11 seasons and more than 250 episodes, M*A*S*H ended its reign with a two-and-a-half-hour series finale that would become TV’s most watched episode in American history, with 106 million viewers. While the episode didn’t end in a traditional mysterious cliff-hanger, viewers were left guessing and imagining what was to come for their beloved characters. The show’s final scene had captains Pierce and Hunnicutt reminiscing over their time together, lamenting that they would probably never see each other again. Hunnicutt then rode off on his motorcycle, and Pierce exited via helicopter. As the helicopter lifted off, the word goodbye was revealed, spelled out with stones on the ground.
Original airdate: May 15, 1985
The wedding of Amanda Carrington to Prince Michael of Moldavia was a spectacular event. But in true Dynasty fashion, this wedding was not typical: It took place on the brink of a Moldavian military conflict. The episode ended with soldiers raiding the chapel and then shooting at the entire wedding party. But who survived?
“Strange Bedfellows” (Part Three)
Original airdate: May 15, 1986
This episode ended with Sam on the phone with an unknown woman. He subsequently proposed to her over the line and then the show ended, leaving the audience wondering which of his many women he’d chosen.
Original airdate: March 26, 1987
A spin-off of Dynasty, this series ended its run with a bizarre twist. The final episode drew to a close with Fallon speeding down an isolated highway. Suddenly, her car broke down. Soon after, there were bright lights filling the sky, followed by a UFO appearing. She boarded the UFO, and it flew off, leaving viewers dumbfounded and wondering when The Colbys became a sci-fi show.
“Dragonfire” (Part One)
Original airdate: December 7, 1987
Even though this cliff-hanger took place in the first of a three-part season finale, it still made our list, mainly because it was among the most nonsensical and silly of the series’ many cliff-hanger stories. After searching for an ice-dwelling dragon in an underground ice world, the Doctor found himself on a path that dead-ended with a drop-off into an ice chasm. So he hooked his umbrella to the guardrail above the chasm, and then, holding on to the umbrella, he stepped over the rail. The episode ended with the Doctor unable to climb back up and slowly slipping down to the tip of the umbrella. It also left viewers scratching their heads as to why he climbed over the rail in the first place.
Original airdate: May 6, 1988
While it wasn’t known for its cliff-hangers as much as it was for rad hair and wicked footwear, Miami Vice did have at least one unblemished and wholly creative cliff-hanger in its season-four finale. During an undercover assignment, an unexpected explosion caused the vice squad to think Detective Crockett was dead. Little did they know he was alive. But a concussion led Crockett to temporarily believe he was actually his undercover alias: a Colombian drug dealer.
Original airdate: May 23, 1990
Special Agent Dale Cooper spent the entire head-dizzying first season searching for the killer of Laura Palmer. In the season’s final episode, we saw Cooper, tired and without answers, returning to his room at the Great Northern Hotel. Before he could sit down to a glass of warm milk, there was a knock at the door, followed by three gunshots from a masked gunman.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
“The Best of Both Worlds” (Part One)
Original airdate: June 18, 1990
This may sound like übernerd talk, but go with it. After abducting the Enterprise’s captain, the Borg had seemingly won. In the end, Captain Picard appeared to his crew and announced, “I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile.” The episode closed with the Enterprise crew at odds with its leader.
Original airdate: May 19, 1995
The Cigarette Smoking Man was out to get Mulder, and he sent soldiers to search for him. They discovered that Mulder had vanished without a trace. Angered by this, the Cigarette Smoking Man then ordered the soldiers to drop a bomb into a train car. It exploded, and the audience was left to wonder for the entire summer whether Mulder had been inside.
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
“And the Answer Is …”
Original airdate: May 21, 1995
Clark Kent finally tried to seal the deal, asking Lois Lane to marry him. Her response was, “Who’s asking, Clark or Superman?” Fans waited months to hear her answer.
“Who Shot Mr. Burns?” (Part One)
Original airdate: May 21, 1995
This episode is probably the most unique of all in Simpsons lore. It ended with Mr. Burns taking a bullet to the chest, leaving fans to figure out who was the culprit. The iconic show even asked viewers to write in with their ideas of who the shooter was.
“The Big Bang “ (Part Two)
Original airdate: May 22, 1995
Kimberly had been acting nuts all season long, so it wasn’t surprising that she set up a series of bombs throughout Melrose Place. What was surprising was that she had the gall to detonate them. The episode came to a close with Kimberly pushing the proverbial button.
“The One with Ross’s Wedding” (Part Two)
Original airdate: May 7, 1998
After years of back-and-forths between Ross and Rachel, we saw Ross finally move on and marry another woman, Emily. But during the nuptials, Ross became confused after seeing his former love in the audience, and said, “I, Ross, take thee, Rachel.” Ouch.
The West Wing
“What Kind of Day Has It Been?”
Original airdate: May 17, 2000
President Bartlet left an important townhall meeting to various fanfare and applause from pundits and political types. But shots were fired -- and the screen cut to black before the viewers learned the fate of their favorite TV president.
“The One with Chandler and Monica’s Wedding” (Part Two)
Original airdate: May 17, 2001
As Chandler and Monica were preparing to marry, Rachel and Phoebe discovered a positive pregnancy test in the trash and assumed, along with the audience, that it was Monica’s. But in the show’s final moments, there was a hint that it actually belonged to Rachel. Who was the daddy? Viewers had to wait an entire summer before finding out.
Original airdate: August 29, 1967
The Fugitive’s series finale left fans reeling. An FBI agent cornered Dr. Richard Kimble and the one-armed man and then proceeded to shoot at them. Before we saw where the bullets landed, the screen cut to black -- and the show was over … forever.
“Kobol’s Last Gleaming” (Part Two)
Original airdate: April 1, 2005
Sharon (call sign Boomer) showed up on Galactica after blowing up a Cylon base star in a heated battle. There to congratulate her was Commander Adama. Out of nowhere, Boomer pulled a gun and shot him in the chest. Then, the screen went black.
“Before the Flood”
Original airdate: May 25, 2005
Vaughn and Sydney were taking a romantic trip to Santa Barbara, California. During the car ride, Vaughn turned to Sydney and said, “My name’s not Michael Vaughn.” Suddenly, another car crashed into theirs, leaving Sydney, and the viewers, without a clue as to who he really was.
“Exodus” (Part Two)
Original airdate: May 25, 2005
Lost concluded its first season with Sawyer, Jin, Michael, and Walt sailing away from the island on a rickety raft in search of rescue. They soon found that rescue, after just a day of sailing, but disappointment followed. The other boat was by no means looking to help them. The episode ended with the supposed rescuers blowing up the raft and kidnapping Walt, leaving the other three paddling in the ocean.
“Exodus” (Part Two)
Original airdate: May 25, 2005
This is probably the only show in TV history with two cliff-hangers in one episode. After a half season of pondering what was hiding in the mysterious hatch, Jack and Locke blew open the door and peeked inside. What was in there? We spent the summer wondering.
Original airdate: May 11, 2006
The season built up momentum as Jim grew increasingly frustrated over Pam’s wedding planning. Finally, in this episode, Jim revealed his love to Pam, but she rejected him. Then, in the show’s waning minutes, Jim kissed Pam -- and she kissed him back. The show ends with them staring at each other in silence, and the audience had to wait four months to see how the predicament was resolved.
Original airdate: May 15, 2006
Michael freed Lincoln from prison, and then they fled on a cross-country escape with their convict friends. The cops began an all-out “Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive” style search effort, and the season ended with the gang of miscreants running through a field as police officers and helicopters closed in.
“Day Five: 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.”
Original airdate: May 22, 2006
Jack Bauer had fought all season to save the world again, avoiding capture and murder attempts by a mysterious Chinese terrorist group. But in the final moments of this episode, we saw Bauer kidnapped and taken away on a freighter ship heading for China.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
Original airdate: May 17, 2007
During the course of season seven, CSI: followed the case of the “Miniature Killer,” a maniacal woman who left perfectly accurate to-scale models of her crime scenes as clues. In the season’s final episode, the Miniature Killer kidnapped Sara Sidle and then left her trapped and dying under a flipped car in the middle of the desert.
“Getting Married Today”
Original airdate: May 20, 2007
This prime-time soap opera hybrid has brought cliff-hangers back to the mainstream, guaranteeing a mystery in nearly every episode. Season three’s finale was no different. Every character’s story line was resolved happily -- until the final moment of the show, when a distressed and heartbroken Edie stepped onto a chair, put her head into a noose, and hung herself.
“Through the Looking Glass” (Part Two)
Original airdate: May 23, 2007
A brain twister of a show, Lost usually tickles viewers with a tasty backstory each episode, filling in missing gaps in mythology. But after introducing the viewer to a pill-popping and utterly depressed Jack, this episode threw a wrinkle in the series’ traditional style. Kate popped up on-screen, and Lost introduced its first flash-forward to off-island events.
“Made in America”
Original airdate: June 10, 2007
One of TV’s most popular shows had one of TV’s most controversial endings. After months of much speculation and teasing that Tony would get whacked by one of the various bad guys after him, the show instead ended by cutting to black during the middle of a family dinner in a downtown diner -- with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin ’” playing in the background, no less. It left zero resolution in regard to everyone’s favorite mob boss, and most of America thought their cable had gone out.
When not watching TV, Dallas-based CLAY SWARTZ writes for the Dallas Morning News.