Some of TV’s most unforgettable moments have come in the form of cliffhangers. Think of Buffy’s heroic death followed by the words on her tombstone, “She saved the world, a lot”; or the slow reveal of the body of Jeremy Bentham at the end of Season Three of Lost; or Veronica Mars opening her door at the end of Season One and saying to someone off camera, “I was hoping it was you”; or Sydney Bristow learning at the end of Season Two of Alias that she had lost two years of her life. Cliffhangers at their best have been celebrated from the moment we began to speculate about who shot JR Ewing to the shock and wonder at seeing the untoppled twin towers of the WTC in last year’s Fringe. There is, however, a flipside.
Cliffhangers have also led to some of the most irritating moments in the history of TV. The fourth and final season of Farscape ended with American astronaut John Crichton proposing marriage to his alien lover and former space Nazi Aeryn Sun, only to have a spaceship zap them with a ray gun, reducing them to a pile of glasslike pellets while they kiss and embrace. One of the finest finales of the 2008-2009 season was that of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a brilliant episode that changed everything we thought we knew about the show’s characters and created some intriguing situations for the following season. That would be a season that would never materialize thanks to its cancellation by FOX. The terrible taste that was left in our mouths by the end of Farscape was partially eliminated by the miniseries that wrapped up the series, but a similar fate seems unlikely for TSCC, meaning that the game-changing images of the last few minutes will be forever unresolved.
A natural knee-jerk reaction—it is certainly mine—is to blame the studios for these dangling cliffhangers. After all, if the Sci Fi Channel had renewed Farscape, the shocking end of Season Four would have led to an exciting Season Five premiere. Likewise, had FOX renewed TSCC all of the brilliant plot twists in the Season Two finale could have led to something truly exciting in Season Three. I certainly share the frustration that others feel with the inability of the networks to find a formula that enables them to keep first-rate but low-rated shows on the air. My growing belief, however, is that much of the blame has been misdirected, that the real culprits are not the networks—or at least not primarily the networks—but the writers, producers, and studios that produce these shows.