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Do We Need Season Finale Cliffhangers Anymore?

It’s that time again: When all of our favorite shows come back from their summer hiatus, and you suddenly remember that the majority of them had cliffhangers that you remember very little about. While Google undoubtedly thanks you for the business, it has to be said: Is television doing it wrong?

The thought came to me as I realized that Syfy’s Haven starts up again this Friday, a realization immediately followed by another one that I had absolutely no recollection of how the previous season ended. As in, none. There was some stuff about Audrey not being Audrey, and some tattoo stuff and maybe something about the police chief’s son (and new police chief), but other than that, my memory had nothing to offer. Now, maybe it says more about me than Haven, but I have to wonder whether a cliffhanger being so entirely forgettable means that it failed in its primary purpose. Shouldn’t a cliffhanger be the one thing the viewer is supposed to remember?

It’s not just Haven, either. I remembered that Brennan had gone on the run in Bones, but not why. When Warehouse 13 returned this summer, I could remember that the Warehouse had blown up, but not who was responsible (or, for that matter, that HG Wells had died in the explosion). Why are Dean and Castiel in purgatory? Who can remember! Even the more memorable cliffhangers (Once Upon A Time‘s “Oh, now there’s magic,” the overly-dramatic status quo shift in the CW’s Nikita) have details that are somewhat fuzzy, at best.

I understand the reason for doing a cliffhanger at the end of the season – Keep fans in suspense, so that they keep thinking and talking about the show, thereby making it a more visible ongoing concern in such a way that networks may be swayed when making renewal decisions – but I can’t help but feel as if it’s a strangely unnecessary convention these days. There are just too many shows to keep track of, after all, and too much possibility of cancellation (and therefore unresolved storylines – Anyone remember the final episodes of Awake or FlashForward as proof?) for it to seem like something along the lines of a good idea. Isn’t it better to try and follow the Leverage model of ending each season with an episode written as if it was the show’s final episode ever, with just the occasional plot thread left dangling in case renewal does happen…?

(That model may not work for shows that are based around centralized mysteries, but how many of those shows are there, still? The days of Lost seem so far away now…)

Am I alone in this, or are there shows that you like that have kind of lost you with their cliffhangers over the years? Has Wikipedia – or Netflix, or Hulu – become the place where you head for last-minute refreshers before the new episodes start?

(For those who were curious: “Sins of The Fathers,” the last episode of Haven‘s second season, ended with the revelation that Nathan had the tattoo that Duke’s killer was prophesized to have, with a scene of Nathan holding a gun at Duke followed by an exterior shot and the sound of a gunshot. Dun dun, and indeed, dun.)


  • jrau18

    Yeah, sounds like it’s just you that has the trouble. But hey, for people like you, there’s iTunes. Offering free season recaps of pretty much all shows. Even for shows not on there, like Game of Thrones (the recap was posted before the series). I would honestly be very surprised if those recaps aren’t also on Hulu, Youtube, Amazon, and other similar sources.

  • Lyle

    I can see this as a problem with shows like Breaking Bad, where the next season will not return for a year, but most shows return 3 months later or earlier (for example, Burn Notice ended its summer run, but it returning in November).
    I understand your opinion, that there is way too much television out there for anyone to remember it all, but I, for example, do not watch every television show out there, and I doubt anyone else out there does. Gone are the days of what they would call water cooler television, because not everyone is watching the same shows anymore. These days, either someone asks me if I watch such and such show, and most times I do not. Or, I am already watching the shows I watch with my friends and we pretty much just talk about what we just saw.
    You are a television critic who I am betting is forced by your job to watch a lot of television. Maybe I would enjoy doing that for a living, but, since I cannot at present, I watch a few things here and there and have to spend the rest of my life dealing with… well, life.

  • sandwich eater

    Maybe you don’t remember those shows because you don’t really like them, hence they are forgettable. Wikipedia is indeed the place to go to solve this “problem.”

    Of the few shows that I watch, I do remember what happened at the end of the last season. But I also try pretty hard not to watch TV shows that I don’t actually enjoy.

  • Starleafgirl

    I don’t have that problem. I mean, I can understand not remembering the details of finales of mediocre shows like Haven and Warehouse 13, but I find that I totally did remember why Bones was on the run, why Dean and Castiel were in Purgatory, the Once Upon A Time status quo change, and that Nikita is now running Section One with Ryan and the rest of her crew — granted, some of the details are fuzzy, but I think I got the bullet points right. I also remember all the ridiculous plot twists and turns in the Awake finale, mostly because I spent the entire finale trying to figure them out, only to have it end with him walking into a room with both his wife and son in it, haha. And I remember that the finale of FlashForward ended with another global-spanning “flash forward” with neat glimpses into each character’s future. Good taste in TV shows, though (aside from Haven and Warehouse 13, but that’s just my opinion)! I wouldn’t miss cliffhanger endings if they went away…they can be so aggravating, especially when a show gets cancelled on one.

  • Thirty

    I still recall where Millennium left off in ’99 and Alf left off in ’90. Last season doesn’t pose much of a problem.

    As for cancellation, so what? Would you rather a less interesting story is told just so you get closure?

  • Jared

    My favorite cliffhanger was when the Kardashians were held hostage by a crazed maniac who had a bomb strapped to his chest and before everyone could get out, he exploded it. Turns out it was the final episode and was in my dreams. A beautiful dream.

    Good thing the Kardashians aren’t real people, or I’d feel sad about dreaming that. :)

  • Alex

    They ended it on the an X-Files episode. You  probably know that anyway.

  • Thirty

     Which means it had an open ended/cliffhanger ending like Alf. Which I can still easily recall.
    Which has to do with the article.

  • Axelca22

    I, like you, have more important things to remember than the details of TV shows from many months ago. I think the solution is not to necessarily change how seasons end but to do a better job of recapping at the beginning of the next season. The second season of Justified began with a replay of the last few minutes of the season one finale which was helpful.

    I wouldn’t call all of these endings cliffhangers either. That implies immediate danger which will be resolved right I the beginning of the next season. If the ending is a teaser for the major plot of the next season then I am ok with that. I do hate cliffhangers though.

  • Todd

    That’s why I like Sons of Anarchy. Each season feels like a complete story but the finale alters the status quo to propel the story into the next season. Instead of the last episode of the season being the big one, it’s the season premiere that is huge and sets the season off.

    Overall, the more I like a show, the more memorable it is.

  • Demoncat4

    have to admit that some shows can try and act like their final episode is the last. for other wise like haven gone too long and fans seem to forget why they watch the show and what answers plus if a show uses a cliff hanger and gets axed it leaves viewers forever wanting answers and knowing none will ever come.

  • Lyle

     In the case of both Millennium and Alf, the outcome of both cliffhangers were eventually told. Frank Black appeared in an X-Files episode a few months later and you were left with the feeling that he was reunited with his daughter and they were headed for a happy ending. With Alf, years later, there was an Alf television movie where the government still had him and the Tanners were released from government custody, and eventually he was made a representative of aliens who end up coming to our planet.
    I remember one cliffhanger that bugged me (though I realized it should not have now) was Soap, where, admittedly, the end of every episode was a cliffhanger. But, a year later on the show Benson, we did discover that Jessica Tate was seemingly okay after being in front of a firing squad.
    So, on a rare occasion, a cliffhanger is given some type of closure later.

  • David

    I was thinking about this last night; I was trying to remember a season finale cliffhanger that really had people talking, and the only two that I could come up with from the past twenty years were Sherlock and Who Shot Mr. Burns (and maybe that one with the Borg). For months the letter columns in Simpsons comics were filled with people speculating and trying to figure out who did it. 

    I’m wondering if because we live in a time where there is so much tv to watch that finale cliffhangers don’t mean as much because there’s so much other stuff to obsess about. Why focus on unraveling a cliffhanger to a show that’ll be back in three months (which is why I think Sherlock is still talked about – it’s more like a twelve month wait for new episodes) when you can watch new shows with new mysteries. (Tying in to that, the increase of summer tv has probably hurt the impact of the cliffhanger.)