"Who shot J.R.?" and other unforgettable cliff-hangers
TV finales that kept us at the edge of our seat
Thirty-one years ago, Dallas viewers were left wondering ”Who shot J.R.?” Ken Tucker picks the television finales that had him on the edge of his seat.
1 DALLAS (airdate: March 21, 1980)
The famous ”Who shot J.R.?” cliff-hanger was basically a variation on the board game Clue. Viewers were faced with a small group of suspects, one of whom had tried to kill Larry Hagman’s oil baron J.R. Ewing. But it was so wittily executed and came as such a surprise (you mean they aren’t going to tell us who did it till next season?!) that a nation was transfixed.
2 BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (May 22, 2001)
In the episode titled ”The Gift,” Buffy sacrificed herself and prevented yet another apocalypse. The episode concluded with the best gravestone message in TV history: ”Buffy Anne Summers, 1981 — 2001, Beloved Sister, Devoted Friend, She Saved the World — a Lot.”
3 FRINGE (May 12, 2009)
Up to this point, Fringe had been doling out tidbits about an alternative universe that seemed to be conspiring against ours. But it wasn’t until the end of the hour, as the camera pulled back from the building Olivia occupied to reveal that the Twin Towers were still standing, that we realized she had ”crossed over.” How the hell did she do that?!
4 LOST (May 25, 2005)
Lost had already proved that its narrative could go literally anywhere; this was the moment that proved its storytelling could be gut-wrenchingly emotional, too. Young Walt was taken by the Others (why? Lost’s mysteries forever deepened) as his father, Michael, wailed ”Waaaaalt!” in anguish.
5 THE SOPRANOS (Dec. 8, 2002)
The epic Tony-Carmela fight — a verbal brawl that threatened to get physically violent — seemed to signal a marriage coming to an irreparable end. The conflict was the culmination of all of the Sopranos’ marital strife. We knew the show would go on, but was the central family unit permanently broken?
6 MAD MEN (Nov. 8, 2009)
We’d gotten so comfy in the offices of Sterling Cooper that the finale decision to form a breakaway agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, felt downright revolutionary. Combine it with Don and Betty separating, and it was clear that the future of every main character was suddenly unclear.
7 DYNASTY (May 15, 1985)
When the fifth season ended with the ”Moldavian massacre” — a wedding in Moldavia was disrupted by coup-staging terrorists — the effect was laughable, campy, and exciting all at once. The episode was a classic lesson in how to sustain a tone that was soap-operatic and dramatic.