The best TV cliffhangers

What do you do if you’re making a TV show and you want to tempt your audience to come back for another series? The answer, increasingly, is to end on a cliffhanger – leaving your viewers hanging on a big question or a shocking event can generate tons of discussion and huge excitement to see how it will play out. If you’re in the mood for a cliffhanger, here’s a few of the most iconic of all time.


‘A House Divided/Who Shot J.R.?’ (Dallas)

Let’s start with the granddaddy of all TV cliffhangers. Dallas’ J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was renowned as a notorious manipulative oil tycoon, and one of the most popular TV villains ever – his amoral nature proved to be a hit with viewers and a continued ratings draw. So, when J.R. was shot outside his office by an unknown assailant at the end of the show’s third season, the speculation reached fever pitch.

Betting parlours offered odds, the Queen Mother was starstruck when Hagman arrived at the Royal Ascot and the Republicans distributed campaign buttons claiming a Democrat shot J.R. during the 1980 presidential election (an election they would win). Eight months later, in an episode that was the most-watched US TV episode ever, it was revealed that J.R.’s mistress was the one to pull the trigger – all future cliffhanger episodes would be influenced by the incredible reaction to this mystery.


‘Who Shot Mr Burns?’ (The Simpsons)

Of course, you can’t have a pop culture phenomenon without The Simpsons parodying it, and the J.R. story did not escape. In this episode, Springfield Elementary strike soil, which Mr Burns decides to steal – and, in the process, he upsets an awful lot of the town. So, when Burns is shot by an unidentified assailant, there are tons of suspects.

‘Who Shot Mr Burns?’ is a strong and very funny episode of the show, and the mystery does actually hold up – there are clues strung throughout the episode so, if you don’t already know who did it, give it a watch and see if you can figure it out. Although a parody, it inspired much the same public debate, and it was also connected to one of the first contests that tied I elements of both television and the Internet.


‘What Kind of Day Has It Been’ (The West Wing)

It’s starting to seem like shootings are a key element of American cliffhangers – in the finale to The West Wing’s first season, the question is not ‘who did it’ but rather ‘who has been hit’. The episode revolves around the attempted rescue of a US fighter pilot in Iraq, and President Bartlett taking part in a town hall meeting in Virginia. So far, so West Wing.

But the entire episode is told in retrospect, and we know that something bad is going to happen – the secret service sense danger, and that danger manifests in the form of gunfire raining down on the White House senior staff. They’re all thrown to the ground, and we know that somebody has been hit, but we don’t know who. I shan’t spoil it, but it makes for a shocking series finale and it leads to a powerful PTSD storyline in series two.


‘The Name of the Doctor’ (Doctor Who)

Let’s end with a homegrown cliffhanger. The Doctor (Matt Smith) is summoned to Trenzalore, where it is said that he will fall, and he comes face-to-face with the Great Intelligence. The being is determined to undo the Doctor’s past, but the actions of Clara save him and restore the universe to normal. It’s an enjoyable episode of Doctor Who, and one that plays great homage to the show’s past and other incarnations of the Doctor.

But then, the adventure over, the Doctor sees a figure in the shadows – a figure that fills him with great fear. He defends his unseen actions and turns to the camera. It’s John Hurt, and an on-screen caption reveals his identity to be the Doctor – and, just like that, thousands of forums lit up. A completely new Doctor sprung on the audience, blew everybody’s mind, and it promised huge things for the 50th-anniversary special.

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