'The Walking Dead' renews relevance of the classic TV cliffhanger
October 23, 2016 12:00 AM
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) faces his potential victims in last season’s cliffhanger ending of “The Walking Dead.”
AMC/ Gene Page
Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) bludgeoned someone on the cliffhanger season of AMC's "The Walking Dead."
By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, indeed.
It has been six months since AMC’s “The Walking Dead” killed off a series regular in gruesome fashion, and tonight fans finally learn who received “Lucille’s” deadly, barbed-wire kiss. In today’s culture of streaming entertainment, binge-watching, sneak previews and internet spoilers, it has been a long, long wait.
TV cliffhangers still have audience appeal, even though ending season six on a cliffhanger did not go over well with some viewers.
“A lot of responses were like ‘Ah, these jerks trying to pull one over on us,’ and it’s like, ‘No, it’s all done in an effort to keep you entertained,’ ” said Robert Kirkman, the graphic novel’s creator and TV writer and executive producer, to Entertainment Weekly.
“I think, as a creative person, I have to acknowledge that all responses are valid, so I definitely have to note that there’s a seemingly significant portion of the audience that wasn’t happy with that direction.”
Pittsburgh native Greg Nicotero directed the cliffhanger finale as well as tonight’s episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.”
“We knew that we were jumping into it in a very deep, dark, cold place,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
Killing someone with a baseball bat can have that effect. For months, fans have speculated that there won’t be a big reveal tonight. Certainly, this sort of prolonged resolution has happened before; when CBS, pre-internet, asked the nation “Who shot J.R.?” on “Dallas, the guilty party was not revealed until a few episodes into the next season.
Even though fans of “TWD’s” source material know who was shockingly killed in the print version, tonight there are no givens it will be the same character. Mr. Kirkman said, “We’re very confident that we found a way to keep it as unexpected in the show as it was in the comic.”
The cliffhanger has a storied history in the arts. The term is believed to come from Thomas Hardy’s 1873 serialized novel, “A Pair of Blue Eyes.” Henry is with his proper Victorian lady, Elfride, when he slips and literally hangs from the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
Our heroine, spurning modesty, undresses to create a rope of clothing that helps save Henry. Readers don’t learn this until the next chapter, published months later.
Jed Allen Harris, a local director and associate teaching professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, said the history of the cliffhanger is “powerful and strong,” especially in melodrama. He loves them.
“It’s like waiting for Christmas Day instead of opening [gifts] on Christmas Eve,” he said. “There’s something about the anticipation that’s delicious.”
The true cliffhanger should not to be confused with surprises or big reveals. The ambiguous series finale of HBO’s classic, “The Sopranos,” is not a cliffhanger.
It ends with Tony’s family ordering onion rings at an ice cream parlor. A shifty-looking guy in a jacket walks in, heading toward the bathroom.
Has anyone here ever watched “The Godfather”?
With Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” playing in the background, the scene goes dark.
Cliffhangers demand action, a follow-up. They also assume a pact with the audience, that it will have patience.
The waiting time can be short, as in ABC’s old “Batman” series. The first of two weekly shows almost always ended with the Caped Crusaders in some ridiculous peril such as being stamped to death in a giant player piano roll machine.
In the next, they would escape. So, not really much tension there.
Even all-in-one-day, binge-y shows such as Netflix’ “Orange is the New Black” can have season-ending cliffhangers. But traditional network once-a-week programs have spawned some of TV’s greatest.
How many times did ABC’s “Lost” deliver an emotional gut-punch? From Locke blowing up the lid to the hatch, to Juliet trying to ignite a nuclear warhead, to the mind-trippy revelation that viewers were not seeing flashbacks, but flashforwards (see sidebar), the show’s creators excelled at creating buzz.
Then there are cliffhangers that find resolution through other forms of media. When the WB canceled “Angel” in 2004, creator Joss Whedon crafted what appeared to be a scorched-earth scenario.
A number of series regulars were in the final episodes, with another mortally wounded. Angel and a small band was left to face an attacking horde of monsters.
“Let’s get to work!” he said, and that was that.
But was it? “Angel,” like Mr. Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” eventually would live on in graphic novels.
On ABC’s “Twin Peaks,” two seasons of OMG moments and mystery were followed by a movie. But it raised even more questions than answers and for all we know, the demonic “Bob” is still on the loose somewhere.
Showtime continues the story early next year, bringing back many of the series regulars.
A well-built cliffhanger serves many purposes and in the case of ABC’s 1986-88 comedy series “Sledge Hammer!” the show stated its case from the get-go of the Season 1 finale.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” fame walked out from behind a stage curtain and explained that “Sledge Hammer!” needed a ratings boost, pronto.
“We’re desperate. So in tonight’s episode, we’re going to rely on four sure-fire ratings grabbers: Sex. Violence. Rock music. And, best of all, a cliffhanger ending that will keep viewers glued to the edge of their seats until next season.
“Thus ensuring there will be a ‘next season.’ ”
With more than 18 million viewers watching “The Walking Dead” each week, the AMC hit has no such cancellation worries. Now, favorite characters surviving through the holiday, that is a different story.
“You need to be very careful about what you wish for because you are going to get it, and more, this year,” said Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays Negan on “TWD.” Mr. Morgan, in an AMC press interview, added:
“It’s emotional. It’s hard. It’s hyper-violent. It’s a lot to take. When the audience sees it, they will know exactly what ‘a lot’ means.”
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