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Video: To Be Continued Next Fall

6 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Plot mysteries in the season’s finales keep viewers dangling

This month’s developments have already been excruciating. Sam and Diane, the stormy leading couple of Cheers, split up on the sitcom’s concluding episode of the season. Webster’s uncle (Ben Vereen) suddenly reappeared on that show’s finale, setting up a custody battle for the fall. On Dynasty’s season ender, the jailhouse door clanged shut on sultry, scheming Alexis (Joan Collins), who is charged (gasp!) with murder, while a car driven by a delirious Fallen Colby (Pamela Sue Martin) on her wedding day careered out of control, heading (gulp!) straight for a truck.

More is to come. Hill Street Blues will ring down its curtain this week with Frank and Joyce (Daniel J. Travanti and Veronica Hamel) heading closer to a permanent split as she leaves for Paris; a character on St. Elsewhere with liver cancer will take a turn for the worse; and Officer Chris Cagney (Sharon Gless) will believe she is pregnant as Cagney & Lacey departs for its summer vacation. Dallas’ season finale is still a deep secret, but hints are that the enemies of J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) may have something ominous in store for the dastardly oilman. Most spectacular of all will be the finish of Falcon Crest’s third season this Friday. Much of the cast will board a private plane for Italy to bury the ashes of Julia, the demented daughter of Wine Magnate Angela Channing (Jane Wyman). En route the plane will crash in a remote mountain area, leaving the survival of all but two of the show’s regular characters in doubt.

The reason for this spate of dangling story lines is hardly a mystery. As fictional characters from Little Nell to Flash Gordon have proved, nothing keeps audience interest perking like an unresolved predicament, followed by the tantalizing line “… to be continued.” TV’s cliffhanger mania began four years ago, when J.R. was gunned down by a mysterious assailant on the final episode of Dallas’ 1979-80 season. After a summer of suspense, the “Who Shot J.R.?” mystery was solved (it was his sister-in-law Kristin) in a segment that drew the largest audience of any TV program in history (88.6 million, a figure that was surpassed last year when the farewell episode of M*A*S*Hdrew approximately 125 million). Though the novelty has worn off since then, a good cliffhanger almost certainly means a double boost in the ratings: for the season’s final episode and the denouement in the fall. And that can be just what the script doctor ordered for a show (like Cheers) that has had its ratings ups and downs.

There is nearly as much intrigue behind the camera as in front of it, as producers go to elaborate lengths to keep their last-minute surprises a secret. Dallas, for example, filmed four different endings for this week’s season finale; not even the actors know which one will be telecast and which are decoys. Scripts are tightly guarded and writers frequently destroy their notes from story conferences to prevent leaks. Reporters from the national tabloids have been known to pay up to $50,000 for a mole to give them advance details on a cliffhanger.

“Last season it seemed that I spent more time figuring out how to protect the script than I did working on the story,” says Dynasty Executive Producer Esther Shapiro. “There were people out in the alley going through my garbage.” “These things are really trade secrets,” adds Earl Harnner, executive producer of Falcon Crest. “If a person can get the formula, it is valuable.”

Producers insist that these cliffhang-ers—which are usually determined a year in advance, in a “bible” that lays out plot developments for the coming season—are more than just cynical contrivances. “It’s good storytelling, and the best manner to hook an audience into wanting to come back,” says Philip Capice, the executive producer of Dallas. Connoisseurs of the genre still point to “Who Shot J.R.?” as a model for the well-crafted cliffhanger: an authentic mystery, springing plausibly from the show’s characters and resolved without gimmicks. Succeeding ones have been less inspired. On the last episode of Dynasty’s 1981-82 season, for instance, Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) fell from his horse and lay unconscious at the edge of a cliff. Viewers had to wait a whole summer for the foregone conclusion: he woke up, struggled back to the road and got rescued.

The newest vogue in cliffhangers is the open-ended disaster. Both Dynasty and Dallas left a major characters trapped in burning buildings at the end of last season. Such free-for-alls give producers an easy way to write out any actor who has outlived his usefulness, especially one who becomes intractable in off-seasoncontract negotiations. “Cliffhangsers are really only a device to combat the agents,” claims Mel Ferrer, one of the passengers aboard the ill-fated Falcon Crest flight. (Make-believe tickets handed out to the actors for this week’s episode contained a line written in as a joke by the crew: “You fly, you die.”)

The charge is vehemently denied by producers, who point out that the resolutions of their cliffhangers have already been decided. “We don’t do a cliff-hanger just to hold it over everybody’s head,” says Dynasty’s Shapiro. “We don’t get our kicks doing that to other human beings.” Says Hill Street Blues Producer Jeffrey Lewis: “The people who create story lines do not write contracts. We don’t use this as a threat.”

Still, savvy readers of the gossip columns can usually dope out a cliffhanger’s outcome well before the fall season gets under way. Falcon Crest insiders, for instance, say that sure bets to return next fall are Wyman, Lorenzo Lamas (Lance) and Susan Sullivan (whose character, Maggie Gioberti, has already lived through serious brain surgery this season). But what about Ferrer, who plays Wyman’s new husband, Phillip Erikson? “I think Jane feels she looks good in black,” the veteran actor says gloomily. “My guess is that it will be widow’s weeds this time next fall.” Quick, Phillip … the emergency exit!

—By Richard Zoglin. Reported by Melissa Ludtke/Los Angeles

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