What a cliffhanger! Jacoby beaten, Lucy’s pregnancy revealed, Nadine’s attempted suicide, James entrapped, Leo shot dead, Jacques smothered dead, Shelly and Catherine and Pete all inside the burning mill, Audrey cornered, and Coop shot! The only season-ending cliffhangers I can think of that are comparable in terms of energy and escalation are for the first season of Babylon 5 and the second season of Buffy.
The first cliffhanger I was aware of was The Best of Both Worlds, which introduced the cliffhanger to telefantasy, and left Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third season hanging. I experienced this at a remove, living in Australia, in the country. I heard about the episode through fandom, then saw it on video (accompanied by its concluding half), before seeing it end the season on our local station. But the effect that it had on fandom, and thus on me, is hard to overestimate. It raised the stakes in a way previously unimaginable, making any wait for the new season not just eagerness—for more television as good as the ending season—but almost a pathological need to attain closure. It institutionalised the cliffhanger.
Checking the dates, I see that Twin Peaks‘ Season 1 cliffhanger originally aired on 23 May 1990. The Best of Both Worlds aired on 18 June 1990. Twin Peaks may be horror, but its cliffhanger is understood better as part of the discourse that includes Dallas, not Next Gen. Yet only a few years later, Twin Peaks did infect telefantasy, influencing The X-Files…
… And this post isn’t really going anywhere, I’m just thinking in public, while I wait for the next season.
(On the topic of cliffhangers, here’s one person’s pick of the seven best season-ending cliffhangers (available on DVD). Check out the Hall of Unresolved TV Cliffhangers. And did you know that Buffy‘s season-enders, like those of Blake’s 7, were always intended to be possible ends for the show?)