Some remember it, others can only imagine it: a world without the internet. International communications are already complicated, because they go through the telephone. Let alone the intercontinental ones. And it is in this climate, when the first TV series made in USA to have conquered the homes of the Italians leaves everyone with an explosive cliffhanger, which was born on first question-catchphrase: Who shot JR?
On March 21, 1980 Dallas closes with a twist destined to make history: JR Ewing (Larry Hagman), the public’s favorite villain of the early 80s, has been shot. A few months later, over 350 million people around the world will tune in to the first episode of the following season to answer the question that prompted writers around the world to increasingly exploit the mechanism known, precisely, as cliffhanger.
The media from all over the planet repeated the catchphrase question about the culprit. In Italy people asked for fresh news from relatives and friends returning from a trip to the USA. And the producers saw the potential of what had happened almost 20 years earlier with The Fugitive (The fugitivethe TV series that would later inspire the famous film with Harrison Ford, The fugitive). In 1963 the American public wondered who was the one-armed man who framed Dr. Richard Kimball (David Janssen) for the murder of his wife. But we were still far from that global conquest that awaited the world of TV series made in USA, and which Dallas would bring to prominence. March 21, 1980 has in fact become a historic date, the date that marked the moment in which everyone – producers, screenwriters, actors, directors, journalists and TV reporters – understood that stimulating the curiosity of the public loyal to a series and to the destiny of its protagonists could mean the difference between good ratings and good reviews and unprecedented success.
Who killed Laura Palmer?
A decade later, it was David Lynch who created what remains to this day the biggest question mark in the history of the series. With Twin Peaks Secrets, Lynch resumed the tradition of art TV inaugurated decades earlier by Alfred Hitchcock, showed that the public was ready for something complex, scary, never seen before on TV and wrote the history of TV, culture, storytelling through images. We were still in a world without the internet, and we all wanted to know the same thing: Who Killed Laura Palmer?
We would have discovered it by opening Pandora’s box of horrors hidden within the domestic walls of villas with white fences and well-kept gardens. We would have understood that behind the facade of an apparently perfect town surrounded by greenery, violence and terror, hatred and revenge, exploitation and pain were hidden. Together with Agent Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) we would begin to investigate beneath the surface of Twin Peaks to immerse ourselves in something ever darker and more frightening. We couldn’t take our eyes off the TV, we felt the need to discuss the new episode at school and at work, on the bus and in the café.
We shared theories and hypotheses about the identity of the killer and the motive for Laura’s (Sheryl Lee) murder. He was born the world’s first TV series viewing ritual. Because even in Europe, and in much of the rest of the world, everyone was talking about Laura Palmer and her murder. An unprecedented event, destined to change forever the way in which the authors would have conceived detective stories, thrillers and detective stories. All were suspects. Everyone had a more or less valid motive. And in the end only the most valid, but also tenacious and courageous investigators would have arrived at the truth. All thanks to a question that had tormented the world for months and whose answer would arrive on November 10, 1990 in the USA and April 3, 1991 in Italy. Without anyone in this country having had an anticipation from overseas.
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Who shot Mr. Burns?
The popularity of Twin Peaks and the catchphrase question about Laura Palmer grew to the point of becoming a myth. And who better than I Simpson, a place of both parody and celebration of American culture, could they have celebrated it better? The first part of the double episode dedicated to the attack on the perfidious Mr. Burns was aired on May 21, 1995, and only several months later – on September 17 – Matt Groening revealed the mystery to the vast audience of his animated series. In a perfect reconstruction of how thrillers and detective dramas investigate on several fronts, with many culprits full of motives, all the main characters of the I Simpson they ended up under the magnifying glass, until the real, small, unaware culprit was discovered. A twist that wanted to be yet another mockery of the most imaginative investigative theories seen on TV after the murder of Laura Palmer (and negligible, in fact none of them would have created a new mystery-catchphrase, contrary to what they managed to do I Simpson).
Not just murders: who is Gossip Girl?
In the wake of the many teen dramas that successfully exploited the questions of the Twin Peaks (one above all: Veronica Mars, with Kristen Bell committed to discovering who had killed her best friend, Lilly, played by Amanda Seyfried), one chose to try the way of the catchphrase to conceal the identity of a character.
Gossip Girl, the gossipy voice of New York’s Upper East Side, knows everyone’s secrets and reveals them by anonymously signing herself “gossip girl”. The series with Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Chace Crawford and Penn Badgley debuted in 2007 and only six seasons later, in 2012, Gossip Girl reveals its identity. The same mechanism would have been at the base (with a cast of beautiful as in Gossip Girl and with a series of historical retellings finally very appreciated by the public) of Bridgerton on Netflix, set in an England of the past that never existed in reality.
Demonstrating how the eternal question “who is the murderer” that made the fortune of Agatha Christie, of all crime novels in history and of all the films and genre series inspired by them can easily be transformed into something which equally interests the public: the identity of the gossips of the moment, those who know and exploit the secrets of others and do not hesitate to reveal them in order to ruin reputations and careers. The same old story… revisited in modern and different sauces.
Not only guilty: also victims
At the end of season 6 of The Walking Dead the whole world wondered who Negan’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) victim would be. Would the series have followed the comic? We would have discovered it only in the first episode of season 7, since Robert Kirkman wanted to spin alternative versions in which all the protagonists were massacred by Lucille, the faithful weapon of Negan. “Who Kills Negan?” has been one of the biggest TV hits of recent years. And punctually, the answer came to displace all predictions. Another great ploy for i cliffhanger of TV series is in fact leaving us with doubts about the victims, rather than the culprits: will someone shot to death, perhaps an important or much loved character, really die or be saved? The most famous example, one for all, is that of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in Game of thrones, among the most loved and followed series in the new Millennium. At the end of the fifth season Jon Snow he is betrayed by the companions of the Night’s Watch and wounded – mortally, as we can judge by laymen.
For all the time that passed – practically identical between the USA and Italy, thanks to the simultaneous broadcast on SKY – both those who had read the novels of George RR Martin (the series could take different directions) and those who had met the characters for the first once on TV wondered: is Jon Snow dead?
Legitimate and pressing was the same question for the fans of ER – Doctors on the front line scattered all over the world when, at the end of season 6, Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) and resident Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) are stabbed by an out-of-control patient and no one notices: they are all engaged in a organized party for Valentine’s Day. Will John and Lucy die? Will they be saved? Will their colleagues find them in time? The wait for the fate of the two characters, one of which turned out to be the most loved by the public – together with Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene – was spasmodic. And the effects of that assault, regardless of the character’s fate, would remain forever. Both on the doctors of the Emergency Department of the University Hospital of Chicago, and on their loyal spectators.
Game of thrones, ER e Lost – how many times have we wondered what would happen to one of the protagonists? How much were we in suspense for that “Not Penny’s Boat” written by Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) on his hand? For all 6 years of the series we have developed theories, created expectations, hypothesized destinies for the characters. Often disregarded, and that was precisely why Lost the public liked it so much, and for this reason it was a collective experience (once again at the same time as the USA, for us Italian fans) shared by the whole world so intensely as to make its memory indelible.
But what if to die – or maybe not, the question arises for this – is the protagonist of a series? Buffy Summers, in unsuspecting times, sacrifices himself (again) at the end of the fifth season to save the world. Sherlock Holmes (that of Benedict Cumberbatch) dives from a skyscraper at the end of the second season of the English series. It will take two years for the third season and his return from the realms of the dead. There are many examples, some more functional and some less. The fact is that not only the perpetrators, but also the victims were able to attract the attention of the public (and the media) waiting to discover their fate. Not to mention the assassination attempt on President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) at the end of the wonderful first season of the West Wing.
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Quite different is the case of Frank Underwood in House of Cards: after being seriously injured and hovering between life and death, Frank’s fate is sealed by that of his interpreter, Kevin Spacey, overwhelmed by the controversy over Me Too. We already knew that the series would give up its extraordinary protagonist (years later acquitted of the charges) in the name of that political correctness that often determines the careers of Hollywood stars.
Regardless of the type cliffhanger and the genre of the series, or the reason for a character’s departure from the scene (for example when his interpreter wants to leave, distorting the plot, as in the case of Andrew Lincoln for Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead), one thing is certain: since March 21, 1980, TV has become aware of itself. Of one’s potential, of the love of the public, of the attention that fans devote to TV series.
If thanks to the streaming and the proliferation of platforms dedicated the weekly collective ritual of watching the episode has been lost, certainly the cliffhangers in the season finales have not gone out of fashion, which year after year overlook our lives as serial observers and those of the characters we love and will always love .
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