Who does not love a good cliffhanger?
I mean the bulk of the “shared universe” franchises today keep you enthralled by teasing you of what might happen while ending the film on something huge ensuring you will be back to see the outcome.
Cliffhangers are mainly thought of today when referencing the old movie serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Each chapter was an exciting 20 minute adventure of the titled hero concluding on something major happening with a “…to be continued” and you had to come back next week to see how the good guy got out of his particular predicament.
Well in 1979 The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk producer Kenneth Johnson attempted to bring the ideal of the cliffhanger to television… and the audience was not ready at all. Whether it was an idea far to advanced for the audiences of the day or just something that was not advertised well enough the series Cliffhangers! lasted only 11 episodes (with one still unaired to this day).
What was Cliffhangers! though?
It was a series of series that (ideally) would have rotated out upon completion had this bold idea been successful. Each hour long episode of Cliffhangers! consisted of three 20-minute chapters of unrelated ongoing serials. An adventure serial not unlike what Raiders Of The Lost Ark would invoke a few years later titled Stop Susan Williams, a sci-fi Western titled The Secret Empire and finally a horror piece titled Curse Of Dracula.
Alternating from week to week: one week it might be Stop Susan Williams followed by Curse Of Dracula with The Secret Empire in the center and next week might begin with Curse Of Dracula and shuffle the others around. This presented problems for the audience who never really knew what each week’s program was going to be.
First off you had three battling genres all in the same hour so if you were not interested in the horror segment you may have given up before the sci-fi segment you wanted to see arrived. Also confusing audiences was that to keep the spirit of the serial cliffhanger ideal alive none of the stories had a beginning.
The first episode of Cliffhangers! started with each story already in progress as if you had missed one or more of the chapters.
Stop Susan Williams began with Chapter 2, The Secret Empire began with Chapter 3 and Curse Of Dracula began well into it’s story with Chapter 6. This meant that right off the bat when tuning into the very first episode of Cliffhangers! you felt as if you had missed vital chapters of the story. You felt this way but Kenneth Johnson was not a stupid man and the first episode of Cliffhangers! was written in a way that even though you “missed” part of the story you could still follow what was happening. This was quite clever but unfortunately audiences did not want clever they wanted consistency.
Stop Susan Williams had Susan Anton as a TV journalist looking for the killer of her brother and running across a vast international conspiracy of power and corruption.
The Secret Empire is a western where a U.S. Marshal finds an ancient city of aliens underneath the sands of the plains.
Curse of Dracula featured Michael Nouri as Dracula trying to live his life as a college professor in 1979 San Francisco until snooping kids uncover his secret.
Each of the stories within Cliffhangers! was shot and created to feel very different.
The Stop Susan Williams story was shot very flat but with great vistas and locations. The Secret Empire was sepia tone and shot like an old Lone Ranger episode might have been… partially (that story has above and below ground elements and the below ground story is shot like an old live action Filmation series). Curse Of Dracula is shot very moody with lots of darkness and shadows.
Viewers though did not take well to any of the stories or the very idea of having to come back each week to see what was going to happen. Remember that heavily serialized programming such as Hill Street Blues was still two years away and that even failed in 1981. People wanted self contained stories where they did not have to catch every episode.
Ratings were in the toilet and after 2 months NBC had had enough and pulled the plug leaving all but Curse Of Dracula unresolved in the Cliffhangers! series. In fact, the final episode of Cliffhangers! itself was never aired. Curse Of Dracula had wrapped up it’s story, as it had started so late into the tale with Chapter 6, but the other stories ended with (ironically enough) cliffhangers.
The unaired episode eventually found it’s way onto the bootleg scene and with Curse Of Dracula already being done it featured the final segment of Stop Susan Williams and two segments of The Secret Empire (still not a finale though). This left the final The Secret Empire chapter unfilmed. Since Episode 11 did not leak out until decades after the fact most people who did watch Cliffhangers! back in 1979 never did finish the stories… unless they did so without realizing it. See NBC took the chapters of Stop Susan Williams and edited them all into the movie, The Girl Who Saved The World, which was sold to syndicated television in the 1980’s. This included the unaired finale. Curse Of Dracula was edited into 2 movies (Dracula ’79 and World of Dracula) similarly sold into syndication. So if you saw these movies on TV in the 80’s, you were really watching Cliffhangers!. The Secret Empire got no such love though as it’s story was unfinished and will forever remain so.
Cliffhangers! was a great idea for a show and if it had worked the network could have swapped out serials regularly to keep things fresh. Alas, 1979 television was unprepared for this kind of experiment whereas it may very well fly today.
2019 is time for a reboot.