These days, a cliffhanger doesn’t really mean as much. This isn’t just because of streaming and bingeing and all that. Though it is true that these days, you can just watch the next episode of a show some of us spent an entire summer stressing about back in the ’90s. Still, I’m not talking season-end cliffhangers here so much as episodes in the middle of the season that were a random two-parter. This happened more than I think people these days realize, and it’s kind of strange to think about given how seldom any other given episode generally had to do with the others.
I noticed this while going through a recent viewing of The Rockford Files. Admittedly the first two-parter after the pilot was badly padded out, but most seasons have at least one or two genuine two-parters. For heaven’s sake, Barney Miller had two-part episodes. There’s a two-parter or two in The Dick Van Dyke Show. These are not shows you think of as having strong running plot threads that need to be resolved, but two-part episodes happened on a regular basis anyway.
Now, “cliffhanger” was perhaps a bit strong for some of them. Sure, Balki and Cousin Larry were trapped in a cabin after an avalanche (the ’80s were weird), but not even my younger sister was literally counting the days until she found out how that one resolved. It’s still weird to think about. There’s so much going on that you can’t fit it in a single episode of Who’s the Boss? It’s a bit bewildering.
With dramas, you get a bit more actual plot. Jim Rockford’s car has exploded (again). Almanzo Wilder has diphtheria. Lassie gets locked in a transport trailer and has to find her way home. (This was a three-parter.) And again, this would just be in the middle of the season. Sometimes sweeps week, one assumes, but some shows have so many multi-part episodes that basically they’d be better off doing movies every other week. Yet there weren’t reliably ongoing arcs beyond that. The characters didn’t necessarily grow and develop—I think they did on some of them, but they’re not shows I watched.
Now, I will admit that I don’t watch a lot of current TV. Maybe they still do this kind of thing on broadcast TV. And of course there’s the issue that TV these days is a lot more arc-driven than episodic. Jim’s got a handful of recurring characters, but he’s not growing and developing over the course of the series. Sure, on some of these shows, you’d get added characters and so forth—there are two-part episodes of M*A*S*H, for example, and over the course of twelve years the plot did develop. However, that isn’t true on all of them; kids might’ve aged and so forth, but the basic structure of the show remained the same.
I don’t know why all this happened, and honestly it’s all so long ago that I don’t remember how I felt when things turned out to be a two-parter randomly in the middle of the season. Mostly what I remember is the ends of seasons—I have Feelings to this day about some shows. Honestly, some of these shows I didn’t watch myself until adulthood, when I was bingeing on DVD or streaming. But this was just something we dealt with, even in the days before everything was so serialized.