11 Unforgettable Television Cliffhangers

Who shot J.R.? Who shot Mr. Burns? Which member(s) of Jed Bartlet’s staff got shot, if any got shot at all?

Nothing unites a nation of TV watchers like a pulse-pounding cliffhanger. Especially when it involves the collective misery of having to wait up to a year to find out the answer to whatever burning questions a series’ season finale leaves behind. Here are 11 of television’s most famous of them (including a few that didn’t feature any shootings at all). Warning: Some spoilers ahead.


Air Date: March 21, 1980

Thirty-five years ago, the television-watching world’s collective heart stopped momentarily when, in the final moments of Dallas’ third season finale, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was shot in his office by an unknown assailant. In the eight months that followed, fan theories ran wild about who shot the hit show’s favorite love-to-hate antagonist. (The actual killer was revealed in season four’s “Who Done It” episode on November 21, 1980, with 350 million people tuning in worldwide.) But more important than who actually committed the crime is how this granddaddy of all cliffhangers inspired future showrunners to up the ante when it came to closing out a season.


Air Date: May 15, 1985

Not to be outdone, Dynasty—the 1980s’ other favorite show about wealthy people engaging in dastardly deeds—opted to increase the body count when it closed out its fifth season with what became known as the “Moldavian Massacre.” What was meant to be the happiest day of soon-to-be-princess Amanda Carrington’s life turned into something out of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 when a group of terrorists descended on her royal wedding to Prince Michael of Moldavia and shot the chapel full of bullets, leaving nearly all of the key cast members lying lifeless on the ground. It was powerful enough of a scene that 26 years later, when asked by TODAY if he remembered a television finale that truly blew his mind, Drop Dead Diva showrunner Josh Berman didn’t hesitate to answer: “I absolutely do—the 'Moldavian Massacre' on Dynasty. I remember watching that with my jaw on the ground. The gunman had just killed the whole cast of characters! Everyone was talking about it at [my high] school, and so were my parents. A season finale should be breathtaking, and that one was."


Air Date: May 23, 1990

Truth be told, if the definition of a cliffhanger is a storyline that leaves you with less than all of the desired information—and desperately craving more—then practically everything David Lynch has done in his career (including his films, and possibly even his organic coffee blend) could be described in such a way. But he went all out for Twin Peaks’ first-season climax, putting every one of the main characters in some sort of precarious predicament, and finding our quasi-hero Special Agent Dale Cooper seemingly possessed by the evil spirit known as Bob.


Air Date: June 18, 1990

In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s season three finale, the Enterprise responds to a distress call, only to arrive at a colony that no longer exists. Which leaves Captain Picard and his crew wondering if there might be some sort of Borg activity happening. Despite a valiant effort to evade them, Picard is taken by the Borg and, at the end of the episode, we witness an assimilated version of our shiny-headed hero declaring himself “Locutus of Borg.” Say it ain’t so, Jean-Luc!


Air Date: May 21, 1995

Though plenty of people parodied the “Who shot J.R.?” mania, none did it quite as effectively—or as memorably—as The Simpsons. Fifteen years after Dallas shot their antihero, The Simpsons put a bullet in Mr. Burns during the sixth season finale. No, viewers weren’t frozen on the edge of their seats waiting until the next season’s big reveal. But the show’s creators had a lot of fun teasing the killer’s identity and using a cliffhanger to poke a little fun at the concept of cliffhangers.


Air Date: May 7, 1998

By the time the fourth season of Friends rolled around, viewers had seen Ross and Rachel hate and love each other in equal parts. But as the season came to a close, the sometimes-couple’s “break” seemed destined for permanency as the gang (minus Rachel and Phoebe) headed to London for Ross’ wedding to Emily. But happily ever after turned into a big “uh-oh” when Rachel’s last-minute arrival at the church led to Ross utter her name—not Emily’s—while reciting his wedding vows.


Air Date: May 15, 1998

Just a week after Friends' fourth season finale, young love and marriage were at the center of yet another cliffhanger when Boy Meets World ended its fifth season with the gang’s graduation from high school forcing everyone to start considering their future. More specifically: Will high school sweethearts Cory and Topanga head off to college together, or will Topanga go to Yale, as everyone is advising her is the best choice? In the final moments of their graduation ceremony—at the point where the imminent graduates throw their hats up into the air—Topanga takes the future into her own hands and asks Cory to marry her. While Cory looks confused. (To be continued…)


Air Date: May 17, 2000

On any series about an American President, there’s bound to be an episode in which there is an attempt made on POTUS' life. And The West Wing didn’t waste much time in getting down to business when they closed out the series’ first season with a bang—literally—when gunshots rang out and the audience watched as President Bartlet and all of his key staffers were thrown to the ground, pulled away, and/or placed into some other circumstance that left audiences wondering “Who’s been hit? Who’s been hit?” And that’s exactly what the audience heard on the audio track as the episode faded out. Fun Aaron Sorkin fact: “What Kind of Day Has It Been” was also used to title the season one finales of Sorkin’s Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as well as the series finale of The Newsroom.


Air Date: May 22, 2001

As the promos ramped up for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season finale, The WB kept touting it as the “series finale.” Which made Buffy’s death at the end of it both appropriate and satisfying … until it was announced that UPN had picked up the series for another two seasons. Fortunately for the new network, Buffy fans were plenty used to the concept of impermanent death and accepted Buffy’s return without question.


Air Date: May 23, 2007

Lost’s third season finale represents two of the series’ finest hours of programming as it closed out one of the survivors’ chapters as Charlie (who has already been told by Desmond that he is going to die) sacrifices himself for the good of the group by helping to engineer their return home by way of the mysterious Looking Glass station. Meanwhile, above water, a new chapter opens as the flashbacks that audiences had at this point become inured to turn out to be a series of flash-forwards. Which help set up the off-the-island narrative that would come later in the series (and confuse the hell out of most fans).


Air Date: September 2, 2012

OK, so “Gliding All Over” is technically a mid-season finale. But as its conclusion wouldn’t come until nearly one year later, we’re calling "marketing-driven semantics" on that distinction. Because after years of watching Walter White vacillate in every aspect of his life—Is he a family man or a drug kingpin? Is he cooking meth for the money or the power? Will he ever choose boxers over briefs?—the character we got to know and like in the show's early days seems to have returned. Walter has gotten out of the drug biz and is happily ensconced back in his home life, complete with a family dinner with Hank and Marie. Small talk is made, and Hank brags about his Schraderbrau home brew. But then a touch of gastrointestinal unease sends Hank to the bathroom, where he proceeds to flip through a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and sees an inscription that tells him all he needs to know: Walter White is the meth king he has been chasing. It's a moment that will undoubtedly go down in history as television's most compelling scene ever shot on a toilet.

Pop Culture
Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.


Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

job secrets
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.


While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”


Bowl of strawberry ice cream

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.


On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”


Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”


woman styling food

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”


Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.


hand styling pancakes

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”


Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”


Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.


When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.


When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”


Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”


Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”


Food stylist preparing vegetables

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”


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