Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What's up with the smoke monster?: 16 unanswered TV questions

Illustration for article titled What's up with the smoke monster?: 16 unanswered TV questions

1. Who survived the last episode of Twin Peaks? (Twin Peaks)

TV shows that center on unfolding mysteries face a frustrating conundrum: Solve those mysteries too soon, and the audience is likely to lose interest and wander off. But string the questions out too long, and the audience is just as likely to leave out of irritation. Worse yet, if the mystery lasts long enough, odds are good that the show will be cancelled before answers are forthcoming. Every one of these scenarios came into play with David Lynch's Twin Peaks, a groundbreaking show that helped pave the way for several other long-arc, unfolding-weirdness shows on this list. In the second season, the show finally answered its central question, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" But when it was cancelled at the end of the season, it was still hanging onto a lot of unanswered questions, such as what exactly was up with the Log Lady and her soothsaying log, and what exactly happened to Josie Packard, who apparently died of fright and had her spirit trapped in the wood of a hotel dresser. Or something. But the biggest questions were the ones raised by a series of deliberate, "screw you, audience" cliffhangers that placed half the cast in mortal danger: Ben Horne with his head smashed against a fireplace, his daughter Audrey and a handful of other characters stuck in a bank when a bomb went off, and above all, Agent Cooper apparently possessed by Bob. Fan outcry wasn't enough to bring the show back and answer the questions, and the subsequent movie spin-off/prequel really didn't help much.


2. Did Keith Mars become sheriff, or go to jail? (Veronica Mars)

Even though Veronica Mars mastermind Rob Thomas had a pretty good idea that his show was going to be cancelled—and had even begun planting the seeds for a spin-off that would have had the lead character working as an FBI agent—he still ended the series on a heart-stopper. After a up-and-down third season, Veronica Mars finished strong with a two-parter in which Veronica (Kristen Bell) tries to track down who made and released a sex tape of her and her boyfriend. In the process, she runs up against an old enemy and jeopardizes her father's chances to win the election for sheriff. All the series' themes—family ties, class conflict, public shame, and broken trust—run through the finale, making it a series peak. And yet it ends with Keith Mars in disgrace and Veronica voting for him anyway—a moving but unsatisfying way to wrap up one of the best shows of the '00s.

3. What happened to Tony Soprano? (The Sopranos)

Leading up to the series finale, many Sopranos fans speculated over whether series protagonist Tony would meet one of three ends: death, jail, or a status-quo of mob rule into perpetuity. What they got was everything, or nothing, depending on how the controversial, instantly iconic final scene was interpreted. There Tony sat in a diner with Carmela and Anthony Jr., munching on onion rings and listening to Journey, when the screen suddenly cut to black. Was Tony dead? Some viewers pointed to a mysterious man in a Members Only jacket walking past Tony's table to the bathroom right before the abrupt cut. Did he leave the bathroom and whack Tony, Godfather style? HBO spokesman Quentin Schaffer later confirmed that a scene from an earlier episode where Tony and brother-in-law Bobby Bacala talk about how "everything just goes black" when you're killed was a "legitimate hint" about the ending. But series creator David Chase refused to give a clear-cut explanation, leaving some viewers to forever wonder whether one of TV's greatest anti-heroes made it out of that diner alive.

4. Did Michael and his family escape from their house? (Now And Again)

In the 22nd and final episode of CBS' one-season-and-done sci-fi/action series, a government-engineered superhuman—implanted with the brain of a tubby, middle-aged insurance agent—has finally revealed his predicament to his former family, and is about to take them with him on a cross-country fugitive run. But first? They have to get out of their house, which is surrounded by soldiers edging closer, closer, and…The End. No renewal, no answers. While the cast of Now And Again—including Without A Trace's Eric Close and 24 and The Unit's Dennis Haysbert—have landed on their feet, the show's fans still desperately hope for a DVD set with a commentary or a featurette to tell us what would've happened next.


5. Will Alf ever make it back to Melmac or find the Tanners? (Alf)

Alf's fourth-season finale, "Consider Me Gone," finds the alien puppet torn between staying with his adopted family, the Tanners, or returning home to planet Melmac. He opts for Melmac, but his homecoming is delayed when the government's Alien Task Force comes after him, and the show wraps up on a cliffhanger. The 1996 TV movie Project: Alf offered a half-assed resolution by revisiting Alf in government custody six years later (under the watchful eye of Martin Sheen) where he's simply told that the Tanners have been put in the witness-protection program, news he takes with uncharacteristic stoicism. According to series co-creator Paul Fusco on the Project: Alf commentary, it was hoped that the TV movie would launch a new Alf series, so it, too, ends without offering any real Alf-ish closure. And let's just not talk about the animated series at all.

6. Why and how was Dan traveling through time? (Journeyman)

NBC's 2007 freshman series Journeyman was a fantasy-adventure superior to the network's more heavily hyped Bionic Woman and Chuck, yet it died before its creators could even explain the premise. Over the course of 13 episodes—the last few of which only aired because of the writers' strike—viewers watched San Francisco reporter Dan Vasser (played by Kevin McKidd) jump into the past for indeterminate stretches of time, in order to right cosmic wrongs. Then, when he came back to the present, he'd discover that in his absence, his job, friendships and marriage had been jeopardized, and that some of his changes to the timeline had adjusted his life in unpleasant ways. (In one painful episode, he came home to discover that he had an entirely different child.) By the end of episode 13, the writers were able to restore some basic order to Dan's life, but they never answered one fundamental question: Why is this happening to Dan? (Fans similarly complained about Quantum Leap, which offered its protagonist a final resolution of sorts, but never answered the big question that kept them bitching: Was it Sam's body or just his soul that was traveling through time?)


7. Was the future ever saved? (The 4400)

Science-fiction series tend to paint themselves into corners when they don't have logical endpoints, and The 4400, which aired on USA for four seasons before being cancelled in 2007, was no exception. It started with a clever premise: 4400 people who had been missing for varying lengths of time are mysteriously returned to Earth, and they haven't aged a day. Many begin developing superpower-like abilities—which is where the obvious X-Men comparisons come in—which eventually divides the world into factions, debating whether the 4400 were a threat or a boon to mankind. Even the mutants were fighting each other. (Sound familiar?) But the inner circle on the show got the inside story: A faction from the future kidnapped the 4400, empowered them, and plunked them back down in the past, and their powers were meant to change history in a myriad of complicated ways that would stave off a future apocalypse. Then another time-traveling future-faction started interfering with the plan, wanting their present to stay as it was. Season four ended with a jury-rigged "then everything changes" resolution, in the form of a huge outbreak of the "disease" that causes mutations, err, abilities; several hundred thousand were poised to gain special powers. The government turned control of Seattle over to the leader of one of the 4400 factions, just as chaos was about to rain down. But what happened next? As so often happens in these cases, fans are hoping a TV movie will wrap things up.

8. Who won the big standoff between Seth Bullock and George Hearst? (Deadwood)

For instance, after a full season of buildup that went exactly nowhere, fans remained convinced that Deadwood creator David Milch was going to use a couple of TV movies to wrap up the conflict between Deadwood's primary hero, Seth Bullock, and its eventual villain, George Hearst. The two spent a full third of the series marshalling their defenses and making moves against their other enemies, while gradually falling more and more in hate with each other. After building the tension to the breaking point, the show let it go with a fizzle, with Hearst placidly headed out of Deadwood, and the worst supposedly yet to come, except that neither a fourth season nor the promised movies ever materialized.


9. Did Brother Justin make it back from the dead, and did Sofie assume her mantle as the Omega? (Carnivale)

One of the most pure-blooded descendents of Twin Peaks to come climbing down the family tree, HBO's Carnivale was a fantastically rich series with a frustratingly dense mythology involving avatars of good and evil finding their natures and facing off in a big cosmic battle. That battle was almost resolved in the final episode of the second season, in which good-avatar Ben Hawkins stabs evil-avatar Brother Justin with a consecrated weapon, seemingly killing him. But the final shot of the series—cancelled a full four seasons before it would have concluded properly, according to creator Daniel Knauf—has Justin's daughter Sofie finding him and pretty clearly trying to use her newly discovered powers to raise him from the dead, unbeknownst to any of the good guys. Again, fans were hoping for a TV-movie wrap-up, but Knauf reportedly demurred, saying that he had too much material left for a single film to resolve the story. Instead, he's offered some teasers about the immediate fates of Brother Justin, Sofie, and fan-favorite Jonesy, who was shot and left in an unclear condition in that final episode.



10. Did Dave and Matthew ever join the rest of the WNYX crew in New Hampshire? (NewsRadio)


Though it's hardly the most gripping cliffhanger in TV history, the fifth season of the cult sitcom NewsRadio ended with WNYX station owner Jimmy James (played by the inimitable Stephen Root) buying a station in rural New Hampshire and trying to figure out which WNYX staffer he could bring along with him. Ultimately, he got everyone to go, with the exception of news director Dave and—in a surprise twist—the station's most annoying employee, Matthew. NewsRadio producer Paul Simms had planned to carry this storyline into season six, with the whole gang moving to New Hampshire and interacting with yokels, but NBC dropped the axe before that could happen, leaving poor Dave Foley in an empty office with Andy Dick for all eternity.

11. Will Mulder and Scully elude the government? (The X-Files)

Overextended storylines, cast changes, and unpredictable shifts in tone had eroded the quintessential '90s TV phenomenon by the time of its 2002 finale. Erstwhile fans tuning in for closure found their frustration renewed by the two-parter "The Truth," which largely focused on the imprisonment and kangaroo-court trail of a hallucinating Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, who sat out most of the final two seasons). The final sequence leaves Mulder and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on the lam, and other major characters fates' unresolved. Whether a forthcoming movie sequel will tie up any of these loose ends remains to be seen.

12. Will Benson be elected governor? (Benson)

Has any TV character enjoyed such a steady rise in stature as Robert Guillaume's Benson DuBois? Introduced on Soap, he's first seen as a butler to Katherine Helmond. Then he spun off his own series, where he served as the head of household affairs for James Noble's Governor Gatling. In later seasons, he became budget director, then Lieutenant Governor of Noble's unnamed state. Finally, he wound up as a gubernatorial candidate, running against his boss. In the finale of the seventh season, the two old friends turned political rivals sit down together to watch the election results, which reveal that the winner is… who knows? The show never returned for an eighth season.


13. What was up with that nuke? (Sledge Hammer!)

Obviously many series with unresolved mysteries wrapped up with cliffhangers, but the cult-favorite series Sledge Hammer! sandwiched a cliffhanger into its center. Producer Alan Spencer didn't expect a second season for his send-up of tough cop shows, which starred David Rasche as a thick-skulled, gun-loving detective with an oft-deployed catchphrase: "Trust me. I know what I'm doing." So he ended the first season with a nuclear explosion, and the words "To be continued next season?" It was. Sort of. When Sledge Hammer! returned in the fall, it made no mention of the explosion, and carried on as if the previous season's finale had never happened.


[Note: We could only find a German-language version of this scene, but wanted to share its awesomeness anyway.]

14. What was the truth behind Harsh Realm? (Harsh Realm)

As The X-Files began its swirl down the toilet bowl, creator Chris Carter poured some of his mental energy into Harsh Realm, a clever series that failed to catch a fan base—it was yanked from the air after just three episodes. (A DVD set of nine complete episodes was eventually released.) The supposed plot: The U.S. military has created a virtual-reality simulator to see what a post-apocalyptic America would look like, but the simulation has been hijacked by Terry O'Quinn (yup, Locke from Lost), who plans to break out of the simulation and destroy the real world so that only Harsh Realm exists. Our hero, Thomas Hobbes (hello, direct historical allusions!), must kill him in order to save the world. But even a few minutes into the first episode, the series was already throwing out hints that everything Hobbes had been told was a lie, and that a much bigger conspiracy was at work, both in the real world and in Harsh Realm. Sadly, the show barely got enough episodes in to establish the questions, let alone the answers.

15. What was Shepherd Book's story? (Firefly)

Joss Whedon's aborted science-fiction series Firefly packed every significant character with unresolved issues and big reveals, but many of them at least got some screen time by the time the show was abruptly cancelled. Several of the remaining ones, particularly those dealing with Summer Glau's character, River Tam, were later resolved in the big-screen spin-off, Serenity. But fans are still grinding their teeth about Ron Glass' mild-mannered clergyman, who revealed offhandedly in the last episode of the series that he was neither mild-mannered nor a clergyman. So who was he, and what was his story? Just to twist the knife a little further, Serenity killed him off with his questions further unaddressed.


16. Will Mork and Mindy be forever stuck in time? (Mork And Mindy)

Mork And Mindy was never known for its tense storylines, which makes the decision to wind down its fourth season with the three-part episode "Gotta Run," in which Mork (Robin Williams) and Mindy (Pam Dawber) are menaced by future Murphy Brown star Joe Regalbuto, all the stranger. The season had previously focused mostly on Mork and Mindy's marriage and the arrival of their child Mearth, who, like all Orkans, ages backwards. (Which let Williams' hero Jonathan Winters play the role.) But after being threatened by Regalbuto, an outer-space enemy of the Orkans, and forced to go public with Mork's identity, Mork and Mindy are forced to abandon Mearth, and they subsequently get stuck traveling in time. In spite of the cliffhanger, the show finished off its season with one last, unrelated episode, then faded into memory.