The series finale. There is nothing quite like it in television. Many shows aren't given the luxury of a proper final episode, instead they are canceled prematurely and often without advanced notice. Often times those series exit after airing just a normal episode, or even worse - a cliffhanger. Then there is another group, and it consists of popular and long running series' that either go out on their own terms or are given warning of their impending doom.
We are not going to concern ourselves with the first group; after all it is hard to criticize the creative decisions of writers that were not aware that they were crafting the final episode of their series. Instead, we are going to take a closer look at the second group and some of the best and worst series finales that have come out of it.
Often times, the hype and expectations for the last episode of a popular series are gargantuan. Sometimes, the expectations are so high that even a decent finale is trashed (i.e. "Seinfeld") simply because people were expecting too much. It is perfectly normal, of course, to expect something magical when you are watching your favorite series come to an end. Still, at the end of the day it is what happens in between the pilot and the finale, and not the finale itself, that should matter. That being said, it's still fun to champion some finales and ridicule others.
A word of warning. MASSIVE spoilers await for the shows ranked below:
Sitcom finales are very tricky. Writers have a tendency to get overly sentimental, and they sometimes forget what made the series popular in the first place - the humor. The Charles Brothers managed to walk the fine line expertly and produced a heartfelt series finale that provided real closure while still maintaining a sense of humor.
Having Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long) not end up together was gutsy, but it was the right move. The "Friends" writers should have learned from that (see our upcoming article "Worst Finales" for more). The last 15 minutes or so, where all of the regulars sit down and chat in the bar after hours, and Norm (George Wendt) implies that Cheers is Sam's true love, is sentimental but not schmaltzy. The final scene, with Sam saying, "We're closed," to the unseen patron behind the door and then retreating to the back (a nice parallel to the opening 11 years earlier) was as perfect a closing moment as one can hope for.
This series gets recognition not for the entire finale, which was decent but unspectacular, but for the genius closing moments. Inarguably the greatest twist ending of all time, Bob Newhart's Dick Loudon is knocked unconscious, and the scene shifts to a bedroom. Bob wakes up not as Dick, but as Dr. Robert Hartley, the character he played in his first series, "The Bob Newhart Show." Next to him in bed is Emily Hartley (Suzanne Pleshette), his wife from that first series. He explains the crazy dream that he had been having, where he had been an innkeeper in Vermont (the premise of "Newhart"). The entire eight years of "Newhart" were simply a very vivid dream that was had by Dr. Hartley. Talk about an overactive imagination.
This finale is memorable for several reasons. The story was simply brilliant. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) finds himself jumping back and forth in time into three distinct eras: the present day, several years into the future, and to the time when he first set foot on the Enterprise as Captain. It is hardly surprising that the omnipotent Q (John de Lancie) is involved, and Q's presence as well as the action involving Picard's early days on the Enterprise provided a nice sense of closure. Many of the favorite supporting characters from the past had an opportunity to make another appearance thanks to the multiple timelines, and the episode managed to be both exciting and surprisingly sentimental.
The climax, where all three timelines converge at a single point in order to close a temporal disruption in space, was very satisfying. It is the final scene, however, with Picard joining the rest of the regulars for poker night (something he never did throughout the series) that is really the most memorable. As the camera focuses on the seven characters sitting around the table then spirals upward, it is hard to not be moved. Admit it.
There were some that were unhappy with the series finale of "Angel." However, when looking at the tone and scope of the series, as well as at the character of Angel (David Boreanaz) himself, it makes perfect sense. It does more than just make sense, it is brilliant. "Angel" was never about results. It was never about good triumphing over evil or about frolicking in the sunshine. It was a dark show, a series full not of blacks and whites but of shades of gray.
In the end, it came down to, as Doyle (Glenn Quinn) once put it, "fighting the good fight." Angel was a tragic character, and for him to actually fulfill the Shanshu prophecy in the end would not have been faithful to the series. The final scenes, taking place in a rain-soaked alley with the remaining characters preparing for an epic battle were very atmospheric.
Ending just as the battle begins, with Angel's final line "let's go to work," was the only logical way to end the series. There will always be battles, and the members of Angel Investigations will fight those battles until they are dead. There is no retirement. There is no joyous prophecy. It's pretty simple. Yes, the new comic book series will pick up after the battle, but the TV series will always end there. And it couldn't have ended in a more proper manner.
This quirky medical drama was always known for being a little offbeat. The finale maintained that same tone, but much like with "Newhart," it is not the majority of the episode that makes this series finale special - it is the end. The fact that the entire series was the product of the imagination of an autistic boy, who spends day after day just staring into a snow globe (the hospital is the building inside), is an excellent twist.
It is made even better by the final dialogue, with the child's father saying, "What does he think about all day, staring into that glass?" The father then picks up the snow globe and places it on top of the TV. The move is perhaps a subtle swipe at the loyal viewers who had spent the last six years "staring into the glass" and watching the series. An interesting, thought provoking and very controversial way to end the series, to say the least.
“M*A*S*H” was one of the longest running and most successful sitcoms of all time, and its series finale does deserve some recognition. “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” was an absolute television event, and still goes down as the most watched TV program of all time, being viewed by over 100 million people. So why wasn’t it included as one of the “best” finales?
There are several reasons. The series became increasingly sappy and melodramatic in later seasons after Alan Alda took creative control. The focus (and much of the humor) was buried beneath a mountain of sentimentality. In a sense, the final episode stayed true to the tone set in the later years of the series, but it was in sharp contrast to the earlier, more comedic seasons.
In the final episode, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) has a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized. He returns to camp only to learn that the war is over and everyone gets to go home. The obligatory teary farewells follow. Some of the goodbyes are powerful, but at nearly three hours there are just too many of them. In fact, there is very little focus or plot in the finale, just lots and lots of goodbyes. A shorter finale might have been more appropriate.
Still, the final shot of Hawkeye flying away and looking below to see BJ’s (Mike Farrell) farewell spelled out in white rocks as “GOODBYE,” is emotional and satisfying. The series as a whole was groundbreaking, and the finale was no less so. Altogether, the episode was solid, but had too many shortcomings to really be considered one of the best.