Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Ten Best Series Finales

It's that time of year again, that time when several long-running and beloved series take their final bows. The TV blogosphere becomes littered with articles on greatest sign-offs, challenging this year's crop to match such luminaries as M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I've decided to take a slightly different approach with my list.

TV watching is a different experience than film-going. Over several seasons, the cast of a beloved TV show becomes like a group of friends we invite into our living rooms week-after-week. Thus, the pressure on that final visit is so much greater. It can't just be a good story - it has to be a fulfilling conclusion to that emotional bond. So for this reason, it's impossible for someone of my generation to have quite the same reaction to the final MTM episode as someone who spent several years of their lives living with those characters.

It's all about closure. Does the audience get the closure they deserve on these characters and stories. Does the finale honor what worked best about the series while providing a satisfying coda?

So when it came time to compile my list, I decided to limit the shows to those that concluded within my lifetime. You can complain that's arbitrary, but hey, it's MY list!

10) Mad About You: "The Final Frontier" - I'm sure I'll get flack that this is on the list while other sitcoms like Frasier and Friends aren't. For my money, this finale was simply better - a time-hopping trip that traces Paul and Jamie's future over the next thirty years. It's a well-constructed, bittersweet episode.

9) Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "What You Leave Behind" - The first Trek series to take a more serialized approach to story-telling had a lot to resolve by its final two hours. There are some flaws (namely that while both the resolution of the Dominion War and the conflict with the Bajoran deities are resolved, the two stories have little to do with each other.) There's a sense that this could have benefited from one more draft but the final fifteen minutes hit the right notes, with Captain Sisko's "death" and promise to one day return home, the departures of Odo, Worf and O'Brien, and most effectively, the final shot of the show. The series' final image begins with Jake Sisko staring at the wormhole, waiting for his father and then pulls back from the window into space until Deep Space Nine is just another light in the heavens.

8) Cheers: "One for the Road" - The return of Shelly Long's Diane Chambers is the perfect catalyst for Sam Malone to finally get serious about what he really wants out of life. In the end, he realizes his one true love is his bar. Every character gets their moment, and the series leaves with a sense that life will go on as normal, even though a few changes have happened.

7) The Wonder Years: "Summer/Independence Day" - Focusing almost exclusively on Kevin and Winnie during a summer where they both work at a resort, the episode takes their relationship to the next level before returning home. With the theme from The Natural playing in the background as the Arnold clan attends a Fourth of July parade, adult Kevin's narration provides a moving coda for all the characters' fates. Saddest of all, Kevin's dad Jack passes away two years after the parade.

6) Star Trek: The Next Generation: "All Good Things..." - Despite wallowing in some technobabble, this finale is one of the series best episodes. Quantum Leap-like time-travel is the conceit that has Captain Picard moving back and forth through time in three key periods: the first day he took command of the Enterprise, his present day, and 25 years in the future, when he must reunite his crew to help solve a time-spanning mystery with the fate of humanity in the balance. It's a nice reflection on how far the characters have come, and where they might end up.

5) Dawson's Creek: "All Good Things.../...Must Come to an End" - Kevin Williamson returned to pen this finale, which serves as its own reunion movie. Set five years in the future, Dawson and his friends come together for the first time in years to celebrate his mother's wedding. The Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle is resolved in the only way it could have, but the two-hours really belongs to Michelle Williams' wrenching performance as the dying Jen Lindley. If the scene of her recording a message for her infant daughter to view one day doesn't get you, the quiet moment when Grams realizes Jen has passed will. Still fighting cancer, Grams whispers to her departed granddaughter, "I'll see you soon, child. Soon."

4) Arrested Development: "Development Arrested" - There's no way I can do this justice in even a capsule review, and this probably isn't the kind of episode that a casual viewer can appreciate because so much of it comes out of the callbacks and resolutions of long-running gags. If you're a fan, you get it. If not, go back and watch all three seasons. It's worth it. I promise.

3) Everwood: "Foreverwood" - If all had gone according to plan, this episode - which sees widower Andy Brown finally let go of the memory of his dead wife - would have launched several storylines for season five and sent the show in a new direction. Alas, 7th Heaven's finale ratings convinced the network that that withering corpse still had life in it, and this became Everwood's swan song. It works as a conclusion, though. The end of one chapter in Andy Brown's life, with the promise of more to follow.

2) ER: "And In The End..." - Like TNG's finale, this episode serves as a perfect bookend to the series' pilot episode. From the details like the opening scene - a direct homage to the opening of the pilot - to Dr. Carter taking Rachel Greene, the daughter of his late mentor, under his wing, this episode brings a lot of things full-circle. Old characters return for one last hurrah, but for me in particular, the greatest return is that of the opening credits music and the Benton kung-fu punch. This is how you end a long running series with class.

1) Angel: "Not Fade Away..." - Angel and his team make one desperate effort to derail their enemies plans. Knowing full well that they can't stop the apocalypse entirely, they instead aim to disrupt Wolfram & Hart's plans to bring it about themselves. Aware that they can't possibly walk away from this alive, the team spends one last day doing what they love, then executes their plan to awesome effect. The ending is a great non-cliffhanger, as Angel and his survivors meet in an alley, only to see thousands of demon soldiers and a dragon closing in on them. Though they're clearly as doomed as General Custer, Angel and his men draw up for one last fight, as Angel confidently tells his friends "Let's get to work!"


  1. No top ten of series finales is complete without Blake's 7 - the ending that traumatised a generation.

  2. I agree about ANGEL being number one, but I think your list is missing THE SHIELD. The series never backed down from letting its characters suffer major consequences for their actions, while at the same time walking a fine line between Vic Mackey being a good guy or a bad guy. The ending to his story, in particular, was perfect. They didn't shy away from what he'd done, and his "punishment" was unexpected yet totally satisfying.

  3. The ER finale was great, and to be honest, they actually did a cool thing and took five or six episodes to really put a cap on it ... the Clooney / Margules ep (about 3 eps before the last) with guest star Susan Sarandon was wrenching and tight, too.

    My quibble with you would be that the SIX FEET UNDER finale was clearly better than just about anything else on this list, and deserves to be on it.

    and SOPRANOS, for all the guff it got for the last second black-out, was also really good.

    And MASH, too, was better than most other shows on this list.

    but obviously that's my subjective opinion.

  4. "Everybody Loves Raymond" did get a good job. Nice "Live goes on" vibe.

  5. I've seen six of your ten, and I have to agree they were great.

    More top-notch finales:

    "That '70s Show" -- After a horrible, forgettable 8th season, the Formans and friends manage to make it through December 31, 1979... and just as the hour is about to toll, Eric and Donna share the closure they never had after their failed engagement.

    "Robotech" -- I know it's animated, but it hits all the beats brilliantly. The stakes get higher and higher as the returning Earthicans from space launch their nuclear arsenal, and the only way the heroes planetside can win is to persuade their ENEMIES to save them from armageddon! Every character's arc closes perfectly: Rand grows up and Rook softens up, and they finally realize they belong together; Lance reveals his big secret to the world; the now-brave Lunk takes Marlene and Annie to start a new life; and the main hero, Scott Bernard, finally makes his peace with the memory of his dead fiancee.

    "The Office" (UK) -- The finale was a double-length "Christmas special," and by setting it some time after the last broadcast weekly, they were able to provide hilarious closure for David Brent, showing him pathetically milking his 15 minutes of fame for all he was worth before finally finding his own self-esteem and standing up for himself. The emotional core of the story, the relationship between Tim and Dawn, is resolved with a beautiful will-she-or-won't-she moment of truth. Kinda makes me worry that there's no way they can end the U.S. Office show with anywhere near the same impact.

    Not so top-notch:

    "Legend of the Seeker" -- The source books were not episodic, so adapting this material had a built-in level of difficulty. The writers, all of whom I have to say were competent at narrative structure and did a good job of telling self-contained 42-minute stories, simply did not understand the source material. They killed characters that needed to stay alive for plots down the road, they changed familial relationships that were plot-critical, and on and on. By the time they got to the finale, so much was ruined that it detracted from what could have been an epic victory over the Keeper. At least Richard and Kahlan stay together and can finally knock boots -- but in the books, they made that discovery at the end of the first volume, so the entire second season of Seeker felt like it had missed the announcement.

    "Revelation" -- This show had everything going for it: budget, stars, high production values, a suspenseful storyline... and then it just wheezed out, and the first-season finale became the series finale. And note to writers: If you make your villain as evil as evil can be, they HAVE to get their comeuppance in the grand finale. Otherwise, your story sucks.

  6. I'm not sure what to take from the fact that in just a few hours, this one article got more comments than two days of an interview with a professional screenwriter.

    It's funny - I wrote this up a while ago and had to keep bumping it back. That gave me some time to try to figure out which shows I was going to get called out on for not including. Having seen a few other lists in the intervening weeks, I pegged SIX FEET UNDER, THE SOPRANOS and THE SHIELD as the likely suspects, but also figured the latter two were polarizing enough that they might not come up. Someday when I'll have time, I really need to watch SFU.

    Joshua - I was three when the MASH finale aired, so I excluded it on that basis. I tried to keep it to shows that I had actually been in a position to see during their first run.

    I agree about the Clooney/Margules ep being exceptional as well. However, as excited as I was to see them, the real thrill of that episode was seeing Carter and Benton back together for the first time in seven years.

    Funny story - I had a friend of a friend who worked on ER's last couple of seasons. During the final year, he kept promising he'd get me on set and, knowing I was a fan of the show from the start, he promised he'd try to set it up for a day when someone good was there.

    Well, one day last January he made good on it. He brings me into set as they're between set-ups at the admit desk and I'm so busy taking it all in that I practically walk right into Noah Wyle! They were in the middle of filming his second episode back and after taking a tour of the hospital area we got to watch Noah film a scene with John Stamos and Linda Cardelini. Then my friend even brought Stamos over to chat with the group of us and he proved to be a very friendly, very funny guy.

    So with that part done, my friend then takes us over to another stage the show uses. Cautiously, he asks, "Do you want me to spoil something for you?" After I said to go ahead, he spills that "This is usually our surgery stage, but right now we're converting it to be another hospital... in Seattle."

    Well, my jaw hit the floor and I must have given a very big grin after that, because the other two friends visiting with me immediately reacted, not getting the reference. "What? What does that mean?!" All I said at the time was, "He just dropped a BIG spoiler!" My friend then indicated that they were trying to keep that fact a secret until the show aired and asked I not tell anyone.

    Then less than two weeks later, a WB tour guide forgot about an order banning trams from going by the ER sets that week. Some lucky tourists snapped pictures of George Clooney in surgical scrubs and sent them to gossip sites. Unfortunately the secret got out early.

    Anyway, ER is one of the best examples of wrapping a show up with class and dignity. That's all the more remarkable because a few seasons before the end, the show really felt like it had run out of gas.

  7. TBSR - The interview was mainly a learning experience, and those of us still seeking to understand the craft probably just soaked it in instead of opening up a discussion/argument about it. :) At least I can say that for sure on my part. When the more experienced guy in the room starts talking, I tend to clam up and let him talk. Odds are the other people in the room want to hear from that guy a lot more than they want to hear from me.

  8. I always loved the Full House finale. I thought it was great the way they aired the cast taking their final bows. For me as a kid completely in love with these actors, to see them crying and hugging at the end of their last show was the ultimate closure!

  9. Dude,

    That's a classic ER tale ... One thing I noticed, during the last ER show, was that both ER and FRIENDS premiered in 94 and they both had characters named Rachel Green (though ER's Rachel was a baby when the show began).

    I know you were three when the MASH finale aired, but you should really consider it, as that it was a record-breaker (I was too young for THE FUGITIVE finale, but caught it somewhere, it's also pretty satisfying, the whole show was about that ONE moment, it's something else) and an icon. PLus you can email Ken Levine and ask him about it!

    I wish they'd given LAW AND ORDER a bowout of some sorts.

  10. Angel -- #1! Yes, completely agree!

  11. I haven't really seen any of these finales (generational gap?), so I can't say how my personal favorites compare. Everybody Loves Raymond did do very well, however. The episode was very funny with a five second span of drama, and it concluded very sweetly -- life goes on for this fictional family in the way it has always gone on. Very bittersweet and it did exactly what a finale should do: left viewers wanting more but ultimately satisfied. I enjoyed both the Friends and Frasier finales, the former slightly more. And the Monk finale was pretty well-concluded, in my opinion.

  12. Man. Now I can't wait to get home, throw on a pair of my fanciest cut-offs and pop in Season 1 of AD.

  13. Glad to see so much support for ANGEL as #1. Guess I know my audience.

    Joshua, I totally agree with you in wishing that L&O had been given an ER-like bow. Also, I saw The Fugitive finale ages ago, back when the movie came out and I recall liking it quite a bit. If I'm not mistaken, that was the first series finale to truly tie up a series-long premise rather than just going out on a "business as usual" note.

    And good point on the two Rachel Greenes. I remember noticing that back during each show's second season. It's made all the more interesting by the fact that the two shows filmed on adjacent stages and that Clooney and Wyle appeared on Friends. I wonder if there's any other syncronicity to be caught? (And if you're an ER fan, Josh, you should check out my series of posts from last March just before the show went off the air.)

    Mike - I hope you're on the money about the reaction to the interviews. I enjoy doing them, but find it hard to gague if you guys are as into them as I am.

    Also, I agree with the sentiment upthread that The Office UK finale was great and that it's hard to imagine the American version equalling it.

  14. Don't waste your breath, Iain, most people on the West Coast have never watched PBS, or have been exposed to any classic British Television or British Science Fiction aside from that puke-inducing new (Deux Ex Machina) Dr. Who. Blakes 7 had one of the best series finales of all time and is still one of the most watched events ever on the BBC.

    Here's the brief ending:

    I must say that Bitter's stock has dropped dramatically with his revelation of what he considers to be "the best" series finales of all time.

    Yeah, I get it Bitter, you're thirty and were born after most of some of the best series stopped airing, but that's no excuse. It's not like MASH hasn't been airing on T.V. or All in the Family, or The Rockford Files, hasn't been airing continuously for the past thirty years. The only show that has NOT been in syndication has been "Alice."

    I'm only a few years older than you but I'm certain I've seen about 10x more television that you ever will.

    For you to pick "ANGEL" as the best series finale of all time shows how little television you have watched.

    You also picked, "Mad About You," "DAWSON'S CREEK," and "EVERWOOD."


  15. Angel as #1 - couldn't agree more. Buffy was great too, although technically its ending wasn't an ending, series 8 was done as a comic series instead.

    As for the interviews - I love your serious blog entries and interviews etc, but I don't comment on them because I really have little to add to those kinds of things. Mention Buffy or Angel and I'll be all over it. ;)

  16. Tankerbell - It's quite unfortunate that you couldn't express your dissent with the list in a more civil fashion. The tone in her was quite polite and respectful until you came in and felt the need to get personal. I'll never understand why internet debates need to often abandon all civility. I saw it in plenty of Lost-related comments this past week, and I won't stand for that sort of rudeness here, whether it's directed at me or my readers.

    I would point out that before you posted there were several other commenters who voiced there agreement with a number of my choices, so you're not just insulting me, you're insulting them too.

    I also think it's exceptionally rude to attack my criteria in assembling the list for not conforming to your idea of what the parameters should have been. I quite specifically avoided saying this was an "all-time" list. Complaining about that is like arguing that a music critic left "Hey Jude" off of a list of McCartney's greaest solo compositions.

    I stated my reasons for limiting the timeline, and I think that viewers who watch a series only in syndication have a different sort of experience than the viewers who watched it first-run and grew and changed with those people. For people my age and younger, shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY were "dead" by the time we started watching TV. That's not an indictment of them creatively, but I can guarantee that we won't be impacted by the show in the same way as those who watched it first-run.

    Considering that many "best finale" lists (I've seen at least five this week alone) often tend to go with the old fallbacks of Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, and The Fugitive, I thought it would make for a more unique list to limit the focus in this way.

    This was not a list of Greatest TV Shows of All-time, or even Greatest TV Shows of the last 30 years. Great shows don't always deliver great finales. Indeed, many once-brilliant shows burn out seasons before reaching the end. If I was to complile a list of best seasons of television, undoubtably there were be many, many more shows appearing on that list, and several shows on this list wouldn't even place. Indeed, at least three of the finales on this list come from seasons that range from mediocre to terrible.

    Was Dawson's Creek one of the greatest shows of all time? Hell no! It had maybe two solid seasons, a few that were fun guilty pleasures, and a few that hovered between below average and terrible - but it had a DAMN good finale.

    Obviously no one's going to hold you down and make you read my posts, but if you do feel motivated to join the conversation, please try to exercise a bit more respect and civility.

  17. My City, New City - I always say that Angel's ending was a cliffhanger that was a better final statement for the show than any true conclusion could have been. It's one of the few times that sort of ending has worked for me, and I don't think it would have been effective at all without the buildup of the rest of the episode and the one before it.

    With respect, I can't say that the Buffy finale impressed me as much as it did you. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. It fell into that middle ground where I think most finales lie. I could see what Joss was going for, but in the end it didn't affect me the way I wanted to be affected. The last 2/3 of that final season is pretty problematic and in hindsight, I feel "The Gift" was the strongest ending the series could have had. With "Chosen," I felt that everyone involved was - if you'll pardon the Buffy-related pun - "going through the motions."

    As for the comic.... in the interests of not derailing the discussion, I'll just say that I stopped buying it off the rack after the fourth arc and have gotten the subsequent parts in the library, and via the bookstore. I enjoyed No Future for You, but the rest left me underwhelmed. The best I can say is that it was better than the ANGEL post-finale comics.

    I'd love to do more Buffy-related posts, but the trick is finding a way to make them interesting to those who haven't seen the series, as well as bringing something new for the Buffy-fans who have already dissected every aspect of "Passion," "Hush," "The Body," and so on. I'm thinking of starting a weekly feature this summer that will look in depth at a different TV episode each week I'd rotate genres so one week might be a sitcom, the next would be a sci-fi/thriller, then a cop show, then a family-drama, animated series and so on. We'll see if I have time to get it up and running.

  18. I did read your series on ER, good stuff!

  19. Yup, 'Not Fade Away' is a truly great finale so no arguments there. I haven't seen some of the shows you mention so I can't comment comprehensively, but my addition to this would have to be:

    Farscape, 'The Peacekeeper Wars' - the actual 'Farscape' finale, 4x22, was never meant to serve as one and as such delivers one of the most teeth-grindingly horrible cliffhangers in history, as as 'To Be Continued' fades up on a screen moments after Crichton and Aeryn have been blasted into their component molecules, only for a solemn TV announcer to inform you that was actuall the last ever... well. Still gives me a shudder. But then we got the 'Peacekeeper Wars' miniseries which wraps up pretty much everything from the show, and seals things off with a final run of scenes that offer full character resolution, and uplifting ending despite the brushes of tragedy, and it brings a great big dippy smile to your face :)

  20. I agree completely on 'What You Leave Behind' - that was mostly wonderful, really felt like the end of a book. I still get emotional watching it, over 10 years on. Best end to the best Trek show by a country mile.

  21. Blackster - DS9 is my favorite Trek series and the only one I bothered getting the DVDs to. It's always amused me how so many of the episodes dealing with wartime morality feel like they could be commentary on the post 9/11 era even though the show went off the air in 1999.

    Have you read the post-finale novels? I don't usually endorse extended universe tie-ins as being able to stand with the series, but I really have enjoyed what Pocket Books has done so far to continue the series.