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!"