The Big Finish: 26 TV Show Finales That Got us Talking
Some TV shows work hard to get across the finish line and deliver that perfectly satisfying ending to reward viewers for years of devoted viewing. Others lose their focus and limp to their ends, leaving fans to wonder if perhaps things should have ended sooner. With the passing of the beloved Breaking Bad (and the reviled Dexter) into the TV sunset, we decided to look back at 26 TV finales that worked...or that didn't.
When they were shooting the last episode of Star Trek, they had no idea the series was going to be cancelled. They knew they were on shaky ground, but they certainly had no sense that they should be wrapping things up. As far as they knew they were on a five year mission. Rodenberry probably saw it as a five season arc. The real tragedy about the last episode of Star Trek, “Turnabout Intruder,” is that James T. Kirk was returned to his body. The series should have ended with William Shatner playing a woman starship captain. Whether it continued on the last two years of its mission or not, I find comfort in the idea that Mr. Tambourine Man is out there in space as the Rocket Woman. I think Shatner acted the shit out of that part. Watch it again. His performance is very nuanced. The way he plays with his fingernails, the way he uses his eyes. If only Spock hadn’t stuck his Vulcan ears into things William Shatner would still be playing Janice Lester playing Captain Kirk in the mythology that would have followed. An actor’s dream.
When M*A*S*H ended people treated it like someone died. It was an event. M*A*S*H was an institution, not that it was around that long...it wasn’t Gunsmoke, it was a different kind of institution. It blew through so many TV taboos so often, mixing satire with comedy with what was becoming a far too encroaching drama, that it held a spot beyond other TV shows at the time. Other shows were just show, M*A*S*H was a national conscience and consciousness. It was smart but it wasn’t afraid of slapstick. Maybe the last episode choked a little too much chicken for a comedy show, nobody really wanted to see Hawkeye pull a Corporal Klinger without a summer dress. It was the tearjerker it was supposed to be. That wasn’t even new for M*A*S*H, they’d done some big goodbyes before. If only to kill off the actors just to make sure they couldn’t come back.
While there was no way that Seinfeld's finale could have scaled the comedic heights of earlier seasons (the show had begun to lose a step in its eigth and ninth seasons), and certainly no way that fans would have been satisfied with just about ANY conclusion...what did we expect? One of those slurpy, sentimental endings where the cast all steps out from behind their characters and smiles and waves to a grateful studio audience? Seinfeld made its bones on the absurdity of the uncomfortable, and the morally ambiguous finale (which spends two episodes quite unambiguously revealing what terrible people they are...in case you hadn't been paying attention), while controversial and divisive at the time, looks right on the money, even daring, 15 years later. "Hell is other people," indeed.
This quiet epilogue, set eighteen years after the story’s proper end, cashed in the last bit of foreshadowing in a series rife with it by focusing on the parallel between the foretold death of John Sheridan and the decommissioning and demolition of Babylon 5. Creator and head writer J. Michael Straczynski delivered a wonderful last supper for Sheridan with his closest friends (and a toast naming their/our absent friends), Sheridan more or less passing bodily into Heaven, and a comforting if bittersweet recontextualization of all those prophetic visions of the station exploding. Susan Ivanova’s closing narration broke our hearts in the best way as it summed up the series’ themes and even covered a few eleventh hour bits of character development with her, Zack Allan, and of course Delenn, reassuring us that even when it’s changed forever, life goes on.
The lead up to “The Truth” was more disappointing than the actual execution of The X-Files’ final episode. David Duchovny left the show after season eight and only appeared in two episodes during the ninth season. While special agents Monica Reyes and John Doggett were serviceable stand-ins during the final two seasons, many devoted X-Files fans felt they were robbed of a strong finish that justified their obsession with a show that changed the sci-fi genre way back in 1993.
The hour and a half finale saw the return of Agent Mulder, who was put on trial and ultimately convicted in the murder of a “Super Solider.” For years Mulder was discredited and dismissed within the FBI but in his X-Files return, it became clear that he won over more people within the government during his relentless pursuit of the truth. The X-Files couldn’t tie up all the loose ends. In a show where ambiguity reigned supreme and Dec. 22, 2012, the day of the final alien invasion, is unavoidable, all Mulder and Scully could do was cuddle in a motel room and hope. For the partners turned lovers that went through so much together, the final minutes were nothing short of perfection.
Sitcom audiences, particularly of shows with arcs anchored by romanticism, demand a sense of closure in finales. That’s probably a good reason why more than 50 million people, tallying the fourth most watched finale in TV history, tuned into NBC to say goodbye to their friends. The finale was bittersweet, if not satisfying because Rachael didn’t get on the plane and hard luck loser Ross finally won something for once. There were plenty of tears for this group of young, hip friends in New York City who bonded over endless cups of coffee, Thanksgiving dinners and a few shared lovers along the way. The real problem with the Friends finale was the aftermath. Negative points are in order for spawning the spinoff Joey.
If it seems a little "off" that we're including an animated series in this list, then clearly, you never saw Justice League Unlimited, or its finale. The final season of JLU was a love-letter to everything that makes the DC Universe great, culminating in all out war between a virtual army of superheroes and Darkseid's invading forces. Superman beating the living hell out of Darkseid, comfortable in the knowledge that finally, after all these years, he was finally facing someone he wouldn't have to hold back against not only was payoff for Superman fans waiting for the Man of Steel to shine brighter than his teammates, but even tied up loose ends from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's JLU precursor, Superman: The Animated Series. When Hollywood can approach this kind of blend of action and emotion in a Justice League movie, wake us up. Until then...
Leave it to a show all about endings and the value of mortality to feature the perfect ending… in which everybody dies. The beautifully shot and edited closing montage (set to the evocative “Breathe Me” by Sia) covered the near century it took for all the leads to kick the bucket in a variety of fitting if not necessarily comforting ways. What could have been a depressing heartsuck of an ending was saved by flashing from a dying, elderly Claire, whose life has been full and rewarding, to her 20-year-old self driving down the 10 Freeway toward the beginning of that life. Though the series wasn’t perfect—it did have its highs and lows—in the end, it pulled it all together to give us one of the most satisfying, poetic, and inspired endings in television history.
The bell gives it away, it rings when Tony walks into Holsteins, establishing that we hear the bell every time someone comes in. We hear it when the guy in the Member’s Only jacket comes into the restaurant and looks straight at Tony, but Tony doesn’t hear it because a couple at the table right next to him laughs over it. The audience sees it because it’s one of the few scenes in the shot that’s not Tony’s point of view. As far as the blackness, Bobby referenced it earlier in the season when he was sitting on the boat with Tony and said you probably never even see it coming. Syl experienced it when he was sitting across from a hit and didn’t know what was happening until it was over. It was all there. New York cut off the head. They’d deal with what was left. That Jersey thing was never anything more than a glorified crew anyway.
Let's see: we got an epic space battle, a rescue mission, revelations, and plenty of death. What was it everyone is still bitching about? Not to mention Bear McCreary’s score, which still offers up chills years later. Nobody was sure that Moore and Eick would be able to pay off all the random imagery born of bowl-smoking that they dropped into the series over the years, but they somehow managed to tie it all together. Every character had a role to play in the story and reached satisfying conclusions to their arc, especially when juxtaposed with those flashbacks of life before the Fall. We got closure out the wazoo, and it was glorious. And whoever had a problem with that last-minute twist had obviously not been paying attention. “Life here began out there.” They say it in the pilot mini-series. Whatever. Haters gonna hate.
As much as we loved Logan’s hilariously sniveling end, this may be one of the most lukewarm and anti-climactic endings ever aired. Basically, the series ends with yet another president’s administration left in tatters by terrorists vs. Jack Bauer, i.e. the premise of every other season, and Jack going AWOL. The problem with this is that it is NOT an ending. We have seen Jack Bauer go rogue before! He does it practically every season before CTU or the next POTUS pulls him back in. Hell, that was the premise of Season 7 after the terribly forgotten 24 TV movie, and that is the real issue. This was an intentional non-ending because series producers, as well as Kiefer Sutherland, thought they were getting a 24 movie that never materialized. This explains why the hedged their bets with a weak conclusion that was more limp-wristed than 24’s depiction of ACLU lawyers. Bah! Jack and Chloe didn’t even have a real final scene! But hey, the fake-out closure may have worked out, because 24 returns next year to Fox with Jack retired and on the run. Again.
Each and every season finale of Friday Night Lights could have served as the show’s ending. The writers had a great knack for crafting suitable endings for the seasons’ singular stories, but in the series finale we get a real full-circle moment. The town of Dillon is reunited, Matt and Julie await engagement, Riggins is free to oversee his land, but the real sweet send off is saved for Coach Taylor and his wife Tammi. Proving once and for all that the Taylor’s had the most realistic marriage ever presented on television, Coach Taylor sacrifices his job in Dillon to allow his wife to take a job in Chicago. The final shot sees Coach Taylor teaching a new Chicago team his “Clear eyes” mantra in the rebirth of his coaching career and the perfect ending to an incredible series.
Ten seasons. For ten seasons Smallville teased fans with Clark's "will he/won't he" put on the Superman costume vacillations. Two full seasons of Clark in a black trenchcoat, a t-shirt, and the worst codename in the history of superheroes. They owed us. They owed us big. And after a season long build-up which included Darkseid and a number of other barely recognizable characters from Jack Kirby's Fourth World, we got...very little. A CGI Tom Welling in a used Superman Returns costume barely visible on screen for more than a minute, and a cut-to-black shirt rip on the Daily Planet roof set to John Williams' iconic Superman theme. Those final moments, depicting Lois and Clark some years in the future at the Daily Planet, well into Clark's Superman (can they call him that now?) career were nothing more than a reminder of what the show could have become had it not been so devoted to keeping everything Superman fans know and love about the character tantalizingly out of reach.
You may not know this, or even believe it, but Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is more than just the best Scooby-Doo series ever, more than one of the best animated series of the last decade, and more than...well, it's just more than a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Over the course of 52 episodes, Mystery Incorporated layered plot thread upon plot thread and mysteries within mysteries as it actually (gasp) gave each member of the gang a backstory, a character arc, and genuine a genuine stake in the big story. The finale, which (among other things) deals with an Evil Entity remaking reality and explaining why some animals can talk and others can't in this world, also has a unique twist which allows Mystery Incorporated to serve as either a finale for EVERY version of Scooby-Doo...or a prequel to all of them...depending on how you look at it. Oh, and Harlan Ellison shows up. Brilliant.
If your final season is a mess, then your finale doesn’t have much hope, does it? Season eight of Dexter meandered about like Dexter character Vince Masuka in the World’s Largest Sex Store. Characters acted more inane then ever, new characters dominated the time we had left with the old ones, and Dexter acted more irrational and selfish as the season went along. In the finale, all the uninteresting plots don’t so much come to a head as they just kind of fizzle out. Then there’s the infamous ending of Lumberjack Dexter awkwardly staring into the camera for the series’ final shot. We would have preferred the whole series to be a dream over that crap.
Season five, the final season of the remarkable series, was an all out assault on viewer’s emotions and nervous systems that saw the already esteemed show reach new heights. In the closing hour, creator Vince Gilligan neatly wrapped up the series, giving each remaining character a suitable goodbye or ticket straight to hell. The only criticism that could be brought up is that the ending was too perfect, too sterile for a season that felt like it was always on the edge of combusting. Regardless, Gilligan crafted a satisfying ending to his juggernaut series.
This one is a bit of a cheat, but as every season of American Horror Story follows a new story, how can it not count? With that in mind, we want to praise and condemn both seasons’ “series finales.” The first season of American Horror Story (no colon) saw a dementedly funny ending to a season that was actually scary! The Harmon family, who never missed the chance to squabble in life, has found peace in death. Literally. They’re all ghosts haunting “The Murder House” and scaring potential buyers (victims) out before the bad ghosts get them! It’s perversely adorable watching the four dead Harmons, Ben, Vivien, Violet, and the new baby, celebrate the holidays around a Christmas tree while demon seed like Tate and Hayden watch from the shadows. Meanwhile, even Constance gets her own kooky happy ending with a wink and a nod to The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby.
This is a weird ending that leaves a smile on the face after a tense year with the family. Conversely, the second “series,” American Horror Story: Asylum, ends on an intriguing idea with poor execution. Asylum's atmosphere was tense and after an awkward premiere, it quickly found its breakneck, darkly comical pace thanks in no small part to Sister Mary Eunice getting possessed by the devil and teaming up with James Cromwell’s monstrous Nazi doc. It was literally a match made in Hell. But as their relationship flamed out (heh), the final two episodes kind of limped to the finish line. The actual finale attempted to have a “slice of life” closer that spanned multiple decades when Sister Jude’s sanity is not saved, and Laura Winters shuts down the asylum a decade too late. By the time it flash forwards to modern times and her thrown away adult son, a second Bloody Face, has hunted her down to a D.C. hotel, we just did not care. It wasn’t scary or true to life; it was simply lifeless. Here is hoping that this week’s new story ends with a better bang than that final shot.