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The Power of the TV Finale
When I watched the Lost finale live in 2010 with a friend and fellow fan, he threw a wineglass across the room, knowingly allowing it to shatter in the corner, happy to later clean up the shards of his extreme disappointment. I appreciated him expressing my frustration, too. It didn’t even seem overly dramatic to me. Trashing the entire apartment wouldn’t have been out of line with my feelings in the moment.
(Warning: spoilers ahead for some major TV finales!)
This is what TV finales can do to us. If we have loved a show enough, if we have invested years of our lives in their characters and plots when we could have been enjoying nature or spending time with precious loved ones or finally writing that novel, we want to leave them feeling like it was worth it. The finale is the creators’ moment to make clear what the point of it all was. It feels like a betrayal when a finale of a great show falls short, or, worse, makes a mockery of the time and attention and thought and love we have given to a show. Sometimes an ending is even bad enough to taint a show’s legacy, color our entire perception of it in retrospect, no matter how much enjoyment we wrung out of it as we first watched. So wait … they were just in purgatory after all?
Plenty of major finales have tested our limits over the years—The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, and many more. In my world, at least, those three were so indelible—and in some cases, frustrating—that I remember them as clearly as that broken wineglass. The feeling that my TV service had fritzed out at a critical moment when The Sopranos unexpectedly cut to black, the infuriation of (spoiler alert!) Mr. Big dominating the Sex and the City finale, the huh? of the entire Game of Thrones ending.
TV finales haven’t always been this big a deal. Of course, technically, every single television show in history has had a last episode. But it used to be much more common for shows to go off the air unceremoniously, staying on until they were canceled—which usually meant they’d long since faded in popularity and/or creative vision. Early in TV history, shows were also far less serialized, and this was purposeful. Networks wanted viewers to be able to tune into a show at any point in its run and understand what was going on in the pre-VCR days. There could be no meaningful ending without plots and character development, so final episodes were often unremarkable. They blended in with the rest.
The Fugitive’s 1967 finale is widely considered the first event finale, and it still ranks among the most watched in TV history with 78 million viewers—because the show ran on suspense and built toward a major reveal. The Mary Tyler Moore Show helped to pioneer the idea of a deliberate finale, even for a sitcom; the creative team decided on their own to end the show in 1977 and delivered an impeccably bittersweet ending. M*A*S*H followed suit in 1983 and remains the most watched series-ender ever with 105 million viewers, a record unlikely to be broken given the explosion of choice on TV and streaming that has led to much smaller audiences for individual shows. The ‘80s and early ’90s continued to bring us eventful—and widely beloved—finales like St. Elsewhere, Newhart, and Cheers. But in 1998, Seinfeld changed the game in a new way, ushering in the modern finale model: weeks of media obsessing over what will happen, followed by weeks’ more coverage of why fans hated it.
Since then, finales haven’t always been crowd-pleasers. Some are unequivocally great (Six Feet Under), some are largely eviscerated (Game of Thrones), and some take big swings and thus are the subject of endless debate (Seinfeld, The Sopranos). Many these days fly under the cultural radar because of fragmented audiences: The Good Place, Bojack Horseman, and Fleabag all turned in finales that were masterpieces, but with everyone streaming shows at their own pace, event finales are harder to pull off than ever.
To be fair, finales are hard, period, and they always have been. Ending gracefully is more challenging than starting strong. As Lost taught us, you can keep folks interested by churning out twist after twist—flash forwards, flash sideways, revelations, code words, magical strings of numbers, mysterious men in black and white—but eventually, you have to stick the landing, and make it all mean something. The more ambitious the show, the harder the finale. Cheers’ finale was great, but it wasn’t as if this show was promising to reveal the meaning of life. Lost kind-of was, so it was tough to watch it fall short in the end, even if we should have known better than to expect so much.
Because finale reactions are deeply personal, here are some of my favorite finales from throughout TV history, including a few that have long divided audiences. Tell us your favorites—or gripe about your least favorites—on Twitter @PeabodyAwards!
‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (1977)
Creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, along with star Mary Tyler Moore, decided to end their show before it got cancelled—and before it ran out of creative juice. They were among the first TV creators to see their work as art, and this decision allowed them to write a proper ending. In fact, not just proper, but one of the most graceful of all time. The series’ innovative combination of humor and pathos shone through in its finale. The plot: The TV station where Mary has worked for the run of the series, where she has surrounded herself with a work family that is the hub of her life, is under new management. Everyone—except buffoonish anchorman Ted Baxter—is fired. The genius of this is that it allows the characters to mirror what the audience is feeling, saying goodbye onscreen to each other as viewers say goodbye to them. It’s funny—my god, why would they keep Ted?—and earns its weepiness. Just when it gets too sappy, it undercuts itself with the famous image of a group hug shuffling toward a nearby desk to reach a box of tissues. Dare you not to cry when Mary turns the lights out on the newsroom for the last time.
Where to Watch: Hulu
“It was all just a dream” is hardly an original twist outside of third-grade creative writing class—but a twist on the twist can make all the difference. Newhart had been consistently excellent throughout its eight seasons poking loving fun at small-town Vermont life, following Bob Newhart‘s Dick Loudon and his wife Joanna (Mary Frann) as they run a quaint inn. But no one was expecting any wild revelations from such a grounded premise. Enter the unexpected meta joke, when Dick wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his Newhart’s wife on his 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show. Roll credits … with the old theme song. Comedy is surprise, and this one nailed it. No one will ever be able to make this joke again.
Where to Watch: YouTube
Jerry Seinfeld famously turned down $5 million per episode—that is, $110 million for a full season—to keep making Seinfeld. He wanted to “go out on top,” he said, which put pressure on this finale unlike any finale before it. Media speculation about what might happen on the episode reached a frenzy, to the point where writer Larry David gave the finale a decoy title, “A Tough Nut to Crack,” and production assistants had to shred all copies of the script after every rehearsal. The nation all but shut down for the May 14 event: Giant screens in Times Square showed it live, TV Land stopped all programming and ran a graphic that said “Gone watchin’ SEINFELD,” and 76 million people tuned in. Most of them, it seemed, hated it. The episode puts Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer on trial for violating a Good Samaritan Law after they watch a guy being held at gunpoint—and simply mock him rather than help him. It’s a brilliant premise that plays better outside the hype cycle; if you were looking for an emotional moment of closure, you were watching the wrong show. (Seriously, when did this show ever go emotional?) The trial brought back a parade of outstanding guest characters from throughout the show to testify against our antiheroes—the Soup Nazi, the woman with “real and spectacular” breasts—and revealed the existentialism at the show’s center. In case you’d missed it, this finale made clear that these four people were terrible, and they’d be stuck together, never changing, having the same inane conversations, forever. Sartre would be proud.
Where to Watch: Netflix
‘Six Feet Under’ (2005)
You want the Meaning of Life from your finale? Go to the show about death. Six Feet Under, an HBO show whose greatness gets drowned out by Sopranos genuflection in retrospect, gave us five seasons of family drama at a funeral home, never getting squeamish around death—or any other difficult topics. Ending on a montage of all of the main characters’ eventual demises was nervy, and could have felt gimmicky. But in the able hands of creator Alan Ball, with a strong assist from the Sia song “Breathe Me,” it’s sheer perfection. It makes everything we’ve watched throughout the series more meaningful the way facing our own mortality makes life feel more precious. Is this another trick that can never be duplicated … or is it the way every show should end forevermore?
Where to Watch: HBOMax
‘The Sopranos’ (2007)
No finale has caused more passionate—or interesting—debate than that of The Sopranos. The noncommittal ending is always a gamble, and this one was a doozy: cutting to black at the height of building tension as mobster Tony Soprano has dinner with his family, a guy who may or may not have been an assassin skulking around its periphery. Creator David Chase‘s master move becomes perhaps more apparent upon rewatch; every bit of the nearly unbearable tension in the scene comes from film tricks, not necessarily what’s happening in the scene. The incessant bell over the diner’s entryway, the constant cuts to Tony’s daughter Meadow struggling to parallel park, the shifty guy in the Members Only windbreaker, all while Journey’s rousing “Don’t Stop Believin'” plays. And this all comes after an episode laden with death imagery. What’s fun about the debate that will never end—is Tony dead?—is that it’s a debate about what you made of the series as a whole as well as what you make of the filmmaking. It’s nerdy, it’s literary, it’s definitely what I want from my television. That said, there’s no debate in my mind: Tony is dead.
Where to Watch: HBOMax
Fleabag starts out as the story of a self-destructive, self-loathing young woman detonating with grief after the deaths of her mother and her best friend. She alienates everyone close to her, but she does it while narrating it all quite wittily through fourth-wall-breaking asides to the camera. But what separates Fleabag from the Ferris Buellers of the world is the way her creator and portrayer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, uses the device. She lies to us sometimes, confesses to us other times, and it isn’t until she commences an affair with a priest in the second and final season that we realize—when he seems to actually spot her doing the fourth-wall-breaking—that it’s a dissociative mechanism for her. She checks out of her own life when it gets too hard, and she does it by talking to us. When the priest ultimately chooses God and she chooses to walk away from us, it makes for a flawless, strangely hopeful ending to a short, perfect show.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
How It Happened: ‘Newhart’ Finale at 30: Bob Newhart reveals the surprising true story behind the sitcom’s classic surprise ending
Newhart reveals that the finale’s wife-swapping twist was his real-life wife’s idea—three years before the show went off the air. “It always presents a problem for people when they’re writing that final show,” Newhart said. “I remember on The Big Bang Theory, I talked to Chuck Lorre, and they weren’t sure how to end the show. I said, ‘Well, I’ve had a great deal of success waking up in bed with my wife!’”
Where to Read: Yahoo!
Further Listening: ‘Talking Sopranos’
The Talking Sopranos podcast goes out with a bang as co-hosts (and Sopranos stars) Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa talk to creator David Chase about the series finale, “Made in America,” posing the immortal question: Is Tony dead?
Where to Listen: Simplecast.com