Endings Are Hard: Famous and Infamous
Television Series Finales
by Louis Hare, Guilty Pleasures Host
As famed television enthusiast Charles Dickens once wrote, “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” And so here we are, at the end of another television season, ready for a fresh slate of partings with some beloved characters and the worlds with which they inhabit. While every year features its share of heavy-hitters taking their final bow, 2019 is seeing the end to two particularly notable programs. The first, and most obvious is HBO’s Game of Thrones. The anticipation for the final season has taken up so much of the cultural conversation, you’d think it was the only show ending this year. But lost in its wake is the final season of TV’s actual #1 show, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, which also wraps us its highly successful run this week. It’s perhaps a sign of the times when broadcast television’s highest-rated show can wrap up a 12-season run and we can barely muster a “Bazinga!” We’re a long way from the days of Cheers & Seinfeld. Underneath these shows are a collection of critical darlings (Veep, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Mr. Robot), cultural touchstones (Broad City, Orange is the New Black), cult favorites (Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and shows that make you ask “oh, was that still on?” (Homeland, Elementary, Fuller House). While these shows run a wide range of genres, they are united by the same burning question: how should they end? The pressure to “stick the landing,” or, in non-sports terms, provide an ending that will properly honor the series and satisfy the fanbase, is one that grows stronger every year. One wrong step, and your years-long, lovingly-crafted story gets reduced to memes and reductive Twitter takes, a lesson Game of Thrones is learning the hard way this week. So while we wait anxiously to see how our favorite shows handle their dismount, let’s take a look at some of the most famous and infamous finales of all time and the lessons future show-runners can take from them.
Sometimes the framework of your show is such that an “Everyone Goes Their Separate Ways” approach is the way to go. This approach works so well because characters’ reflection of the end of an era and their tearful goodbyes serve as their own meta-commentary. It’s essentially two good-byes in one. While most work or school-based shows do this to some degree, the best examples of this are typically shows about fictional television programs, where the show-within-a-show is cancelled (see: 30 Rock, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Larry Sanders Show). Less successful are shows where we watch friends say goodbye and part for reasons that don’t extend much beyond “it was time to wrap the show up” (see, well, Friends). Still, the most obvious and effective use of the approach is the M*A*S*H finale. Audiences knew that the Korean War couldn’t last forever (the show had already run 8 years longer than the actual war), so anticipation was high for the moment when the 4077 were finally sent home. Still the most watched episode of scripted television ever, M*A*S*H masters the bittersweet tone many finales would attempt, watching beloved characters part ways while we know they’re on to better things (except for those who signed up for AfterMASH). The best finales typically offer a blend of closure and catharsis. Before big finales became a thing, M*A*S*H understood this and brought it in spades, as best summed up in this iconic final image:
Lesson: If it makes sense, having the characters say goodbye to each other can be the best way for us to say goodbye to them.
For an example of the “Everyone Goes Their Separate Ways” idea gone terribly wrong, look no further than the Chuck finale. Perpetually on the bubble, Chuck was willed into a final season by a fervently supportive fan-base wanting a proper finale. What they got was a final episode where the love of Chuck’s life gets amnesia and can’t remember anything about him, his best friend moves out, his sister moves away, his super-spy partner leaves to roam the earth and his spy agency closes. Good times! The final scene shows Chuck explaining to his now-wife how they fell in love and ends with a kiss that Chuck hopes will bring back her memory. Does it? WE DON’T KNOW BECAUSE THEY FADE TO BLACK. This is a perfect example of the “open to interpretation” trap that many finales fall into and it never works (all the side-eye to The Sopranos). Even with the rosiest interpretation of what happens after the fact, this is a staggeringly downbeat note to end what was, up to this point, a breezy, fun action/comedy.
Lesson: There’s a fine line between bittersweet and outright depressing.
Search any “Best & Worst TV Finales” article (this is a Famous and Infamous TV Finales article – totally different!), and you’re bound to find Seinfeld. The only question is which list does it end up on? A pioneer in the realm of divisive finales, the final episode sees Jerry and company thrown in jail and put on trial for failing to help a man who’s being robbed, opting instead to provide detached commentary, as they’ve done in so many other situations before. For that, they are sentenced to 1 year in prison. The show ends with the 4 leads in a jail cell engaging in the same mundane conversations they’ve always had, seemingly learned very little. While many audience members were furious over the lack of traditional resolution to the series (one could only imagine what 1998 Twitter would’ve looked like), it’s hard to argue that the show didn’t stay true to its mission statement of “no hugging, no learning.” While most finales lean hard into sentimentality, Seinfeld stayed aggressively anti-sentimental to the bitter end. Audiences had been conditioned for a feel-good moment at the end of a series, but in the case of Seinfeld, that would’ve felt more out of place than a puffy shirt on The Today Show (some went so far as to theorize a wedding between Jerry & Elaine and I don’t have the energy to tell you how wrongheaded that would’ve been). It’s not a coincidence that most of the other divisive finales in history show a struggle between what the fans of a show think the show was about versus what the creators felt the show was actually about. Seinfeld would later be joined by Lost and How I Met Your Mother to complete the Holy Trinity of Fan Outrage. These are the type of finales that make sense thematically, but don’t provide the kind of closure fans were expecting, and are thus debated into eternity. Without adding to the mountain of think pieces already dedicated to these three, I genuinely appreciate each of them for making choices that stay consistent with the show’s core principles and feel that the more time that passes, the better these finales age for anyone who goes back to revisit them. The fact that Seinfeld has crept onto some “Best” lists in recent years bears this out. Perhaps the event-style nature of the episode led to a hype that a show about morally dubious characters could never satisfyingly pay off in the immediate moment. Good thing we don’t have any shows like THAT this year…
Lesson: If you’re going to stick to your artistic guns, you may want to stay off the internet.
If one good thing came of the 2018 reboot of Roseanne – and it’s honestly looking like it’s just one - it was the banishment of this episode and the season proceeding it to the attic where The Brady Bunch’s Cousin Oliver and Family Matters’ Judy Winslow have resided for decades. After a season where Roseanne wins the lottery (yep), Jackie is wooed by a prince played by Jim Varney (uh-huh) and an Under Siege 2-inspired episode called “Roseambo” (not a typo), the final episode reveals that the entire last season was all a dream. Not only that, but Dan’s dead, Becky’s actually with David, Darlene’s actually with Mark, Jackie’s gay, Mom’s straight and everyone’s still poor. Because admitting the failures of the final season would’ve been too much for Roseanne’s ego to take, she doubles down on virtually everything that the audience was previously invested in and said “Whoops, none of that was real, either.” It’s such a wrong-headed move I’m surprised Roseanne hasn’t blamed this on Ambien too.
Lesson: If you’re going to ask an audience to invest years in your show, don’t retcon everything in the final scene. Also, Under Siege 2 should not be inspiration for anything, ever.
For once, corporate greed does some good! After NBC cancelled the show following a poor performing (and poorly received) seventh season, ABC studios (who owned the show) swooped in to add one more season to an already robust syndication package (they would do this again with an ill-conceived 9th season, but if creator Bill Lawrence can call it a separate show, I can too). The show underwent some budget cuts, leading to a stripped-down season that was reminiscent of the show’s origins, including the more balanced tone between silly and serious. The finale sees J.D. leave Sacred Heart and grapple with the future. He gets moments with each of the main characters that feel sincere and earned. As J.D. walks out the door, he has two last fantasies: one where he walks down the hall surrounded by favorite characters from the show’s run and one where he literally projects his happy future with the other main characters (Parks & Recreation would build off this idea by having its finale be actual flash-forwards showing all the characters’ happy endings). Pure, un-cut fan service? Sure. But it also captured the mix of fantasy and sentimentality that the show perfected, lost for a bit, but regained at the best possible moment.
Lesson: Happy endings and fan service can work, and always remember why your audience loved the show in the first place.
Hey, remember that show with the dinosaur puppets and the cute baby? Aww, yeah, that’s the one. Now, what would happen if they all died? In what may be the ballsiest finale ever, the TGIF-staple about anthropomorphic dinosaurs decided that its final episode would be a great time to adhere to historical accuracy. Through sitcom shenanigans, the Sinclair family (and the rest of the planet) find themselves facing extinction via the impending Ice Age. Unlike typical sitcom shenanigans, things don’t go back to normal and the end of the episode is the entire family silently acknowledging their inevitable, imminent death. Don’t believe me? Just watch.
No wonder I’m into Game of Thrones, I watched a cute baby dinosaur about to starve/freeze to death on Friday night primetime!
Lesson: It’s fine to want to make a statement about climate change, but dude, know your audience.
Despite our desire for massive events in our story-telling, sometimes we just want to know that the characters we’ve grown to love will keep living their lives and be just fine. The best example of this (and arguably the greatest finale ever) is Cheers. Going into the episode, most of the hype centered around the return of Shelly Long and the teasing of a possible Sam & Diane “Happily Ever After.” This turns out to be a clever misdirect, as Sam returns to the bar, having realized that they were forcing a romance that had long since passed. With closure on the last dangling plot thread tied up, the final act is free to be exactly what it needs to be: the main characters sitting around talking with each other, bonding over drinks and cigars before calling it a night, literally and metaphorically. No major plot revelations, just elegant character moments. The beauty of it is that while it’s a farewell to us, it’s not a farewell to each other. The characters have grown and find themselves moving to new chapters in their lives (Woody gets elected to city council, Norm gets a job), but they’ll be back at Cheers tomorrow to talk about it. While the show may be over, in our minds, Cheers will always be there and so will its patrons. So many shows feel the need to blow everything up (see below) that over 25 years later, this understated approach still feels revelatory. And “Sorry, we’re closed” is the greatest last line in TV history.
Lesson: Sometimes, less is more. Trust your characters.
A good rule of thumb is that if the final season has been a mess, don’t expect much better from the finale (see: Roseanne). Dexter’s quality had waned over the course of its last few seasons before bottoming out in its last batch of episodes. But while the bar was certainly low for the final chapter of the once-beloved serial killer, this hour of television sets a new standard for jaw-dropping incompetence. There are so many wrong decisions made in this episode, in retrospect it feels like either an avant-garde stunt or merely an epic troll-job. To recap: While on the run from the law, Dexter gives custody of his son to his girlfriend and fellow murderer Hannah so the two can escape to Argentina. Dexter murders the big-bad of the season, who is so unimportant I won’t even bother to Google his name (we’ll say Mark. Cool? Cool.). Then, after initially surviving a gunshot, Dexter’s sister Deb suffers a stroke and is now brain dead. So, in his final kill, Dexter takes Deb off life support, steals her body from the hospital and, in the MIDDLE OF A HURRICANE, dumps it in the ocean. He then drives his boat into the storm to die. But in a final, inexplicable twist, Dexter survives! We find him in what appears to be Oregon with a full-on crisis beard and a new job as a lumberjack. I really wish any of what I had just typed was a joke. Setting aside the false equivalency of euthanasia with murder, it is flabbergasting that anyone involved thought this would resemble a satisfying ending in any way. There is nothing about this episode that resembles the taut, morally ambiguous crime thriller that audiences became obsessed with. Instead, all intelligence is abandoned and lost in one “shocking” plot twist after another. This is not just a botched landing. This is a break-your-leg in three places type of landing. With so many shows leaving us in 2019, one or two is bound to disappoint. Even so, I guarantee the next morning, someone will say “at least it wasn’t Dexter.”
Lesson: If you’re going to have one bad idea, you might as well have all of them.
Lou Hare is an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Lou is the host of Guilty Pleasures on the Front Row Network and a regular on many other FRN shows. His greatest joy in life is making his friends watch terrible movies and talk about them..... and being a GIF.