A discussion of best TV series finales always turns to the whiplash classics, the ones that change everything that came before. "St. Elsewhere", for example, or "Newhart." ("It was all a dream!") A discussion of the worst ones always turns, well, to "Seinfeld."
Welcome to the month of May, when we're bound to see new examples of both, the worst and the best. Expectations are riding especially high this year with the upcoming series finale of "Lost", a show that has always had a history of answering questions with new questions. Personally, I fully expect a Lostie mob with pitchforks coming 'round the bend. (Not onscreen. In real life. LindeCuse: prepare yourselves.)
But what really makes a good finale? It's a tricky balance. To me, a successful finale needs to provide some sense of closure without shutting every door, and honor its characters' history while they're still growing or changing or moving forward in some way.
Hard? Yes. Impossible? No, because think of the finales that have successfully done it in the past decade:
(Note: Spoilers ahead for shows that ended at least a year ago, probably more. If you haven't gotten to them yet, don't say I didn't warn you.)
"Six Feet Under." That last gorgeous montage, flashing forward to the deaths of all the major Fishers, was breathtaking. For a show that gave us ending after ending, it wouldn't have been right not to show us the endings for the characters we were most invested in, and the way the writers managed it was awfully impressive. Do I remember what happened in the rest of that finale? No, I do not, but do I need to? The show got uneven along the way, but it sure redeemed itself in those few beautiful minutes. "Breathe Me," indeed.
"Pushing Daisies." Oh, poor Daisies. Always a bit too quirky, victimized by the writers' strike, much beloved by the kind of people who don't actually watch that much television and therefore aren't exactly prime advertiser bait. Its colors and plots and tone were all way over the top, but the one thing it always did beautifully was lavish attention on its characters. So it brought those characters into new places during its finale, changing their situations without changing them. Ned and Chuck and the aunts and Emerson and Olive all got their happy endings that were also beginnings. Delightfully meta stuff.
"Arrested Development." Speaking of meta. A fabulous, twisty, hilarious finale constantly commenting on the fact that it was a finale. Such a bright and bitter show deserved nothing less. One would hope that afterward many Fox execs muttered Gob's most famed line under their collective breath: "I've made a huge mistake."
(Also note that when you type "I've made" into Google, "a huge mistake" is the first suggestion. Steve Holt!)
So there are certainly successes to point to, but what about the failures? Aren't there plenty of those too? Why, yes, there certainly are. And they include:
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer." There are some excellent elements in the series finale, "Chosen", but they are all scotched by the awful ones. The good: activating all the "potentials" so that the entire concept of "in each generation there is one" is blown out of the fricking water. Brilliant. The bad that eradicated the good: Spike, in his entirety. Isn't there a little bit of an issue when the ultimate grrl-power show gives its final glowing spotlight over to an asswipe rapist male vampire to save the day? GAH. Now I'm pissed off just thinking about it. Thanks, show.
"Battlestar Galactica." Okay, I admit it: part of my distaste for the BSG finale stems from the absolutely unrelenting bleak tone of that final half-season, which took a show I loved and turned it into a show I still wanted to watch but dreaded the actual act of watching. The finale was no different. Not nearly enough answers (Kara just VANISHES? What, are you KIDDING me?) and a rushed resolution that spent too much time on the people we didn't care about and not enough on the people we did. And by people, of course I mean Cylons. All this has happened before, all this will happen again.
"Deadwood." We all thought there were going to be a couple of HBO-produced movies to wrap up the loose ends. We were wrong. It was an OK finale at the time, but in retrospect it becomes a whole lot worse, what with all the focus on Langrische and his stupid theatre company -- an argument that could have been made for the whole season, of course, but particularly egregious when you're at the end and you want to know what happened to the main characters, not the peripheral decoration. Not to mention: the bad guys win. Not even Al, our "bad" guy who's actually good in most senses, but Hearst. Hearst! It took me years to look at Gerald McRaney again without thinking in utterly profane Deadwood-speak.
As for the current crop of finales coming up, many of them will probably focus on leaving the doors open, in the vein of "Sex and the City" or "The X-Files." "24" will certainly do that, since Jack Bauer movies are already under discussion. But "Lost" is riskier, given that it's been questiony for its entire existence. Will the finale have answers for us, or only more questions? Time will tell... or not.
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY
more about jael mchenry
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
michelle von euw
5.5.10 @ 10:45a
Oh, great list! You are 100% right about "Six Feet Under." I am keeping my original TiVo because of those last six minutes. And you are so right about both Buffy and Battlestar. I'd add Veronica Mars to the crash & burn finales list.
Greatest finales, for me, also include "Everwood" (which, the upside of cancelling a show too early due to a network merger is that it went out on a really high note) and "The Wire," which was just as perfect a show as TV can be, and despite the fact that its episode order was cut at the end, rushing the newspaper plotline too much, all the characters we'd loved during the four seasons got their due at the end. I also loved the last "Alias," with SpyDaddy's insanely heroic death, but that's a bit more controversial.
5.6.10 @ 9:50a
Alias almost made this list! The awesomeness of SpyDaddy was the main thing I remembered, but when I went back and read about it, it reminded me how much I hated the direction of that season, with Vaughn being all "I'm not Vaughn" and too much Faux Sloane and immortality and characters we didn't care about, so that the things being wrapped up felt like the wrong things. Except Garber. Sigh, Garber.
5.6.10 @ 10:15a
For the record, the Seinfeld finale was only truly awful in comparison to the overall quality of the show. Taken in a vacuum, it was probably still better than at least 50% of all series finales, historically.
And I recently went back and watched the "Sports Night" finale. Wow. Way to go out on a high note.
5.7.10 @ 8:35a
Certainly the better the show is, the more disappointing the series finale has the potential to be. I don't think people get all het up about the finale of shows like, I dunno, Dirty Sexy Money. But the argument I heard about Seinfeld is that it was such an unsatisfying future for the characters.
Oh, I love Sports Night. One of the few series I actually have on DVD. Will have to rewatch Quo Vadimus.
katherine (aka clevertitania)
5.8.10 @ 10:03p
I wanna jump back a bit and give props to Moonlighting. When they realized they had Dave and Maddie'd us to death, they went out in their typical self-referential/self-deprecating way, and honestly admitted they screwed up. Agnes chewing Dave and Maddie out was a moment to behold.
5.10.10 @ 5:18p
I thought everyone abandoned Moonlighting after they put Dave and Maddie together and destroyed the show? I remember it devolving into a self-referential mess.
5.13.10 @ 9:17a
Mike, I definitely slipped away during Moonlighting's downhill slide, so now I'm curious to go back and watch the finale -- not sure I ever did. Thanks for the tip, Katherine!
5.22.10 @ 12:34a
CBS News had a segment this evening on the series finale of the Newhart show from the '80s, calling it one of the best finales ever. In case you don't recall it (I didn't), in the last scene Bob wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife in his first series in the '70s. Turns out the '80s series was one big, weird dream likely caused by eating too much Japanese food the night before.