As we approach the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad” and the end of another highly regarded television series, this seems like a good time to consider the best way to bring a TV show to a memorable conclusion.
For the first several decades of television history, wrapping up a television series with a special concluding episode was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Most series were comprised of independent, unconnected episodes that didn’t provide a narrative arc over the course of the series. Consequently, there was nothing to wrap up – the show simply stopped offering new episodes. And since the networks usually didn’t decide until the end of the season whether to bring back a show back for another year, there was rarely an opportunity to produce a series finale anyway.
“The Fugitive” was an early exception to that rule and when Dr. Richard Kimball finally tracked down his wife’s true killer in the series finale, the ratings went through the roof. But it wasn’t until the producers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” decided to quit while they were ahead and end the series after seven quality seasons that the value of a good series finale became apparent. MTM showed that a sentimental send-off could imbue an entire series with an aura of good feelings and burnish the reputation of everyone associated with the project.
A really great ending needs to sum up the overriding ethos of the series and provide a good sense of what the program has been about. Sometimes it’s not even apparent until the last couple of episodes that a series has been “about” anything other than jokes or drama, but usually the impending void does tend to concentrate the mind of the writers and they come up with something.
Of course trying to sum up a series can backfire, which is why the last episode of “Seinfeld” was such a disaster. The series had always had an aversion to sentimentality and the last show built on that, showing how selfish and self-absorbed the characters had been during their nine-year run. Faced with criminal charges for violating a “Good Samaritan” law and not helping a victim in distress, all their sins were laid out in flashbacks at their trial. It was not funny; in fact it was much more misanthropic than the spirit of the show itself had ever been.
Another ending that refused to play by the rules – perhaps the most controversial ending in TV history – was the final scene in “The Sopranos.” When the screen went blank, what was that supposed to mean? Showrunner David Chase has refused to explain himself, however, so the controversy lingers and many fans have taken this final scene as a giant “screw you.”
Series-endings seem to fall into three main buckets:
The Moving On –The series ends with some crucial change in the premise of the show. Sometimes it’s kids graduating (Alex Keaton going to college in “Family Ties” or Theo finishing high school on “The Cosby Show.”) In the MASH finale, (inexplicably still the most-watched non-Super Bowl program of all time), Hawkeye leaves the MASH unit and returns to the States. In “Friends” Chandler and Monica move to the suburbs.
The Soft Landing – These are shows in which a resolution is not necessarily clear and you get the idea that the characters lives will go on more or less as before. “The Sopranos” is clearly in this category (assuming Tony and his family weren’t wacked as some have theorized). In “Cheers,” Sam and Diane do NOT run away together and Sam ends up back at the Cheers bar. In 24, Jack Bauer kills his final terrorist and reconciles with his daughter, but there’s nothing to prevent him from going back to CTU (and indeed, it looks like the show is returning after all.)
Fortune Telling – Occasionally the series will end with a recap of how the main characters will turn out – a coda that always delivers an emotional punch. In “Friday Night Lights,” for example, we learn the future fate of the players and their friends. Only the best shows, the ones in which we have the most invested in the characters, can get away with this.
With that in mind, here are my nominees for the five best series endings:
Aside from “The Sopranos” blank screen (and who could have predicted THAT!) this ending provided what was probably the biggest surprise in series-ending history. For eight years on Newhart,” Bob Newhart played a put-upon Vermont innkeeper but in the final minutes of the show he wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who had portrayed his wife in his first TV series “The Bob Newhart Show.” In other words, the whole series had been a dream by the character in the original “Bob Newhart Show.” This was doubly funny because “St. Elsewhere” had recently wrapped up its own series with the strong implication that the show had all been in the imagination of a young autistic boy. Fans hated the “St. Elsewhere” ending but loved the “Newhart” spoof.
4. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
In the final show a new owner buys WJM-TV and instead of firing the incompetent Ted Baxter, cleans house and gets rid of everyone else. This was the first major series finale that deliberately tried to deliver and emotional impact, as the characters confronted the fact that they would never work together again. The ending also set the tone for every workplace comedy produced since then. Mary asserts that people who work together are a family and as deeply connected as a biological family. To the extent that this show helped establish the philosophical foundation for the intermingling of our work and personal lives, this show has a lot to answer for. At the time, however, it was a fresh and original thought. [Note: you can’t find the final scene on YouTube any longer — alas.]
3. THE WONDER YEARS
This was a series drenched in nostalgia – a show about a guy looking back at his childhood in the 1960’s. Kevin was a young boy at the start of the series and by the final episode he and his friends are nearly grown up. The last scene brings together all the main characters (auspiciously on Independence Day) as the narrator describes what will happen to them in the future. The core of the show had always been about Kevin’s special relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Winnie and in the final words we learn what happens with them. It’s a bittersweet conclusion to a show that never pulled any punches about the ups and downs of life.
2. THE OFFICE
The premise of the series was that a documentary film crew had taped the workplace of the most mundane job in the world – a satellite office of a mediocre paper company. The final episode ostensibly takes place a year after the documentary has finally run and we learn what has happened to the characters during that period. Some retired or moved on but Pam and Jim, the emotional center of the show, are still there. This is depressing because nine years ago, in the pilot, Jim had confessed how much he hated his job. During the course of this episode all the characters’ loose ends are tied up. Dwight the office manager marries Angela the head of the accounting department; Erin finds her birth parents; Nellie adopts a baby; and most important of all, Pam overcomes her fear of change and agrees to move the family to Austin so Jim can rejoin the sports marketing start-up that he and his friends launched. The very final scene hearkens back to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” as the characters ruminate on the value of living an unglamorous life. In the last line of the series Pam observes, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” Yes, that’s exactly the point. You don’t know you’re living the good old days until they’re over.
1. SIX FEET UNDER
For some inexplicable reason, Alan Sepinwall did not include “Six Feet Under” in his book about the great dramas of the last two decades (The Revolution was Televised). Consequently this show does not always come up in conversations about the “Golden Age” of television – a situation that should be rectified. “Six Feet Under” was a show about a frequently dysfunctional family who owned a funeral home; how we live our lives in the constant face of death was its main preoccupation. In the last scene the youngest sibling, Claire, departs for a cross-country drive to New York, where she will finally begin her career. After a tearful goodbye to her family, she starts to play a mix tape that her ex-boyfriend put together for her. Sia’s haunting song “Breathe Me” pours out, and as she drives into the future, we see flash-forwards of the fate of the main characters, including their deaths. After five seasons of pain and suffering, the characters seem destined to have some measure of grace and peace in their futures, but there’s no getting around the fact that they are going to die, just like the rest of us. Drive Claire, dive.
What have I missed?