The world is still debating the relative merits and detractions of the final episode of Vince Gilligan‘s meth-world saga “Breaking Bad,” with some quarters feeling that the finale was a little too cleanly told while others were filled with the sense of contentment from knowing that the final hour was a satisfying conclusion to a five-season arc that turned a meek chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) into a ruthless criminal kingpin. There are few, probably, who would take the stance that the last hour of “Breaking Bad” was one of the best series finales ever (or one of the worst). It simply was what it was. An efficiently told, occasionally silly hour of television that tied up a number of loose ends (maybe too many), while still leaving room for small areas of speculation and mystery. But as divisive as the episode might have been, it is nothing compared to the series finales of yore.
In many ways, series finales are like breakups, or maybe deaths, since you have usually been with a show for many years. In that time, you grow to have a relationship with that show, overlook some of its flaws, make excuses for its shortcomings (it was going through a rough patch in season 3!) and look forward to it week after week, even if you know it’s bad for you. For most of us, the time we spent, say, puzzling over “Lost” far eclipses the amount of work we’ve ever put into an actual relationship. Which speaks volumes. But still.
All good things must come to an end and even if we are living through the “second golden age of television,” these series will too have to come to a close at some point, with a number of high-profile shows (among them: “True Blood” and “Mad Men“) coming to a hopefully fruitful conclusion in the next couple of years. Parting is such sweet sorrow, especially if it’s a show on cable. Below, you can find the finales that left us satisfied and the ones that let us down.
The Best Finales
“The Wire” (“-30-,” original airdate: March 9, 2008)
Despite the widespread acknowledgement that it came at the end of weakest of the show’s five seasons, “The Wire” finale still earns its stripes for how it gracefully rounded off the epic Baltimore procedural that even now remains an unassailable touchpoint for many of us here. After all, even Peter Griffin’s hypnotically induced mantra ” ‘Breaking Bad’ is the best TV show I’ve ever seen,” has to be qualified with “except maybe ‘The Wire.’ ” Of course a great series doesn’t necessarily mean a great finale—in fact, where a film derives a lot of its shape and its purpose from the fact that it ends, a TV show is kind of defined by having to carry on; one of the obvious reasons why so many finales disappoint the loyal fan base is that they feel artificial to the format. But “The Wire,” which had time called on it by its creator David Simon (who’s become somewhat crotchety at all the adulation after the fact), performed its dismount well because quite aside from the practical business of tying up the season’s plot points, it revisited everything that had made the show what it was and never fell into the trap of trying to dazzle us with last-minute pyrotechnics. Instead in the feature-length final episode we got an intelligent, understated ending, one that played to the great strength of episodic TV and to the great, great strength of this particular show: the sense that the situations and characters were real and alive outside those 60-minute glimpses that we all devoured so avidly. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that after a less-than-convincing fifth season (boo to McNulty’s fake serial killer, among other issues), the finale in many ways gave us our show back. A great deal of that happened during the elegiac grace note montage, as McNulty (Dominic West) looks out over Baltimore, that touches briefly on so many of those unforgettably real characters, some of whom we hadn’t seen for seasons (even the dockland mafiosi from the almost self-contained Season 2 get their moment). In some cases they’re seen in a moment of change or achievement, but mostly it’s just a sliver of their lives, lives that we can somehow believe go on, through more ups and downs and bits in between, even though we’re not watching them anymore. Anyway, we see enough to know what probably happens next: the new generation will play out a lot like the last one, because the more the game done changed, the more the game done stayed the same.
“Six Feet Under” (“Everyone’s Waiting,” original airdate: August 21, 2005)
Sure, there are all sorts of things that happen in the last episode of “Six Feet Under,” written and directed by series creator Alan Ball, including tons of great ghost Nate moments (which are always good), but what the final episode of the series will forever be remembered for are its last few moments. As Claire finally leaves the funeral home (and the family), she starts to cry, and we do too: moments begin to flash by as she’s driving away, first of the events and milestones that are coming up, some of which she will miss (Brenda and Nate’s baby’s first birthday, her gay brother David’s wedding) and then, the stab-you-in-the-heart kicker that’s only befitting a shot called “Six Feet Under”—every… character’s… death. The deaths are varied (one character drops dead on a cruise ship, another is shot in an armed robbery), but always end with the show’s signature fade to white (and the character’s name and birth and death date). It’s absolutely devastating (the Sia song doesn’t exactly help matters), punctuated, at the very end, by Claire’s own death, a fitting juxtaposition as she embarks on really starting her life. As the final moments for a show obsessed with death, it’s utterly perfect, and as a comment on the nature of series finales, it’s even better: there is no door left unopened, no possibility for spin-offs or movie adaptations. You saw how everyone, and not just the series itself, ended, in a spectacularly sad way. This was the ultimate bit of Alan Ball audacity, one that turned out to be a stunning ode to mortality and all of the experiences we collect in our long journey towards the grave; if you weren’t openly weeping, then you probably weren’t watching.
“Angel” (“Not Fade Away,” original airdate: May 19, 2004)
The entire final season of Joss Whedon’s brilliant, deeply underrated “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spin-off “Angel” felt like it was running on borrowed time, even with a fresh transfusion of creative genius. With its sister show cancelled the previous year, “Angel” got some of that show’s cast members and best writers and used the opportunity to drastically reinvent itself; instead of a kind of supernatural detective series, it became a whacked-out lawyer show, like “L.A. Law” meets “Tales from the Crypt.” And the results were nothing short of brilliant. For its finale, the series, which never had the kind of budget or scope of ‘Buffy,’ instead focused inward on character, and the result, while lacking the bombast of the ‘Buffy’ finale, felt infinitely more satisfying. Soulful vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), finally fed up with the deal with the devil he made (with a law firm ominously named Wolfram & Hart), decides to break his contract and take down the company, once and for all. This involve lots and lots of hellish monsters breaking loose, and all sorts of painful double crosses (one, involving lovable demon Lorne, played by the dearly departed Andy Hallett, is one of the most simple, emotionally devastating reversals in the long, sad history of Whedon-orchestrated emotionally devastating reversals). Some of our heroes (including Wesley, played by Alexis Denisof) didn’t make it to the end, and those that did were compromised but ultimately fighting the good fight. That was the message of “Angel” overall: never stop fighting. Or, in the words of Angel, during what can only be described as a cliffhanger both frustrating and triumphant, “Personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon.”
“Friday Night Lights” (“Always,” original airdate: February 9, 2011)
The finale to “Friday Night Lights,” which limped along, first on NBC and then on satellite channel DirecTV for five-ish seasons, satisfied on every possible level—emotionally, intellectually, viscerally. Those of us who watched the episode did so through a wavy curtain of tears, certain that we were seeing the end of one of the very best dramatic series on television. In the oversized episode (it runs a full hour on the DVD), the concerns of the show, both macro (the small town of Dillon, Texas’ rival football programs, now consolidated once more into one unstoppable team) and the micro (the relationship between Kyle Chandler‘s Coach and his wife Tami, played by Connie Britton), were brilliantly seen to their logical, heart-tugging conclusion. There’s a lot of stuff in the finale, including one time football star Matt (Zach Gilford) asking young Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) to marry him, plus the swarm of controversy and attention that the new “super team” gets from the local media (much to the chagrin of Michael B. Jordan‘s wrong-side-of-the-tracks player), but what the finale makes perfectly clear is that none of that matters. What the finale double-underlines is that all the high school sports drama (and occasional misstep, remember season two’s weird murder plot?) was merely window dressing for one of the most evocatively drawn portraits of marriage ever committed to television. In the final episode, we see Coach give up his career pursuits, which have steered the direction of his marriage for many years, in order to be a loving and supportive partner for his wife. In the grand scheme of finales, it’s kind of tiny. But it’s also deeply profound. This was a marriage full of push and pull and the longer it went on the more you felt like you were actually a part of it; the fact that the series didn’t just end on a happy note but a note that felt emotionally real might be its greatest accomplishment. Thankfully talk of a follow-up movie (reportedly involving Buddy becoming Dillon’s premiere football coach) have fallen by the wayside, leaving only this peerless finale behind. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
“Twin Peaks” (“Episode 29” aka “Beyond Life and Death,” original airdate: June 10, 1991)
Rumor has it that David Lynch, who had launched the buzzy and bizarre series the previous year only to see the phenomenon prematurely flame out due to network interference and general audience listlessness, rewrote large chunks of the finale screenplay that was credited in the end to series co-creator Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels. And over the years, this seems to have been verified, with Lynch having the biggest impact on the adventures FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has in the Black Lodge, an interdimensional halfway house with a groovy zigzag carpet. Rewatching the episode, a shocking percentage of the episode takes place in this surreal plateau, which is alternately terrifying and hilarious (the two Agent Coopers, running around the heavily curtained Red Room is too silly not to laugh at). Critics and audiences revolted against “Twin Peaks” once the show’s central mystery (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”) was resolved halfway through the second season (at the network’s insistence; Lynch wanted the mystery to continue forever), but without that premature resolution, the show would have never been able to spiral out of control so beautifully. The “Twin Peaks” series finale is chock full of some of the most terrifying and indelible imagery Lynch has conjured forth, in any medium, and even the non-Black Lodge flourishes Lynch provided are seared into our collective memory (like the jaw-dropping bank explosion, punctuated with an unforgettable shot of a pair of eyeglasses, accompanied by a $100 bill, soaring through the air). The fact that this episode of “Twin Peaks,” untitled but given the moniker “Beyond Life and Death” when it aired in Europe, ended in possibly the biggest, greatest cliffhanger in the history of series finales (Agent Cooper, possessed by the demonic murderer Bob!) is only amplified by the fact that the follow-up film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” didn’t even bother answering of the questions. Instead, it was a prequel that was equal parts horror movie and emotionally incisive investigation into the familial and psychological dynamics of child abuse, and it made the series finale seem like an even ballsier act of singularly strange outrageousness. Lynch was wise to throw away the more plot-based beats that the script originally contained; it’s his crazy, freeform version that has made such a lasting impression. ‘Fire Walk With Me’ isn’t too shabby either.
“30 Rock” (“Last Lunch,” original airdate: January 31, 2013)
Oftentimes “30 Rock,” Tina Fey‘s brilliant send-up of her time working for “Saturday Night Live,” was so gleefully bizarre that it lacked any real emotional connection; it might as well have been beamed in from a neighboring galaxy. Thankfully, the absurd and the emotionally resonant sat side-by-side for the finale, which saw the show-within-a-show “TGS” facing its final episode, something that Tracy (Tracy Morgan) wants to ruin in order to exploit a contractual loophole that would award him a sizable payday (he has Al Roker announce a “snowicane”). In its typical ribby, winking fashion, “30 Rock” acknowledges and pokes fun at finales of the past (even making a reference to the “sideways nonsense” of “Lost“) and the tropes it had established over the past seven seasons (at one point Jane Krakowski, on the verge of some nutty Mickey Rourke joke, looks into the camera and says, “I can’t do this anymore, I’ve never even met Mickey Rourke”), culminating in a gag that pays tribute to the infamous “St. Elsewhere” ending, while still fortifying a strong emotional base. Liz (Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) are facing a fallout after the previous episode ended in Jack telling Liz, “I called you in for one meeting, seven years ago, and you keep coming up,” which leads some to believe that Jack is suicidal. The episode is alternately odd (Jack giving away a bag of his own hair is priceless) and oddly affecting, sometimes at the same time—witness Jenna’s performance of a musical number from the “Rural Juror” Broadway show or, in a callback to the pilot, Liz’s heartfelt goodbye to Tracy in a sleazy stripclub (bonus points for Tracy’s great line, “Give it up for Liz Lemon, the least molested person in here!”). The finale of “30 Rock” made you mist up, in spite of yourself, even during the montage dedicated to Jenna’s mirror.
“Enlightened” (“Agent of Change,” original airdate: March 3, 2013)
The title of the series finale of Mike White‘s short-lived, little-watched but much-missed (by the few who did see it, at least) “Enlightened,” serves as a nice summing-up of the series. Throughout the show’s two seasons, Laura Dern‘s Amy Jellicoe has set out to be the titular agent of change—fresh out of rehab, she wants to be a better person, and to make a better world. That she’s, for the most part, a deeply self-centered, terrible human being isn’t that much of an obstacle to this, and in the final episode, she finally gets something done. The article by journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) that she turned informant on her company for is published, something that will cause serious legal issues for Cogentiva and CEO Charles Szidon (James Rebhorn). When written and filmed, it wasn’t clear that this would be the series finale, and as such, there are some dangling plot threads, not least Szidon’s threats of legal action against Amy, which would have provided the kernel for season three. But the writing was on the wall in terms of ratings, so White does provide a deeply satisfying finale that both calls Amy on her bullshit (her mother, played by Dern’s real life ma Diane Ladd, finally asks her to move out, pal Tyler hangs up on her), and lets her have the triumph that she deserves, even as she comes so close to fucking it up for herself once again. It’s the perfect microcosm of the show as a whole, and while it’s a shame that the series didn’t go further, it would have had a touch act living up to this ending.
“Freaks & Geeks” (“Discos and Dragons,” original airdate: July 8, 2000)
“Paul [Feig] was supposed to direct one of the first episodes, and at the last second I pulled him off it because we weren’t in a groove with the staff writing the show yet, and it was so much Paul’s vision that he couldn’t disappear. Then when I realized the show was probably going to get canceled, I said to Paul, ‘You should write and direct this finale.’ And it’s clearly the best episode of the entire series,” producer Judd Apatow recounted to Vanity Fair earlier this year. And while we’ll leave debate of “best episode” to the fans to hash out, “Discos and Dragons” is a prime example of what happens when real care and vision about the characters is allowed to be fully realized. So much about “Freaks & Geeks” and its all-too-short, gone-too-soon single season was capturing lightning in a bottle, but for the few who watched it during it original run and even more who caught up with it on DVD, they couldn’t have asked for a better, more heartfelt sendoff. So much of what made “Freaks & Geeks” special was its authentic portrait of teenage-hood, and the continual journey of trying to find and define oneself. And thus there is something truly touching about the super-cool Daniel Desario and Sam and his gaggle of geeks finding validation in each other’s presence over a game of “Dungeons & Dragons.” Meanwhile, the ever lost Nick (Jason Segel) tries to find a new purpose in the fading trend of disco, a favorite of his new girlfriend Sara (Lizzy Caplan). But rightfully, it’s Lindsay (Linda Cardellini)—the center of the show—who makes the biggest decision, one that could forever alter the path of her life. Invited to a prestigious academic summit, she instead ditches the pressure and responsibility to join some new friends who are spending the summer following the Grateful Dead. But Feig wisely doesn’t judge her behaviour or any of the characters. “Freaks & Geeks” succeeded because it knew that sometimes we don’t win in life, we make the wrong choices and have to fight to find our place in it all. The finale is truly satisfying because it didn’t attempt to tie everything up in a neat bow. Instead, mistakes, small salvations and questionable choices sign off the series, with the faint but distinct hope that as long as these characters are around each other, they’ll come out alright in the end.
“Futurama” (“Meanwhile,” original airdate: September 4, 2013)
Technically, “Futurama” has ended for good twice: first way back in August of 2003 and then, more than a decade later, after being revived for a series of direct-to-video movies and original episodes on cable. Unlike the first time, the “Futurama” crew knew that this would probably be the end, and fashioned it appropriately: the Planet Express gang return to the Moon, the site of their first delivery together (“We’re whalers on the moon, we carry a harpoon…”) and, thanks to a glitch in the space time continuum caused by one of Professor Farnsworth’s crackpot inventions, imagines Fry and Leela’s life together until they grow very, very old. The best episodes of “Futurama” mix the bittersweet with the genuinely bananas, and this episode is no different. While the episode culminates in a beautiful, nearly wordless exploration of love and the passage of time, gorgeously animated and wonderfully written, it also includes a looping (almost to the point of repetition) gag involving Fry’s attempted suicide (he jumps off the Vampire State Building). There’s also a running joke about a ten dollar bill Zoidberg finds and subsequently loses. The genuinely touching and haunting image of Fry and Leela, walking hand in hand across a frozen ocean, is one of the most heartbreaking moments the show had ever committed, and the final idea of Fry and Leela reliving their love one more time (at the cost of remembering their time together) is a testament to the show’s inherent romanticism and winky metatextuality, as it suggests that the last ten years has been a kind of cosmic redo following their initial cancellation. If this is the last we ever see of the “Futurama” gang (and, barring some act of the Space Pope, it will be), then what a way to go out on. For realzies this time.
“The Shield” (“Family Meeting,” original airdate: November 25, 2008)
Very few shows start out great and get even better. Such is the case for “The Shield,” which featured a moment in the pilot—where corrupt cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) takes out a fellow officer he suspects of being a rat—that set viewers on edge and elevated it to an immediate talking point for anyone who would become a fan of the show. As the years went on, however, Internal Affairs would bear down on Mackey and his crew, investigating every single dollar and drug that went missing under their watch, give or take an Armenian money train or two. But most importantly, “The Shield” never forgot its roots, closing with an episode that wraps up that single shot fired by Mackey into the temple of a fellow officer. The pressure becomes overwhelming for the Strike Team to turn on each other, and with longstanding member Lem (Kenneth Johnson) now dead, the noose is tightening. That last hour is one gut-punch after another: Lem’s murderer, the unhinged Shane (Walton Goggins, excellent), takes his entire family to the grave with him after being haunted by painful guilt, leaving only Vic and unassuming Ronnie (David Rees Snell) left. Except Vic, the baddest bad boy of prime time, has already turned himself in, giving up the rest of the team in order to survive. Poor Ronnie is taken into custody as Vic is later seen like an animal in captivity. Years later, he slaves away in a cubicle, isolated from any more crime scenes or police departments. It’s not heaven or hell, but purgatory that Vic finds himself in, the superstar of the LAPD turned into a suit-and-tie lapdog. He still has his gun and his holster, though, upsetting any straight reading one can give of an isolated Vic miles away from police work. Is the beast dead, or at rest?
“The West Wing” (“Tomorrow,” original airdate: May 14, 2006)
The first three seasons of “The West Wing” remain, in our eyes, Aaron Sorkin‘s finest achievement to date—funny, fast, smart and moving television that wasn’t like anything else on the air. But the show had a decidedly imperfect run: an uneven fourth season as Sorkin’s work schedule and extracurricular love for certain substances got the better of him, followed by a near-disastrous fifth season after the creator was removed and new staff awkwardly tried to recapture his voice. But things perked up near the end, as new showrunner John Wells essentially rebooted the show, shifting the focus from the Bartlett White House to the campaign to be next commander-in-chief, fought between Democrat Representative Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and liberal Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). It was a different series, but one that at least deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the golden years, and the two sides were united neatly in the finale, which sees President Bartlett’s last day in office, and the swearing-in of President-elect Santos. Almost every character gets their moment in the sun, even some of the show’s missteps are corrected (the President pardons long-time staffer Toby Ziegler, who’d gone to prison after one of the show’s most ridiculous plotlines), and while it presumably wasn’t in the original plans, the death of series regular John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry until he passed suddenly a few episodes before the show wrapped up, becomes the emotional lynchpin of the finale, giving added emotional weight to proceedings without feeling exploitative. Is it indulgent and sentimental? Sure. But to be anything else would have been false to the sentimental, indulgent and mostly brilliant show that came before it.
The Great Divider
“The Sopranos” (“Made in America,” original airdate: June 10, 2007)
What makes the finale to “The Sopranos” so amazing, particularly as “the great divider” between the good and bad portions of this list, is that the particulars of the actual episode remain fuzzy, even to those who will defend the episode’s merits voraciously. The crux of the great “The Sopranos” finale debate boils down to a few precious minutes, towards the end of the episode, when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is gathered with his family in a diner. The familiar chords of Journey‘s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” starts to play, and the tension becomes palpable (it might as well be sitting in the diner alongside the family). Dread builds and builds, as writer/director/creator David Chase cuts around the diner. Are jack-booted thugs going to come in and wipe out the family? Is Tony going to impart some words of wisdom to his family? Maybe Tony himself will pull out a gun and start shooting? But instead, the music just continues to soar until… blackness. It was this cut to black that caused endless debate and countless online essays, as people either saw it as a visionary work of genius or a misguided, hubristic attempt at artistry that ended up just being a huge fucking copout. However you saw the conclusion to “The Sopranos,” chances are you felt strongly about it, and shared that opinion with anyone who would listen. It’s a testament to Chase’s chutzpah that we’re still discussing the ending today, and the cut to black has become just as indelible a series finale image as a little autistic kid with a snow globe or Bob Newhart waking up in the bed of a different TV wife.
The Worst Finales
“Lost” (“The End,” original airdate: May 23, 2010)
The entire final season of “Lost,” which took place largely in a “sideways” timeline where major events and characters were drastically rewritten (Josh Holloway‘s career criminal Sawyer was now, for some reason, a police detective), was largely a “miss,” weighed down by the series’ clunky, ever-expanding mythology and, unlike “Breaking Bad,” a dogged unwillingness to tie up any loose ends. Both on the island, where the evil Man in Black (Terry O’Quinn) tries to destroy the island which would result in… something happening… and in the sideways timeline, where a beleaguered Jack (Matthew Fox) discovers the truth about what is going on with the characters in this universe, there was a decided lack of dramatic tension and any real thrills. Adding insult to injury was the episode’s two-and-a-half-hour airtime (the final episode runs over 100 minutes) and the fact that the ending most predicted for the series in the first season (They’re all dead!) was actually a component for the finale. In short: it was something of a boondoggle. It can be argued, in some way, that the episode delivered emotionally, with there being something cathartic about seeing almost all of the characters, back together once more, hugging in a multi-denominational church. But what does that ending mean? Especially in the context of the larger episode and world? With the introduction of a pair of bickering deities a couple of seasons earlier, much of the fun and spark of “Lost” went out the window. Instead of coincidence and fate, the show became about two warring white guys, and much of the mystery was replaced by flimsy plotting and awkward pacing, culminating in this final season, which seemed even more directionless than usual. The finale, especially one that was that unbelievably long, was an opportunity to right some of the wrongs from the past few seasons, to cohesively deliver a send-off that was satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level. Instead, neither worked, and “Lost,” what was once thought of as one of the most engaging and entertaining television puzzle-boxes of all time, turned out to be mostly empty inside.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (“Chosen,” original airdate: May 3, 2003)
For some reason writer/director/creator Joss Whedon, in his infinite wisdom, chose to close the story of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in the most annoyingly grandiose fashion imaginable, complete with an army of undead beasties that looked like something out of a deleted scene from “Lord of the Rings.” The resulting mayhem had a requisite number of heartbreaking character deaths (so long, Anya), but failed to ever be all that gripping. Some of the drama was diffused by the premature announcement that lovable British vampire Spike (James Marsters) would be hightailing it to spin-off series “Angel” the following year (making his sacrificial death beyond anticlimactic), other moments were clunkily handled, like Angel’s brief return. And while it was cool to see the Hellmouth finally open up and unleash its demonic minions, some of the special effects were iffy and the episode was weighed down by the general waywardness of the final season, which saw the creative principles devise a Big Bad that didn’t have much meat (literally—it was kind of a ghost) and and overly complicated plot involving an army of “Potentials,” girls who could become Slayers, an idea that wasn’t even introduced until this season. Also, a number of the characters felt weirdly sidelined (why didn’t Dawn finally, you know, show us what a Key is all about?) and the entire episode seemed driven by a need to get to a large-scale battle instead of, in season’s past, a fitful mixture of action and theme. It’s one of the more disappointing finales, series or otherwise, that Whedon has been responsible for; thankfully this was partially rectified by the brilliant “Season 8” comic book that followed. Still, what we’re judging here is the finale itself and ‘Buffy’ was found wanting. Although it was nice to know there’s another Hellmouth in Cleveland.
“Seinfeld” (“The Finale,” original airdate: May 14, 1998)
At its core, the idea behind the final episode of one of the most groundbreaking sitcoms of all time, was a pretty good one. Not only was “Seinfeld” one of the most observant, pop culture trending shows of its day, it also subverted the network notion at the time that characters had be likeable and/or relatable. If anything, Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were neurotic, selfish and mean individuals, and their own self-serving pursuits made for the funniest comedy. But what if, finally, their luck ran out and they existed in a world of real moral consequence? A great concept, but one that is executed with zero of the wit, verve and inventiveness that the show displayed across nine seasons. It’s almost mind-boggling how far the mark is missed with “The Finale,” but the problems with it aren’t hard to point out. With Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer put on trial for failing to intervene in a crime in progress (they videotape it instead, laughing as a fat man gets held-up at gunpoint), the episode is already off to bad start by overpitching the group’s insensitivity to the world around them. And getting them into court is simply an excuse for a fairly tired cameo fest, where every secondary character you can think of across nine seasons is trotted back in front of the camera for greatly diminished returns. For a show that captured life’s little absurdities in hilarious, memorable detail, the final episode of “Seinfeld” almost feels like it’s from a bizarro world version of the show written by Kenny Bania. And then it takes one step worse with a couple “confessions” that retroactively ruin one of the show’s best episodes (“The Contest”) and paints a rather sentimental sheen over the testy relationship between Jerry and Elaine. In many ways, it almost feels like “The Finale” was Jerry Seinfeld and co. lighting a match and going out in a blaze in glory, but it seems they were the only ones in on the joke.
“Alias” (“All the Time in the World,” original airdate: May 22, 2006)
This might have been the first indication that J.J. Abrams was very talented when it came to setting up a mystery but maybe lacked the necessary skills to conclude said mystery in a satisfying manner. For years on “Alias,” his ahead-of-its-time spy series, our heroes had been searching for artifacts from Milo Rambaldi, an ancient mystic who was equal parts Leonardo Da Vinci and Nostradamus. In the final episode, it was revealed that the villainous Sloane (Ron Rifkin) was after the ultimate Rambaldi artifact, one that would allow him to live forever. To which everyone watching since season one would probably snort: duh. Immortality was seemingly always Rambaldi’s endgame, and even after the subplot was mostly removed during the show’s turgid fourth season, it was clear that this was how things would circle back. But what was worse than the totally anti-climactic reveal was that, following all the running around and shouting and people furiously typing into keyboards (commonplace occurrences on the show), the episode ended with a cloying epilogue that recalled the ending of J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” series, a moment so heavy-handed that it almost ruined great chunks of what came before it. Seeing super spy Sidney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a woman possessing great strength and core feminist ideals, sitting with her husband on the beach while her two children play, is not exactly the way you want to leave this character. It was her humility, mixed with her nearly superhuman abilities, that made her such a compelling character. Turning her into a housewife in the series’ final moments seemed like something worse than an affront; it was a flippant fuck-you to all the fans who stayed with the series through its initial creative peaks in the first two seasons, to its dismal lows in the following years. In some ways, a series finale should serve as a reward. This felt more like a punishment.
Other noteworthy finales, for good or bad, include the “Dexter” finale that just aired a couple of weeks ago (and was universally trashed) and the “Battlestar Galactica” finale from a few years ago (which managed to be both wildly entertaining and deeply disappointing). At one point the “M*A*S*H” finale was one of the most-watched broadcasts in the history of television. On the HBO side of things, some were really impressed with the way groundbreaking comedy “The Larry Sanders Show” concluded, while the network’s foul-mouthed western “Deadwood” was prematurely axed, ending with a finale that was never intended as the series’ capper. (There has been talk, off and on, in the years since, of properly concluding it with a movie or series of HBO movies.) Likewise, lovable alien “ALF” ended in an episode that was never meant as the series finale, which scarred an entire generation of children who thought the end of Alf was him getting taken by evil government agents (this was later resolved in a super horrible TV movie). By the time “The X-Files” was over, it was hard to find anyone who could muster up the energy to care about the series’ complex web of interlocking conspiracies and many have pointed out the parallels between the finale of “Cheers” and “Breaking Bad.” In “Cheers,” Ted Danson is left with the realization that the bar, not the two women in his life (Shelley Long and Kirstie Alley), will be his constant companion, which mirrors Walt’s love of the meth lab. And we could have probably done a whole feature on the finale of influential medical drama “St. Elsewhere,” where it’s revealed that the entire series is the product of the overactive imagination of Tommy Westphall, a relatively minor autistic character on the show. The “Westphall Universe,” a theory popularized online, suggests that a number of hugely influential shows actually exist within Westphall’s imagination, due to tangential crossover elements from the series (look it up, it’s pretty weird). Maybe this entire feature exists within an autistic kid’s snow globe. If only…
– Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro