What makes a good show memorable? Is it characters, the setting, the circumstances? How a good show ends determines its memorability. Almost form the beginning, television producers have used different ways to end popular programs. Some are good, some not so good, but all find their way into public consciousness. Here, I want to discuss the concept of a series finale, and take a look at some of the most memorable.
Obviously, there are way too many television programs for me to name every finale. I will simply have to discuss the ones I know best. I also must make the terminology clear. The words “season” and “series finale” are used primarily in North America, specifically the United States. In the United Kingdom, the word “series” means roughly the same as the American “season,” and the British use “final episode” in place of “series finale.” I say this to make easier for any of you who may be British and might be confused at the content within this article. I will stick with my American teminology.
A series finale, simply put, is the last episode of a television program. But there’s more to it that just that. A finale is typically a planned ending to a show, a conclusion of sorts to the underlying concept that the show presents. Any show can have a last episode, but a finale actually ends the show. Throughout the history of television, several programs have ended, many of them successfully. But finales often take different forms, sometimes producing different results. I categorize finales according to three main groups: finales that recap, finales that finish, and finales that fail.
Several producers take this approach. Instead of ending a show, just celebrate what made the show unique and end on a positive note. These finales are admittedly a little tricky to classify, but the distinction I make is that these do not end the show. Instead of making the car stop at a traffic sign, the car drives off into the sunset. The viewer knows the action ends but never sees it. Thus, the viewer is left with some degree of satisfaction having watched the show from the beginning. Several notable shows have used this format.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)
No, I can’t talk about television unless I mention a Trek somewhere. TNG had the most unique finale of all of them in this sense. The series didn’t properly end. The Enterprise wasn’t destroyed or decommissioned. Captain Picard didn’t die or retire. All of the major cast members remained, even a few old ones returned in cameos.
TNG’s finale, “All Good Things” is perhaps the best example of a recap finale. The plot again visits the Q and the Continuum’s waived judgment on mankind, which is about to proceed. Captain Picard fights the Continuum again, to prove that man is no longer a savage, vicious child-race, worthy of existence in the universe. This echoes the first episode, where such a judgment nearly took place and sums up the essence of TNG. But at the end of the episode, having solved the dilemma in past, present, and future, the Enterprise crew sits down to a game of poker like usual with the ship sailing quietly into the starry sky.
We see the conflict reiterated from episode 1 and brought to its culmination. In a sense, something does end, but the main points of the show do not. Some have speculated this finale was planned this way, because the TNG cast was already slated to appear in a new generation of Trek movies. Perhaps. It would make sense. The actually finale to the Next Generation would occur in the last Trek movie to date, Nemesis, and even those details have yet to fully be seen.
Leave It to Beaver
One of the most classic shows of all time gave us a very definitive recap finale. In Beaver’s finale episode, June finds the family scrapbook while cleaning house. She calls her husband and her sons to come look into the album. The show transitions to various clips of familiar episodes. The rest of the finale is mostly clips. At the end of the montage of clips, June and Ward are seen sitting on the couch. They discuss how so much has happened over the years, and that their boys are nearly grown.
Some call this approach boring, but it’s a finale. A finale doesn’t have to be show-stopping spectacular, especially not a recap finale. It is notable that this was the first sitcom to have a planned finale, and the first to use the “clip show” approach. Other television programs had used finales prior to Beaver, but none of them were sitcoms, and none of them used clips from previous episodes. Through the years, other shows would take this tack, some to end their run, but most would use “clip show” formats just to reminisce about accomplishments during the season.
Everybody Loves Raymond
Another sitcom, and one of the best loved of our modern times. How do you possibly end a show about a dysfunctional family, living across the street from its parents, another dysfunctional family? Move away? Well, the producers decided not to formally end Raymond.Instead, they gave us an episode that dealt with death.
Well, no one died, but the titular character nearly didn’t come out of anesthesia. That’s right. The episode in which Ray has his adenoids removed is the show’s finale. But you won’t necessarily catch that by watching it casually. For the most part, it feels like a regular episode. I’m sure the producers did take some criticism by drafting the finale this way, but I think it’s all right.
Ray facing surgery and nearly not returning is unique, even if just slightly. The hilarity that ensues when his mother finds out, having been absent when the surgeon first brought the news, reminds us that we’re still watching Raymond, and it’s still the same show we’ve enjoyed. It keeps the feel of the show, a recap in its own right.
At the end of the episode, the family sits down to eat, as they have done so many times before. Fade to black. Roll credits. Cut. Print. That’s it. Some would call this a weak finale, but I think it’s all right, because I think the show would have been tough to draft a formal finale, and they did the best they could.
Perhaps a show that deserved a proper finale, Scott Bakula’s classic sci-fi series did not deliver what we hoped. The finale did keep the feel of the show, Sam Beckett leaping to help someone else in need, successfully doing so, and leaping elsewhere at the end.
Sam actually leaps into himself, in a bar he’s never visited in his life, and meets someone who may be God himself. If it is a Divine encounter, the bar is probably just manifestation and not natural appearance. Sam sees another leaper assist someone and realizes that all along his mission was to serve as a sort of guardian angel.
The mission this time is for Al’s wife. He lets her know that Al did indeed survive in Vietnam and would return. The couple then remain married and live out their days, happy and successful. Sam Beckett sort of walks off the scene, presumably to leap again. A placard appears on screen, reading, “Sam Beckett never returned home.”
Call it negative reinforcement if you want. Admittedly, it’s not the ending you want to see, but it fits with the show’s format. A mean leaps to help someone, leaps again to help someone else. Having learned that he’s a sort of guardian angel, Sam cannot return home. There are more to help. The finale recaps the show simply by giving us more of the same, while telling us the journey hasn’t ended, and never will.
While there are several other shows that could fit into the recap category, mentioning all of them would take too long and use up too much space. The next category for finales is what I call the finish category. This is actually very simple. These are finales that wrap everything up and end the show. Usually, major plot elements are resolved, characters bid farewell to one other, a house is sold, etc. Without further ado, here are some notable shows that finished.
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
This was where many of us met the amazing Will Smith for the first time. This show ran for several seasons. It ended quite notably with the family dismembering. Carlton transfers to Princeton, while the girls, Hilary and Ashley, move to New York. Uncle Phil, Aunt Viv, and Nicky move to somewhere on the East Coast. Even the family butler, Geoffrey resigns and returns to his native England. Will is only one who seems to stay behind.
Especially notable about this finale are the buyers of the Banks mansion. The house is first shown to Philip Drummond and Arnold Jackson from Diff’rent Strokes, but George and Louise Jefferson from The Jeffersons buy the house. While bringing Fresh Prince to a successful conclusion, the producers managed an interesting crossover.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)
Actually, I could talk Trek finales aplenty, but this is the only other one I’ll mention in this article. Unlike TNG, DS9 took the more standard approach.
In “What You Leave Behind,” several plot threads reach fruition. The Dominion War ends, the Bajorans enter the Federation, and Ben Sisko battles Gul Dukat, ending the conflict between the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths. This costs Sisko his life, but the Prophets intervene to make him one of their own.
Miles O’Brian leaves the station for Starfleet Academy. Worf becomes the Federation Ambassador to the Klingon Empire. We have to say tearful good-byes to many of our favorite characters, but they have all done their duties. This finale made it unlikely for a DS9 movie to be made, but I still insist it’s not impossible. It’s only impossible for a DS9 movie featuring the regular characters from the series. A follow-up movie could tell the events of the Federation’s most remote member (Bajor) and the lives of the DS9 personnel in a post-series circumstance. That can work, but it would be very different from the fan-loved series.
That 70’s Show
Many sitcoms give us such memorable experiences that we hate to see them end, but when they end, we want it done right. 70’s gave us that. The last season of the show was plagued by the absence of two characters that really made the show: Eric and Kelso. The problem was Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher had movie deals and had to back out of the show. The absences caused a notable drop in ratings and favoritism among fans. It just didn’t feel the same. So how do you end the show and hopefully right the ship?
End the decade. In such an obvious move, 70’s Show ended on December 31, 1979. The Foreman family celebrates it, with characters mentioning where they’ll go from here. Kitty and Red decide NOT to sell the house and move to Florida, and Eric returns at the last moment. He and Donna share a kiss, leaving us to believe they have reconciled again, and everything will be all right.
Not the first sitcom with a broadcasting setting, and certainly not the last, Frasier ended by the titular character telling what happened to his various family members and co-workers on an airplane. Roz became the manager of his radio station. Frasier took a new job in Chicago, Niles and Daphne remain in Seattle, where Daphne gives birth to their first child. Martin Crane, Frasier’s and Niles’s father, married his girlfriend Ronee, though Eddie the dog swallowed the ring. A successful conclusion to a successful series.
Okay, so we’ve seen recaps and finishers. This last category is hard to describe. There are a number of things I mean when I say “fail.” I mean either the show never had a proper finale (it was cancelled before the producers could do so), or the finale just ends with no closure, or the finale is just too bad. For the sake of fairness, “fail” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad,” just “not accomplishing the desired intention.” Here are a few I place into this category:
One of my favorite shows of all time, ALF was truly unique. A furry alien who crashes into a family’s garage goes on to live with that family for about four years. The show’s production team was notorious in its treatment of the titular character. The ALF puppet had to be filmed so that no puppeteers were ever seen. The set was built on stilts to accomodate pupeteers beneath the floor.
Creators Paul Fusco and Tom Patchett insisted that the character be treated as a real charater, not an animatronic. The gag reels even attribute to this. The result was extraodinary, but the production was difficult to both technical personnel and the cast themselves. Several of them mentioned frustration during filming and elation when the series ended. But one of them, Max Wright who played father Willie Tanner, admitted that the frustrations paid off in the end. ALF was just filled with too much magic.
The production quirks meant expensive production. Despite superior ratings and critical approval, NBC axed the show during the last stages of the fourth season. ALF never received a proper finale. The final filmed episode became the defacto finale, where ALF nearly reunited with other Melmacian survivors, only to be captured by the US military.
A sad end to a terrific series. Fortunately, ALF fans would get a made-for-TV movie in 1996 entitled Project: ALF, which ended with ALF escaping from military custody and given sanction by the US government. It helped to ease the pain the series left us with, but kept us wanting more from the lovable Melmacian.
Lois and Clark
Another example of a series ending prematurely, with this one, it happened on more reasonable terms. The fourth season was plagued by declining ratings, thus ABC had no choice to cancel it. Unfortunately, the producers were not given time to finish the series properly.
The final episode of Lois and Clark features Lois and Clark finding a baby on their doorstep. A note says the baby belongs to them, but nothing more. A fifth season was planned to show the child’s origin, but it never materialized, leaving all of us to wonder what really became of the show’s characters.
A best loved icon of the 90’s, Family Matters was another victim to cancellation before finishing. Having moved to CBS for a ninth season, the show suffered a sharp decline in ratings. It was really time for us to say good-bye to Urkel anyway, but the producers never formally made a finale.
The final two episodes serve as a defacto finale, with Steve on a shuttle in outer space, he and Laura making plans for their soon-approaching wedding. It’s a little disappointing that such a classic show doesn’t really end, but in some sense it does. Steve gets his girl, and that’s that.
Probably the most notorious of all finales. I call this one a great failure in spite of the fact that it was a planned finale. This wasn’t the result of cancellation. It was just a really bad move.
A show about an Italian mafia family almost has two built-in conclusions: someone gets thrown in jail, or everybody gets iced. Instead, after building the suspense for the entire episode, Tony Soprano meets his family at a diner. The jukebox plays Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as Meadow enters the room. Tony looks up, the screen goes black. After ten seconds, the credits roll.
Some consider this remarkable, an open-ended finale leaving us to poder the fate of the family. I say it’s a cop-out, no pun intended. It denies us the closure we need after such a strong build and leaves us all wanting more. That’s a check the producers refuse to cash. It’s not fair to audiences, a classic example of what not to do to end a show.
So there we have it. Finales past and present give us something to hang our hats on. Some are great. Some fail miserably. I could mention other great finales like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Cheers, or Boy Meets World, or even Howdy-Doody. But I’d never finish if I did.
Whenever you see a show end, watch its ending carefully. The finale, even a terrible one, will make a show great, or a great show legendary.