UPDATED, 2 PM: We have a winner in the Best Comment About Series Finales Sweepstakes. Not only does Deadline reader D. have some solid choices about TV shows with memorable wrap-ups, he or she makes a quite valid point: Why watch “bad TV” anyway? As for the commenter’s spectacular prize — “IT’S A BEAUTIFUL, BRAND-NEW … uh, nothing. Nada. Nichts. Bupkiss. But thanks for playing our game…
Seeing as how everyone’s doing this, I figured I’d chime in:
Best Series Finales: The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad
Worst: Haven’t seen enough bad TV, but I reckon True Blood will be up there.
How do you not mention the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” finale episode — which truly set the standard for series finales that has only been met by the “Newhart” finale?
And splitting the final season of “Mad Men” over two years was a big mistake on the part of AMC. It worked for “Breaking Bad” for a number of organic reasons that “Mad Men” doesn’t have the benefit of.
PREVIOUSLY, August 5: A version of this story on TV series finales appeared in the most recent issue of Awardsline. From Breaking Bad and How I Met Your Mother to True Blood and Sons Of Anarchy, a number of shows have ended or are ending their run this year, so take a trip to some goodbyes here and then tell us what you think have been the best and the worst TV series finales. We’ll announce a winner later this week.
On television, as in life, the exit rather than the entrance often is what forms our memories of things. TV series finales, in particular, hold a special place of distinction in both the industry and the culture. A good ending can deepen one’s commitment, even postmortem, to a show, while a bad or negligible one can leave audience members feeling deep-sixed. Dexter is a prime example of how the way a show ends even can have Emmy impact. While Showtime’s serial-killer series enjoyed past Emmy love, including best drama noms from 2008 to 2011—and even experienced record show ratings for its finale last fall—it’s no secret its heat had dissipated. The Dexter-Morgan-still-lives ending failed to maximize the show’s last shot at redemption and was dead with Television Academy voters. There were zero nominations this time around.
A good finale is hard to define, and getting it right is something that can elude even the most celebrated networks and creators. It’s not just a matter of closing the door on an iconic set and turning off the lights. Here are some of the more recent ways several series have met their ends.
The Main Event
“I think we feel that the right thing is always to end (a show) with some creative integrity so the viewers feel satisfied and the creators feel satisfied,” HBO programming president Michael Lombardo said at this summer’s TCAs. He knows a thing or two about goodbyes. HBO has made an art of eventizing its series finales, what with all the endless reminders that the final season of the cabler’s True Blood is upon us. Although The Sopranos’ ambiguous ending left many viewers feeling ripped off and disappointed, there’s no denying it was the cultural event of 2007. People who never had seen a prior episode of the show tuned in. Even now, in clear retrospect, there appears to be a real method to creator David Chase’s Journey-soundtracked, cut-to-black madness. Like the tortured soul of the show itself, the space opened by that final scene left everything out there. It just took time to find it.
Will HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which was created by former Sopranos writer Terence Winter, take the same approach when it concludes at the end of this year? Is that even a fair expectation? Well, yes, if you consider that conceived of as an event, finales always have been great promotions for broadcasters, and HBO will take full advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Prohibition-era drama’s end.
The AMC Effect
AMC’s double-your-luck strategy of splitting its big shows’ final seasons into two parts paid off again this year for Breaking Bad. Having snagged the best drama trophy last year with the first part of its fifth and final season, the blaze of bullets that ended the stunning Vince Gilligan series in September effectively built up the finale into enough of a cultural touchstone that the show’s Emmy history could repeat itself. Bad has been showered with 16 nominations for its swan song’s second half and looks to be the favorite to take the drama win again.
Under the same split-season edict and carnival barker ballyhoo Mad Men could find itself in a very similar position, even though the show’s creator Matthew Weiner has stated he tries to stand outside the business of the finale. Another Sopranos alumni, Weiner told me earlier this year that the final episode is “set in stone” and his big hope is that viewers next year will “walk away changed or better or at least entertained by it.”
The converse of the split season or spinoff ending is when a show is cancelled before a proper finale can be aired or even conceived, oftentimes resulting in a cliffhanger of the worst kind: one without hope of any resolution. Such was the case with NBC’s once-celebrated Revolution, whose plug was pulled at the end of Season 2 after a promising start. Not even co-creator J.J. Abrams could save it. The end, obviously a season finale now tasked with tying up storylines, lacked the emotional punch of a true sendoff. The Peacock network’s Community also was headed for the chopping block sans finale before it was curiously salvaged by Yahoo. Will creator Dan Harmon get the #SixSeasonsAndAMovie that he tweeted about in June? Here’s hoping he can end the show on his own terms.
The finale gold standard in many books is the 1990 ending to CBS’ Newhart. After years working as an innkeeper in Vermont, Bob Newhart’s Dick Loudon wakes up in the Chicago bedroom of the ’70s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show and tells his wife, played by Suzanne Pleshette, about the weird dream he had. “No more Japanese food before you go to bed,” she admonishes. The polishing touch was the credits from the elder Newhart show, and the witty rendition of “Oklahoma” from the 1978 finale, that ran at the end.
I’ve always been partial to the 2008 close of The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street’s finale from 1999. The former because it was a conclusive and secure end, the latter because, suddenly cancelled by NBC after a seven-season run—and really only given a final season because the network had experienced Seinfeld’s controversial end the year before—the gritty drama displayed its characteristic brutal intelligence by bookending the series with a last scene that mirrored its first.
This is why True Detective’s season ender this spring was so fulfilling: It made sense within the construction of the HBO show for the circle to be complete. By following the anthology structure that has worked so well for FX’s American Horror Story, viewers will get the satisfaction of a complete story arc every season, an indirect homage to Rust Cohle with its TV version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence perhaps?
Of course, there’s always the risk that a finale will go down in a blaze of disappointment and obscurity. While I’ve actually met people who say they liked it, there’s the sad, sad end of Seinfeld from 1998. We don’t need to open that wound again except to say that for what must have looked great on paper, the painful, “horrible people” end made the recent and almost equally hyped finale of How I Met Your Mother look good in comparison—nearly no one was happy with that sleight-of-hand swindle.
Never Say Never
It used to be that reruns were the only ways to relive our favorite show’s best moments, but spinoffs have taken off the past few years. Breaking Bad is over but will live and breathe in the body of the upcoming prequel series Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk. Even though FX’s biker drama Sons of Anarchy is slicing its way to a conclusion after seven seasons, creator Kurt Sutter still muses about giving it the movie or prequel treatment.
And four years after ending its eight-season run, 24 and Jack were back this spring. “I would have bet everything that Jack Bauer had seen his last day,” says executive producer Howard Gordon. And yet, Fox’s aptly titled limited event series, 24: Live Another Day, debuted for a 12-episode run in May. “The fact that (Jack) lived to see another day is testimony to how resilient this character is and how much we all missed him,” Gordon adds. But that’s one of the things about finales, isn’t it? Just because it’s over, doesn’t mean it’s ever really over—just ask Larry David.
The Good, The Bad And the Ugly
Series finales have run the gamut from perfect to pathetic. Here’s a look:
Ample ambiguity: The Sopranos
The cut-to-black last scene of the finale left many wondering if Tony Soprano died in that diner.