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The 20 Best Television Series Finales

April 11, 2013  |  11:03am

As summer approaches, this year’s primetime television season begins its gradual wind-down with several beloved shows closing up shop for good with a much-hyped series finale.

This TV cycle alone saw the end of Fringe, Gossip Girl and 30 Rock, with the conclusions of equally beloved shows like The Office and Breaking Bad just around the corner. Unlike films, which occupy an average of two hours of our time, TV shows remain with us week after week, building up the kind of investment that’s not too dissimilar from a long-term relationship. Eventually, when it comes time for them to go, it feels akin to saying goodbye to a close friend, knowing you’ll never see them again.

And there lies the rub. After countless stories, how do you wrap up a show in a way that feels unique and organic to show’s characters and tone? The only harder thing than nursing a successful television show is brainstorming how to end it.

And while the reviled finales of Roseanne, St. Elsewhere and Quantum Leap will cause aneurysms for years to come, here we chose to take the positive route and look at some of the most moving, exciting and satisifying final episodes in television history.

20. “Chuck vs. The Goodbye” (Chuck)
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NBC’s Chuck lived under the perpetual threat of cancellation. So, when the end finally came, the writers were ready. For five seasons, our nerdy everyman accompanied sexy superspy Sarah and the grumpy John Casey on life-threatening, top secret missions. Slowly but surely, despite the obvious setbacks, Sarah and Chuck fell in love with each other. In a cruel twist of fate, however, Sarah ended up losing her memories of their relationship in the final few episodes of the show’s last season. Even after the group takes down the show’s big bad in the series finale, Chuck is left with the unenviable task of trying to bring back Sarah’s memories. Whether he succeeds in the show’s final scene is ambiguous. With Chuck being Chuck, however, one can be assured that there is always a sense of hope.

Chuck was a show that took various genres, including comedy, action, drama, and melded them all together like a blender. The thing that tied these divergent tones together, however, was the sense of boundless fun and enthusiasm that permeated every aspect of the show, from the cast’s fantastic performances (Zachary Levi deserved an Emmy for his work) to the exciting action set pieces to the dynamite soundtrack (thank you, Josh Schwartz). “Chuck vs. The Goodbye” is an exceptional demonstration of this notion, veering from action-comedy to romance without missing a beat. It’s a nice send-off to a show that only grows fonder in the hearts of fans.

19. “Focus Grill” (Home Movies)
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Beneath its rapid-fire torrent of improvised jokes, crude animation and ultra dry comedic stylings, Home Movies was, at its heart, the story of a young boy who turned to filmmaking as a means of coping with the chaos of his life. The central story of the episode concerns amateur filmmakers Brendon, Melissa and Jason’s quest to film a conclusion to their latest, no-budget opus. Upon filming three different endings and receiving harsh criticism for each one from their “focus group,” the three reflect over their work from the past four seasons and come at last to a conclusion that they either had yet not realized or simply choose not to vocalize: their movies are not very good. Elsewhere, Coach McGuirk’s attempts at building a grill results in a massive explosion that destroys Brendon’s beloved camera.

Though dismayed, Brendon pushes the loss to the side in favor of participating in a nearby conversation, thus relieving himself of the object that had long served as a barrier between him and the rest of the world. It’s a bittersweet note to end on, but one that nevertheless acts as the perfect sentiment for a show that both celebrated and skewered the wide-eyed dreamers of the world.

18. “Last Lunch” (30 Rock)
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Upon confiriming that there was indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, Tina Fey and 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock promptly course-corrected the direction of their award-winning sitcom, which had started to grow somewhat meandering and stale in its later years. What followed was a great final stretch that saw eternally self-reliant Jack embracing single fatherhood, eternally youthful NBC page Kenneth Parcel moving on to a bigger and better job and eternally self-destructive Liz Lemon finally settling down with her very own manic pixie dream boy. All the stars were aligned for a fantastic finale and Tina Fey and company did not disappoint.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of “The Last Lunch” is how it milks poignancy from every scene without once betraying the show’s goofball roots. Case in point: Jenna’s farewell song (the theme from The Rural Juror) starts as a joke but—augmented by Jane Krakowski’s tearful performance—grows into a sweet little coda to the little NBC showbiz show that could. And let’s certainly not forget the hilarious subplot that has put-upon staff writer Lutz finally exacting his revenge against his colleagues/tormentors by demanding Blimpie’s as a last lunch.

17. ”—30—“ (The Wire)
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After delivering two of the greatest TV seasons in history, The Wire took a bit of a step backwards in its fifth and final season. Focusing on the day-to-day lives of Baltimore’s media players, the season was still great, it just wasn’t quite Wire-great. And though the final episode saw optimistic resolutions for several of its main characters (Carcetti is elected governor, Carver is promoted, Bubbles finally cleans up his act), writer David Simon make it clear that this is not a happy ending.

As evidenced by the shot of Duckie shooting up in a dirty alleyway just like Bubbles in the old days, we as viewers are made perfectly aware that we will be leaving Simon’s city of Baltimore just as it was when we first arrived in the pilot episode six years back—a city lost in a vicious cycle of violence, drugs and corruption.

16. “The Real Folk Blues” (Cowboy Bebop)
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Often revered as the Citizen Kane of anime programs, Cowboy Bebop’s highly Americanized amalgamation of Western tropes, Beat culture and William Gibson-esque steampunk made it a show for all tastes. While much of its 26-episode run consisted of individual adventures that could be viewed in any order, the show’s serialized portions built to a incredible crescendo with the two-parter “The Real Folk Blues.”

Having been abandoned by their crew, bounty hunter Spike and his partner Jet are attacked by members of the Red Dragon crime syndicate. As it turns out, the group is under the thumb of Spike’s nemesis, Vicious. After several of Spike’s friends are left dead, the two have their final confrontation. It’s a battle for the record books and, augmented by the show’s gorgeous visual style and lush musical score, stands as one of the most thrilling and intense conclusions to any show ever. If ever there was a show that transcended its niche market and achieved greatness, this was the one.

15. “Chosen” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
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If there was ever anything that Buffy, the Vampire Slayer excelled at, it was the big finish. For seven seasons, Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon and their crew of writers carefully structured each season like a long movie, letting each episode build towards an explosive conflict with that year’s big bad. Unfortunately, upon moving from its regular home on the WB to UPN, the show lost some of its zest and the seventh season contains several of the show’s weaker episodes.

What this final year did provide, however, was an epic conclusion that rewarded those who had spent the past 143 episodes following Buffy and the Scooby Gang. “Chosen” finds Buffy, her friends and a league of new Slayers preparing for battle against the evil forces of The First, a non-corporeal entity that claims to be the world’s first evil. Despite the show’s limited television budget, the episode has all the excitement of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, including a culminating event that has the entire town of Sunnydale collapsing into a huge crater. The battle was not without its casualties, with several main characters losing their lives in the process, but it serves as an appropriate last stand and a hell of a final episode. Not too shabby for a show based on a (let’s face it) stupid and absurd movie.

14. “Made in America” (The Sopranos)
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Controversy be damned. Throughout its six season run, The Sopranos both energized and enraged audiences with its playful sense of experimentation. Characters would be introduced and then promptly discareded, scenes of horrifying violence would be played as broad comedy and entire episodes would take place exclusively in Tony’s dreams. The fact that audiences expected the show’s ending to be anything approaching straightforward is enough to make one believe they didn’t watch the 85 episodes that preceded it.

Yes, the ending is infuriating but whether you believe Tony is alive or dead — according to David Chase, he’s probably not dead — those last five minutes give the audiences something they really weren’t expecting: complete empathy with the heavy-set Jersey gangster. Being the main character, there was never any chance that Tony would bite the dust before the series was over. With these final moments, however, showrunner David Chase had the audience right where he wanted them. As Tony sat down at that diner booth with his family, the viewers prepped themselves for the worst. Every person who entered the diner or even made a sudden movement was grounds for alarm. For a moment, the audience is placed in Tony’s head. We suddenly see what he copes with everyday and what’ll continue to cope with for the rest of his life — the sensation that you must always be looking over your shoulder and that death can come for you at any moment. Love it or hate it, that abrupt blackout as Meadow comes bursting into the diner is an ending that can never be replicated (nor should it).

13. “The Last Show” (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)
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As good as Tina Fey’s 30 Rock was, it’s safe to say it would not exist if not for the pioneering work of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In addition to breaking the glass ceiling when it came to depicting strong woman in the workplace, Moore and her writers managed to craft a sitcom that was legitimately very, very funny.

For the series finale, the writers took what could have easily been a dark premise—the station is shut down and everyone is abruptly fired—and turns it into a fun and, yes, emotional half-hour that is totally in keeping in line with the show’s goofy, light-hearted tone. The capstone of the episode is, of course, Mary’s final monologue where she details to her co-workers what it means to be a “family.” “Last night I thought, ‘what is a family?’” she begins before concluding, “they’re just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.” Amen, sister.

12. “The Judgment” (The Fugitive)
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In the early days of television, when a show ended, there was little to no fuss made about its departure; it just kind of stopped airing once people lost interest. The Fugitive changed this notion, delivering what many consider to be the first official “series finale.” Not that the show was serialized or anything. Each episode featured mild-mannered yet resourceful Richard Kimble — a doctor framed for the murder of his wife and forced to outrun the authorities — riding into some town, finding himself in conflict with some of its residents and then fixing the situation just in time for credits to roll. It was a very episodic structure whose only connecting tissue was Kimble’s search for the “one-armed man,” the elusive figure who he claims was responsible for his wife’s murder.

After four seasons of being on the run, “The Judgement” brought Kimble’s odyssey to a thrilling close. Oblvious to the concept that a television audience would tune in week after week and become emotionally invested in a show’s characters, network execs were shocked to find that 78 million viewers tuned in to see Kimble’s final adventure. Though certainly dated by today’s standards, “The Judgement” stands as an important document in the evolution of television.

11. “Always” (Friday Night Lights)
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Friday Night Lights feels, in many ways, like a small miracle. Suffering from destructively low ratings in the first season and saddled with several ill-advised plot points in the second, the show would have most likely—in a less just world — faded from airways and become yet another example of a treasured, program that was gone before its time. Instead, salvation came in the form of deal with Direct TV, which allowed the show to run for three more fantastic seasons. Whereas the 2004 feature film of the same name could only caption a portion of the stories detailed in Buzz Bissinger’s celebrated book, the NBC show crafted a rich and vibrant community that felt as real and as tangible as the viewer’s own hometown. The town of Dillon, Texas was—as Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz famously stated—a Bruce Springsteen song brought to life.

“Always” acts as the perfect punctuation mark in the story of the Dillon Panter/East Dillon Lion coach Eric Taylor, his family (school administrator wife Tammie and bright, yet rebellious daughter Julie) and the numerous supporting characters that the Taylor family had helped or inspired along the way. It’s an emotional rollercoaster but never veers into overly mawkish sentiments. Perhaps the most telling moment of the episode, however, comes in the final act where the East Dillon Lions take the field to play their final game: the state championship. In contrast with how football games in the show were traditionally shot, director Michael Waxman films this game in a series of elliptical, abstract shots, capturing brief moments in time rather than actions. Then, when a player finally throws a potentially game winning pass, the show transitions into an epilogue showing the fate of each of its main characters rather than remaining to see the results of the game (spoiler — they won). The message couldn’t be clearer: the show always cared more for the lives and struggles of its characters than it does for football. Some may complain that this epilogue delivers resolutions for each character that are far too pat. To that I say, they were most likely making those complaints while stifling back tears. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

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