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The 20 Best Television Series Finales

April 11, 2013  |  11:03am
10. “The End” (Lost)
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Just as Friday Night Lights used football as a launching pad to tell an all-too human story, the numerous mysterious of Lost acted as a catalyst for telling a long-form story about a group of lost souls who find redemption. Yes, Jack could be a bit of a drip and Kate was all-but-useless at times, but it was how this massive, diverse ensemble interacted with one another that gave the show its heart. We may very well never know who was shooting from the outrigger from the in Season Five, Episode Four, but if mysteries were all Lost had going for it, it would have dropped off the face of the earth well before its first season concluded. Rather, what Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse did was to create a vast world filled with intrigue and mythology and populate it with characters whose conflicts you identified with and whose stories created emotional resonance.

With its straightforward title, “The End” works as both the climatic showdown between good and evil that the show had been building to and a gut-wrenching look into what it really means to be a hero. Along with regular scene-stealers Michael Emerson, Terry O’Quinn and Josh Holloway, Matthew Fox deilivers a fantastic performance that more than earned him his sole Emmy nomination for the show. One can complain about the pool of light that serves as the Island’s big MacGuffin but, honestly, would any answer have been more satisfying? Add in the rainy fistfight between Jack and Flocke (Fake Locke) and the wrenching final scene where Jack prepares for death as Vincent the dog arrives to comfort him (Michael Giacchino’s score makes it all the more potent) and the finale more than makes up for the show’s occasional misdirections (cough—”Stranger in a Strange Land”—cough). From the first shot of Jack’s opening eye to the final shot of his eye drawing closed, Lost was a show that took chances and respected its audience’s intelligence. There was nothing like it on TV before and there very well may be nothing quite like it ever again.

9. “Family Meeting” (The Shield)
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Things were never destined to end well for corrupt vice cop Vic Mackey. In the show’s penultimate episode, Vic had confessed his crimes in an attempt to gain immunity from the ICE. The remainder of “Family Meeting” deals with the fallout of that confession. Losing both his friends, job and family, Vic is confined to a mind-numbing office job.

In the show’s final scene, as he sits impotently behind his desk, Vic hears sirens and watches as police cars roll out in response to a call. After a moment spent looking at pictures of his children and meditating on the direction his life has taken, Vic reaches into his desk, pulls out a concelead gun and proceeds to walk out of the station as clips from the show’s seven year history flash by. Where he’s going and what he’s to do is never shown.Nevertheless, it’s an appropriate last image of Vic and an ideal cap-off to a show that broke the mold for what a cable show could be by never giving us the easy answers. Vic Mackey may have been a horrible human being, but dammit if he wasn’t the personification of a badass.

8. “Flip” (The Larry Sanders Show)
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Long before shows such as Entourage and Extras tried their hands at Hollywood satire, The Larry Sanders Show provided the mold for how such a show should be run. Casting co-creator Garry Shandling as the titular character, an arrogant, insecure talk show host struggling to deal with the behind-the-scenes madness of his show, Larry Sanders aimed for more lofty ambitions than simply casting Hollywood celebrities to play heightened versions of themselves; rather, it posited itself as a kind of metaphor for how everyone must hide behind the mask of a public persona. While Larry, his guests and his perpetually needy sidekick Hank Kingsley are all smiles when on-camera, tension, hatred and jealousy spew forth the moment the show cuts to commercial. Despite the drama, however, the show was Larry’s life and one got the sense he would be go crazy without it.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened. After witnessing his show being slowly taken over by a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart (playing a coked-up version of himself), Larry decides to preempt future changes and end his show. “Flip” is the story of that last show. Like everything else in the history of the program, nothing goes quite according to plan. Guests get into a fist-fight backstage, disgruntled former employees turn up to poke at old wounds and an unexpected cameo by Jerry Seinfeld cuts off Hank’s well-meaning thank you speech to Larry. It all boils down to Larry’s closing monologue, which truly demonstrated how much Shandling had grown as an actor in those six seasons. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,” Larry (and, most likely, Shandling) says to his studio audience before stifling back what appears to be a sob. Of course, this reaction turns out to be the result of something else entirely, but it’s a lovely image nonetheless.

7. “Office Christmas Special” (The Office)
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In the wake of NBC’s Office remake standing as a beacon of successful broadcast programing, it can be easy to forget just how abrasive, mean-spirited and flat-out unpleasant the original, British The Office could be. Never were the show’s callous tendancies more on display than in the Season Two finale. In the episode’s devastating (albeit hilarious) final five minutes, office manager David Brent is fired while wearing a very embarrassing costume while lovestruck Tim—in a last ditch effort—confesses his crush to departing secretary Dawn, only to have her rebuff him and move to Florida with her douchebag boyfriend.

A year later, the Christmas special, which acted as the show’s de facto finale, appeared to be going in a similar direction. Brent is still unemployed and desperately clinging to the tiny morsel of fame that the Office documentary has afforded him, Dawn is still in a miserable relationship and Tim has been forced to move back in with his parents. Then, at the 11th hour, the show throws the audience a bone and allows its characters to find some form of happiness. After finally realizing that Tim has always been her major source of emotional support, Dawn returns to the office where the two finally kiss while Yaz’s “Only You” plays over the loudspeaker. Furthermore, in perhaps his biggest victory of all, the desperate-to-be-loved Brent both secures a date with a lovely woman and finally manages to get an authentic chuckle out of his Office mates. Granted, it causes him to turn his head during the office picture…but still.

6. “All Good Things…” (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
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Star Trek: The Next Generation had a lot to overcome in its first couple of years. Besides having to live in the shadow of its legendary predecessor, the show suffered through a admittedly poor first season before finally finding its footing in year two. Subsequent episodes would deliver countless hours of entertaining and thought-provoking science-ficion, particularly with the addition of future Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore in season three. Moore would later reach a high enough position to co-write the series finale with Brannon Braga. The episode in question concerns a confused Captain Picard who finds his mind shifting back and forth in time from the present to seven years in the past to 25 years in the future. Picard soon learns that this is the result of a massive anomaly that must be destroyed before it consumes all of space and time.

In the world of sci-fi television (hell, television in general), “All Good Things…” is a perfect finale, with the time anomaly allowing long-departed characters such as Tasha Yar to return as well as affording the opportunity to see the character’s futures. In the end, the past, present and future collapse into a glorious bit of, to quote Doctor Who, Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey mechanics. The episode ends with Picard, now aware of the precious little time he truly has with the people he loves, stepping in to play cards with his fellow crewman. It’s a pitch-perfect ending to a great sci-fi show. Now if only we could erase a few of those Next Generation-centered movies from the timeline…

5. “One for the Road” (Cheers)
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As is the case with any long-running show, Cheers’ ending did not please everyone. Indeed, The New York Times called it “overly long and uncharacteristically labored” while Variety dubbed the final 30 minutes “limping.” The fact that everyone’s beloved TV couple Sam and Diane failed to end up together did not help matters. Yet, as is the also the case, with enough distance comes re-evaluation.

On its surface, there is nothing particularly game-changing or special about “One for the Road.” It’s a standard sitcom finale, with some characters making big leaps in their lives while others remain exactly in the same place they were. The brilliance, rather, is all in the execution, from the always crisp writing courtesy of show creators Glen and Les Charles to the electric chemistry of a cast giving it their all to the tear-inducing final scene where Sam informs a late-night patron that “we’re closed.” Twenty years later, Cheers stands as the paradigm of what all network sitcoms must aspire to.

4. “Goodbyeee” (Blackadder)
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One of England’s finest exports, Blackadder’s four seasons centered on the idea of taking a group of characters and placing them into different time periods in England’s storied history. While their names and circumstances may be slightly different, the characters would retain the same personality. Rowan Atkinson was always Blackadder, the mean and two-faced misanthrope who never saw an opprotunity he couldn’t exploit or a situation he couldn’t play to his advantage. Tony Robinson was always Baldrick, Blackadder’s simply-minded lackey prone to claiming that he had a “cunning plan.” The final season, entitled Blackadder Goes Forth saw the show’s title character (this time taking the guise of army captain Edmund Blackadder) and his co-horts cavorting in the foxholes of WWI. Like M*A*S*H, however, the show paid tribute to its time period and the men who bravely gave their lives in service to their country. This was particularly the case with “Goodbyeee.”

Taking a plotline straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s exceptional anti-war film Pride and Glory, the episode centers on the characters’ final hours before embarking upon a suicidal charge on the Western Front. In a desperate attempt to avoid his assured death, Captain Blackadder tries to pretend he has gone insane. His actions, however, fail to secure him a way out. Eventually, Blackadder finds himself standing alongside his comrades and, in a moment of rare compassion, wishes them a sincere good luck. The group then charges out of the foxhole in slow motion and into the sound of machine gun fire. Then as a dirge-like piano version of the Blackadder theme plays, the final shot of no man’s land gradually transitions into shot of a serene poppy field.

3. “The Last Newhart” (Newhart)
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One could make a very strong case that the series finale to Newhart has effectively eclipsed the show itself. The gist of the final show finds main character Dick Loudon’s town being purchased by a Japanese tycoon who plans to tear down Dick’s rural inn and turn the area into his golf course. While the other townfolk gladly give in after a huge payment, Dick holds his ground. Five years later, Dick and wife Joanna are still living in the inn and tormented by the sounds of golfballs from the course constantly hitting the walls. To make matters worse, the couple are visited by their former neighbors, who are now all prosperous and obnoxious. Unable to take it any more, Dick storms out the door and is promptly knocked unconscious by a rogue golf ball. The show then cuts to Dr. Robert Hartley from Bob Newhart’s previous high-profile sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show awakening from a bad dream next to his wife. That’s right, the entire eight seasons of Newhart were merely a dream.

So, yeah, leave it to a Bob Newhart show — of all things — to pull off what is undoubtedly the most meta plot twist in TV history. Take that, Community.

2. “Everyone’s Waiting” (Six Feet Under)
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Like most Alan Ball-produced properties, Six Feed Under proved to be wildly inconsistent, with the quality ebbing up and down from season to season. When the show was on, it was among the best television dramas of all time. When it wasn’t, it could be a muddled, tonally confusing mess. As the series reached its conclusion, however, Ball brought a greater focus to the proceedings, which culminated in the shocking death of central protagonist Nate Fisher.

Despite the show’s numerous flaws, few will deny the emotional gut punch that is the final ten minutes of “Everyone’s Waiting.” As the Fisher’s black sheep Claire says goodbye to her family home in California and gets in her car to travel to a new life in New York, she catches a glimpse of the ghost of Nate in her rearview mirror. What follows is the music montage to end all music montages. Over the beautiful strands of Sia’s “Breathe,” the narrative does a flash forward, capturing the moment that each main character will die. Some are natural (Ruth), some are tragic (Keith is killed in a armored car robbery) and some are hilarious (Brenda literally dies of boredom from listening to her brother complain). The real kicker, however, is how Alan Ball juxtaposes these images against the visual of Claire’s car driving down a neverending highway on its way to New York. Six Feet Under sold itself as a show about big issues; namely, it dealt with the concept of one’s own mortality. Here, without one word of dialogue spoken, this montage both acknowledges the inevitable approach of death while also acting as a celebration of the beauty of being alive.

1. “Goodbye, Farwell and Amen” (M*A*S*H)
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War is hell. No one knew that more than the men and women of the 4077th M*A*S*H. For characters like Hawkeye and Trapper, their gallows humor was an ultimate survival tool. Without an ability to cut loose and crack wise, one gets the sense that many of M*A*S*H’s characters would have curled into a fetal position and never stopped crying. As the show evolved over the course of 11 years, it’s tone eschewed the more sitcom-y elements and embraced a more dramatic, darker side that explored the true consequences of war. Yes, some of the the materiel was preachy, but it was well-written preachiness.

Looking back, the most astounding thing about “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” is how expertly it weaves together all the different guises that had characterized M*A*S*H over its numerous seasons. The light-hearted banter is still there, but anchoring the whole episode is Hawkeye’s mental breakdown, an event stemming from a devastating experience involving a woman on a bus and her loud “chicken.” Furthermore, the moment that Hawkeye departs the site in a helicopter only to see Hunnicut has spelled out “GOODBYE” with the rocks below, remains as perfect a closing image as has ever been seen on TV.

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