2010 is only a month old, and we’ve already said goodbye to one stellar if short-lived show. Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse began with a whimper before ending its second with a bang. And in a few months, Lost will wrap, either blowing our minds with answers to 20 million questions or leave its fans feeling cheated. When we invest years in characters and storylines, we’re putting our faith in a show’s writers to take us somewhere worthwhile. The X-Files, Seinfeld, even Full House betrayed that trust. At least The Sopranos had a certain poetry (plus Journey) in its ending, however ambiguous it may have been. It was one of a handful—like Battlestar Galactica and St. Elsewhere—that got votes for both best and worst ending. But the 10 TV shows listed here bowed with grace—or hilarity. Here’s hoping Lost was taking notes.
10. Sports Night
More meta than Arrested Development, Sports Night’s final episodes questioned whether the show-within-a-show would go on. Sadly the fictional series fared better than the real one.
9. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
ended all of his series well, even the single season of Firefly, but we give the nod to the epic final episode of Buffy.
Sure, it was overlong and emotional, but how many of the millions of us watching felt just as sentimental and held on just as tightly as its creators. I grew up with M*A*S*H as much as any TV show, and learned at 11 years old that nothing lasts forever.
7. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson / The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien
The former bowed out with grace. But the latter bowed out in style, with O’Brien the deposed general doing his best to burn down the crops before retreating.
6. Freaks and Geeks
Our protagonist spent the 18 episodes of this wonderful show shedding whatever identity was thrown on her: brainiac, freak. But in the end, she chooses her own path, and though its not the most responsible one, her future still looks bright in the optimistic finale.
5. Star Trek: The Next Generation
The best series of the Star Trek franchise just kept getting better those last three seasons, culminating in “All Good Things…,” the final episode that brought Captain Picard back in the courtroom of Q, where his adventures began seven years before.
4. Life on Mars (U.K. version)
When what’s real and what’s a dream becomes confused, it takes a literal leap of faith to clear things up. The show ends with a man realizing that he knows where he belongs, and it’s not where anyone watching expected.
The series ends with the full emotional spectrum, from laughter to tears—literally. Any fan of the show would have a hard time holding back a sniffle when Sam, alone in his bar, says those perfect three little words that bring down the curtain: “Sorry, we’re closed.”
2. Six Feet Under
In a show that was ultimately all about death, the finale took the audience through the major events of the main characters’ lives, showing their ends just as it had countless others before. Without being saccharine, it stayed true to the intimacy that viewers felt with the Fisher family all along.
When Bob Newhart woke up in bed with Susan Pleshette on the set of the Newhart predecessor, The Bob Newhart Show, rendering an entire series to be a dream…well, we’re still laughing.
Thanks to Nick Purdy, Nick Marino and Rachel Bailey for their contributions to this list.