The 13 Best Backdoor Finales in TV History

TV Lists Backdoor Finales
The 13 Best Backdoor Finales in TV History

In March, only a few weeks after it completed a critically acclaimed third season, FXX axed Simon Rich’s romantic sitcom Man Seeking Woman. For fans of the show, which featured Jay Baruchel as a lovesick young man navigating modern dating through a variety of increasingly absurd comic premises, it was unwelcome but not necessarily unsurprising news. For a series with such low ratings, it was kind of a miracle that it even made it that far.

Though we’ll never see what Rich would have done in skewering the surreal realities of married life, thanks to the strength of the Man Seeking Woman’s Season Three/series finale, the show joins a small but mighty collection of television shows. These shows, despite dying an early death, produced an unintended series finale that still works as a thematic closer to the entire series. Among shows that were cancelled midseason, shows that were not renewed, and shows that anticipated the possibility of cancellation and planned a flexible finale around that, the annals of TV’s “backdoor finales” include a number of episodes as impressive and satisfying as the finales of series that came to a close of their creators’ own volition. (Theoretically, if a TV show is true enough to itself, any episode could serve as the last episode—and yes, that’s not how storytelling works, but it’s fun to think about.)

Here, Paste takes a closer look at the shows that pulled off a great series finale that was never—or not fully—intended as such, to see what made them great, and how they proved you don’t need a “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” to round out a long-form story.

13. Gilmore Girls, “Bon Voyage”

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The latest in a string of shows that came back from the dead thanks to Netflix (to mixed results), Gilmore Girls initially ended a seven-season run with “Bon Voyage” in 2007. In capping off a mostly not-that-great final season—largely a function of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s departure—Gilmore Girls faced a dilemma: There was the possibility that The CW would bring back the show for Season Eight. On top of that, Sherman-Palladino had fueled finale hype with her J.K. Rowling-y statement that she knew what the last four words of the show would be (or, following her exit, would have been). But David S. Rosenthal managed to pull it off, delivering a loosely open-ended finale that treated the story of Stars Hollow novelistically. Life just went on in an episode that eschewed finale theatrics, and gave us a closing moment that existed in quiet poetry with the pilot. Few other finales are able to give us the impression that the world we’ve been following will continue to exist—we just won’t be watching.

12. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “Born to Run”

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The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the only 21st century Terminator installment that didn’t make you want to go back in time and murder (or else dissuade) James Cameron. Though bolstered by an extremely enthusiastic fan base (and, hey! That’s an excellent pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey as Sarah Connor!), the show’s viewership was cut in half over the course of its second season. That’s a shame, since Terminator’s restrictive TV budget forced the storytelling to get sharper and sharper as the series went on. The finale built itself on all of that improvement, and (with the possibility of cancellation looming) took a massive gamble by abruptly sending John Connor (Thomas Dekker) into a future that, to his shock, has no idea who he is. Terminator probably would not have been able to maintain the quality of that dystopian future, so this bold move becomes all the more powerful because we can’t see what happens next. The fans that aggressively campaigned for the series’ renewal probably wouldn’t agree, but creator Josh Friedman has promised never to reveal his plans for the future of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. So that’s that.

11. Firefly, “Objects in Space”

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Joss Whedon’s beloved one-season wonder would eventually get a spectacular and conclusive sendoff with the 2005 feature film Serenity, one that would answer the series’ over-arching questions. But for a while, all fans had was this final episode, and as far as addressing Firefly’s thematic concerns, you couldn’t do better. In fact, Whedon has said that if he had to pick one thing to represent his entire career, it would be “Objects in Space,” which reflects his youthful obsession with Sartre’s existential novel Nausea. Whedon would continue to explore aspects of the implacable, monologue-prone villain Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) with Serenity’s “the Operative,” but his take on the character here is close to perfect. Early quickly infiltrates and incapacitates the entire Serenity crew, rattling their convictions at the same time. Every character would need to hone in on what made them essential to the crew in order to successfully defeat Early, but the lasting significance of the episode comes from Early and River’s (Summer Ghau) detachment from the physical forms of objects (she perceives a gun as nothing more than a stick)—eerie and appropriate symbolism for a show about objects drifting through empty space.

10. Twin Peaks, “Episode 29”

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Twin Peaks is also getting a limited revival this year thanks to Showtime. But for many years, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s unsettling supernatural mystery was a singular television event, cited both as the moment when the medium grew up and as a warning of what happens when a show blows up too big too fast and runs out of track. After the series answered its initial question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” fans realized that the creators had posed more problems than they ever intended to resolve, and the second season was bogged down by its own weight and weirdness. However, Twin Peaks managed to introduce a compelling new villain in the form of Agent Cooper’s (Kyle McLachlan) insane former mentor, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), and the series pulled off the unlikely trick of getting most of its major elements in one place during a terrifying final sequence. Cooper enters the extra-dimensional “Black Lodge” to confront Earle, lots of dead characters show up as doppelgangers (?) and a last-minute twist reveals that the Cooper that escaped the lodge is actually his evil doppelganger, possessed by the malevolent spirit, Bob. The sight of the decent and kind-hearted Cooper cackling maniacally as blood dripped down his face was a final gut-wrench from a show that had lost its ability to surprise. Additionally, it was a perfect reminder of the series’ initial Peyton Place thesis: The most wholesome of artifices might have evil right beneath it.

9. Terriers, “Hail Mary”

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Another FX show cancelled before it really had a chance to stretch its legs, Terriers still managed to tell a complete story, balancing the episodic capers of ex-cop Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and his ex-criminal sidekick, Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) with a larger, serialized mystery. Once Hank discovers the man behind the Ocean Beach airport plot (Neal McDonough) and foils him, the question then becomes what will happen to the good-natured Britt, who is facing jail time. The final image of the series is the same as the first: Hank and Britt stopped at a red light. Only this time, Hank gives Britt the choice of what to do next. Do they continue straight on the road to prison, or—in a move consistent with the duo’s idiosyncratic flair—take the left that leads to a life on the run in Mexico? It’s an effective cliffhanger, for sure, but the cyclical imagery does a lot to make this feel like a true ending, a full rotation that moves our protagonists incrementally forward. While a fair world would see another season of Terriers, I’m convinced that an equally appropriate ending to the story of Hank and Britt is the presence of this fork in the road, regardless of which path they would have taken.

8.Man Seeking Woman, “Blood”

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When Man Seeking Woman debuted, it seemed that its formula (twenty-something tries to find love but seems to live in a world with sketch-comedy rules) could keep going forever. Every week there could be a different foil for Josh’s (Jay Baruchel) sexual and romantic exploits and that would be fine. But as the show increasingly focused on Josh’s sister and parents, before almost resetting with the introduction of Lucy (Katie Findlay) and committing (like Josh) to one stable relationship, it began to feel like Man Seeking Woman was always meant to be a three-part story. The finale, which addresses the generational divide when it comes to love and marriage by having Josh’s parents try to sabotage his and Lucy’s wedding, comes to the conclusion that the couple is finally ready to set out on their own. And they are. Josh and Lucy conclude the season (and the series) by taking on a monster called Gragdor (echoing a previous episode’s “wedding in Hell”). It was an archetypical Man Seeking Woman moment, and yet it felt like the entire series was building to this. It was a show that could have gone anywhere, but if it had to end now, I’m glad it ended like this.

T7. Pushing Daisies, “Kerplunk” / Wonderfalls, “Caged Bird”

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Brian Fuller may have earned a small legion of devoted fans thanks to the singular stories he tells, but every single one of his TV projects (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies and Hannibal) has been prematurely canceled. Hopefully, his adaptation of American Gods for Starz will have more luck (it’s already a book, so at least we know what happens). But even if disaster strikes, the specificity he brings to his TV work makes for open-ended finales that turn out pretty well. Pushing Daisies was always designed as a “forensic fairy tale,” and in that sense its stories were inherently tied to how we imagined them. Its finale pushed the storyline of the Darling Mermaid Darlings forward in a big way, and while the montage that brought things to a close wasn’t entirely satisfying, it fit with the storybook aesthetic of the show. Wonderfalls had it even better: Something finally goes right for Jaye (Caroline Dhavernas), as the objects that speak to her lead her to her love interest in the middle of a hostage situation. That weird, Fullerian victory was enough to feel conclusive, even if the finale never aired on the show’s parent network.

5. Futurama, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings,” “Into the Wild Green Yonder,” “Overclockwise” and “Meanwhile”

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Futurama’s many series finales technically belong on a parallel list of series finales that turned out not be series finales. Of course, that’s the very opposite of what belongs on this list, but it’s more complicated than that. Initially, Futurama was never technically cancelled. Fox just stopped buying episodes halfway through its fourth season and production stopped. This led to the first finale, “The Devil’s Hands…” which was not conceived as such but had a few knowing in-jokes referring to the cancellation. It was only after the show found success in syndication on Adult Swim that Comedy Central produced the four direct-to-DVD films that make up Season Five, the last of which is “Into the Wild Green Yonder.” This led to a Comedy Central revival, which produced “Overclockwise” as a finale in case the show was not renewed. It was, but this is all to say that Futurama’s constantly uncertain future means its relationship to its own conclusion was still uncertain when “Meanwhile” aired. Despite never really knowing if the end was the end, though, the creators actually made each finale a pillar of Futurama’s guiding virtues. “The Devil’s Hands…” captured its silliness and strong characterization, “Into the Wild Green Yonder” its sense of scale and adventure, “Overclockwise” its high-concept sci-fi side, and “Meanwhile” its beating heart. Each is, in its own way, a satisfying finish to one of TV’s most unpredictable and brilliant shows.

4. NewsRadio, “New Hampshire”

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The road to NewsRadio’s cancellation contains a much larger story, and a particularly tragic one. Due to declining ratings and a particularly contemptuous relationship with NBC, NewsRadio was cancelled after its fourth season. (The creators, constantly concerned that NBC wouldn’t pick up the show for another season, aired “Sinking Ship,” a goofy “what if” episode set on the Titanic, as a possible finale.) The decision to cancel the show was reversed a few weeks later. Ten days after that, actor Phil Hartman (the SNL and Simpsons alum who played arrogant news anchor Bill McNeal) was murdered by his wife. The first episode of Season Five is a heartbreaking tribute to Hartman, and fans waited to hear about the series’ fate for the rest of the season. In an effort to shake things up, the finale saw the radio station’s owner, Jimmy James (Stephen Root), buying a rural station in New Hampshire and moving WNYX there. This would have been the setting for Season Six had the show not been officially cancelled soon after the Season Five finale aired. Still, “New Hampshire” contains the poignant, quiet moments the series had earned over the course of its run. Dave Nelson (Dave Foley), however, is, ironically, left behind with Andy Dick. So it’s a depressing finale, but an appropriate one nonetheless.

3. Enlightened, “Agent of Change”

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Mike White’s Enlightened was doomed from the start. Even on HBO, a heartbreakingly sympathetic story about a complicated woman and the people who branded her “hysterical” just wasn’t what people wanted to watch. And for a TV culture obsessed with difficult men and the bad they break, a show about people struggling to do good was unlikely to catch on. But Enlightened didn’t just survive its first season; it thrived in its second—creatively, at least. “Agent of Change,” which echoes the title former-executive-turned-mental-patient-turned-whistleblower Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) strives to earn, focuses on her confrontation with the CEO of the company that treated her like dirt (the late, great James Rebhorn), leading up to the publication of the exposé Amy contributed to. She is finally the agent of change she longed to be, but draws more power from the ability to assert herself in a manner she had long been denied. The other characters on the show do so, too, and the ultimate effect is as affirming as anything Enlightened ever did, even as the finale foreshadows the huge shitstorm that’s about to come for Amy. All Enlightened needed was a third season in order to wrap up a planned trilogy, according to White. But “Agent of Change” works well as a finale just by reminding us of the balancing act Enlightened pulled off, and by tapping into the genuine positivity it was able to conjure.

2. Freaks and Geeks, “Discos and Dragons”

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Freaks and Geeks works so brilliantly on so many levels that it’s hard to focus on the one specific level that makes the finale so great.(I didn’t discover it until my dad began watching IFC reruns, and all I really want to write about is when we were both quietly devastated at the end of “The Garage Door,” without me knowing anything about the rest of the episode). Fundamentally, Freaks and Geeks is a show about the labels people give you in high school and the ones you give yourself. It’s right there in the title. But it’s also a tribute to how high school, as an incubator, allows those labels to grow and change over time. That’s what high school is for, and that’s why we remember it with such fondness even as we grimace. “Discos and Dragons,” likewise, finds each character trying something new. Nick (Jason Segel) has ditched “disco sucks” for disco dance partner Lizzy Caplan. Kim (Busy Philips) breaks up with Daniel (James Franco), who is forced to spend detention in the AV room with the geeks, who, in turn, realize they were as wrong about him as he was about them. And Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), who had staked out a new life for herself at the beginning of the series, now finds herself having to put her money with her mouth is. The weird plausibility of Lindsay ditching a summer in Ann Arbor (Go Blue!) to follow the Grateful Dead was the best thing about the show in the first place. So many TV shows have characters trying on a new hat for an episode—how many jobs has Homer Simpson had? Freaks and Geeks made us believe it was really part of their journey.

1. Deadwood, “Tell Him Something Pretty”

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The fourth season of Deadwood is written in the pages of history, if you must know. HBO canceled the show for a bunch of reasons. Chief among them, creator David Milch is a mad-genius who had people fully recreate the town of Deadwood so he could shoot the series in the most expensive way conceivable. However, Milch had the foresight to write “Tell Him Something Pretty” as a finale and still explicitly disregarded our need for closure. What we got was the most effective and satisfying instance of anticlimax in the history of television. “Tell Him Something Pretty” gives you nothing you wanted but everything you needed, in addition to a “print the legend” factor that gives us the Old West mythology we still carry around today.

The West was won through near-constant setbacks and sacrifice, and this episode is more than true to that. Even after a furious season-long battle that united the entire camp (including Ian McShane’s previously villainous Al Swearengen) in opposition against the villainous magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), Hearst still wins. Sure, he leaves the camp, but he wins the election, basically owns the county, murders the series’ most beloved character, and goes on to, basically, write the history books. Al—in a bizarrely caring if still horrifying gesture—has an anonymous prostitute murdered in order to protect Trixie (Paula Malcomson) from Hearst, but if he retaliates in any other way it will mean the end of everything everyone in the town has worked toward. The only available option is to do quiet good, even as the definition of what “good” is continues to change.

Deadwood’s third season, produced in the wake of—and deeply concerned with—John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004, is full of questions about what the collective is to do in the face of capitalism that becomes violent self-interest. Order is born out of chaos, but at what cost? With that question in mind, I can think of no more perfect ending to Deadwood than one full of Pyrrhic victories. Al himself insists on scrubbing the blood from his sacrifice off the floor. Deadwood has been brought together into a community, with each member shifting in order to fill the role that community asks of them. America would repeat this process over and over again, even after a fire undid most of Deadwood’s progress in 1879 (this would have been the major event of Season Four). The last line of the series is in reference to another lie that will make this progress possible: “wants me to tell him something pretty.” Milch is reportedly at work on the script for a made-for-TV Deadwood movie, which could tie up the story he always meant to tell. We don’t need it.

Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.

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