Having just watched the last Lost and 24 of all time, and enjoying and being confused by each one in its own way, I've been thinking about the elements that make a great TV series finale.
I've narrowed it down to 10 magic ingredients.
A series finale should:
- Be surprising by telling you something you didn't already know.
- Not be so surprising that it ruins the rewatchability of the episodes that have come before.
- Stand the test of time or get better with time.
- Be in keeping with the rest of the series.
- Take itself seriously, but not so seriously as to become pretentious.
- Avoid cliches, like "it was all a dream" or "a lion rushed out of nowhere and ate them!"
- Be self-referential, but in moderation.
- Bring back characters that have (inevitably) left the show or died.
- Tell us a little about what happens to everyone, while leaving some unsolved mysteries.
- Break at least one of the above rules.
10. St. Elsewhere
This widely mocked hospital-drama finale set the standard for making viewers go, "What the hell!?" It's here in place of the Sopranos cut-to-black ending, which pretty much did the same thing.
Imagine ER ending this way: turns out the whole show took place in an autistic boy's head, inspired by a toy hospital in a snow globe.
Zany. Wacky. Crazy. Terrible. Memorable. And it's still being talked about years later.
Oh, yeah: and the credits rolled over the MTM cat, flatlining on a gurney.
So bad, it's great!
One of the most overlooked shows and finale ended the series in typical style: a poisonous substance is delivered to the prison, and it's evacuation time - onto yellow buses snaking around the prison.
Cue final shots of empty set. Lovely.
8. The Shield
What's worse than Vic Mackey, everyone's favorite crooked cop, landing in prison? How about a fate worse than prison: a cubicle lit by buzzing fluorescent lights. And I know of what I speak.
7. The Wire
The greatest TV show in history had one of the greatest finales: a "one more for the road" montage and a final, lingering shot on the show's star: Baltimore.
6. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Hankies, group hugs, sentiment, comedy, a group Kleenex-grab, and...the last one leaving turns out the lights. Classy.
5. Late Night with David Letterman
The best talk-show farewell ever.
Tom Hanks delivers his best performance as himself (telling a hilarious story about working as a bellhop and coming face to face with Cher and Gregg Allman), and Letterman introduces the one guest he always wished he had on the show: Bruce Springsteen.
Bruce delivers some last-minute instructions to the band on his way out, and the resulting performance of Glory Days is ragged, energetic, and pure fun. The band members look like they're having the time of their lives. Magic!
4. The Office (British version)
Why the American version of the Office will never hold a candle to the original (yeah, I know: I'm a TV snob - but what are ya gonna do?).
The finale was touching, hilarious, actually found a way to make David Brent more of a buffoon and a hero, and cleverly solved the problem of how to make a romantic resolution seem original and true.
I recall watching the first half of this finale and thinking, "This show is terrible! None of this makes any sense!"
Cue last-minute save: Bob wakes up next to his first TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette, and expresses the same sentiment. Presto! - the worst finale in TV history became the best.
When I saw Bob Newhart doing stand-up comedy live at the Concert Hall a few years ago, he brought a video screen along with him, just to show this:
2. Twin Peaks
A pleasant stroll through the Black Lodge wouldn't be complete without maniacal laughing, strobe lights, blood, and a dancing midget offering coffee.
After this mind-bending sequence, our hero - FBI agent Dale Cooper - becomes the embodiment of evil, smashing his head into a mirror, laughing, and asking the very rhetorical question (in his best Jack Nicholson impression), "Where's Annie?! Where's Annie?! Where's Annie?!"
1. Six Feet Under
The ultimate finale for every show: everybody dies. Executed with grace, style, and a lovely song by Sia.
A perfect illustration of the broad sweep of life, what it means, and how quickly it's over: