Weekend Roundtable: Best & Worst TV Finales

During the months of May and June, the major broadcast networks wind down their TV seasons and make way for the cable nets to dominate the summer. Most of the shows we’ve watched over the past several months have either already rolled out their season (and in some cases, series) finale episodes or will do so shortly. This seems like a perfect time for a Roundtable about some of the best and worst finales in television history.

For the purposes of this discussion, either season finale or series finale episodes are fair game.

Tom Landy

Best: Although the season finale was bittersweet for me and had mixed reactions from the fans, I still really love all of the season-enders for Ronald Moore’s re-imagined ‘Battlestar Galactica‘. Keeping things vague so as not to reveal any real spoilers, the first season ends with a gut-wrenching (literally) shocker that comes out of nowhere and sends the anticipation for Season 2 through the roof. The doom and gloom of the last episode of Season 2 turns the series on its head by making a bleak-looking future even bleaker. But my favorite of them all is the third season finale, which not only reveals a few critical Cylon secrets, but does so to the tune of Bear McCreary’s haunting rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” It’s my favorite episode of the entire show.

Worst: On the negative side, I was disappointed with the series finale for ‘The Sopranos‘. It wasn’t that it was a bad episode, but that last scene still stirs controversy to this very day. After stewing over it for some years now, I think I get what series creator David Chase was trying to do with it. However, the execution still could have been better and far less confusing. I mean, my friend and I were watching it live at the time, and we both thought there was something wrong with the channel. According to the public outcry, we weren’t the only ones.

Nate Boss

Best: Google “The Lonely Man.” What better way to leave a show open, yet also leave on a real downer note? A classy finale to a goofy show.

Worst:Alf‘. The lovable alien life form with a hunger for felines is captured, presumably to be dissected by the evil organization that has hunted him down. The show is canceled, leaving this horribly cold note as his last moment.

Brian Hoss

Best: Many of the top TV series have disappointing finales, but ‘The Shield‘ did an excellent job of concluding its storylines in an interesting and entertaining manner, all while the themes of the series continued fatefully. The individual seasons also had some pretty good finales or penultimate episodes, one of which (that involved the fate of a major character) upset a friend of mine so much that she almost stopped watching the show.

Worst: Ignoring some of the more likely answers, a Fox show comes to mind for the worst series finale: ‘Space: Above and Beyond‘. For a show that only ran for one season, the storyline and characters were pretty epic. The finale, however, was just half-hearted. The creators knew that the show was done and had shaped the end of the season to reflect a certain severity, but because they still hoped that the show might somehow live again, the story and many of the characters were left in flux and without resolution.

Finally, I want to mention ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation‘, not for its excellent series finale, but for the unbelievably bad Season 2 finale. Apparently, there was a writer’s strike so severe that production of the second season had to end with a clip-show. Even as clip shows go, it’s just awful. The first season and a half’s worth of ‘TNG’ episodes did not make for much of a trip down memory lane. The frame for the clip show involved Commander Riker becoming infected by a plant (pro tip: never wear slacks in the Amazon) and lapsing into a coma, overseen by series un-favorite Dr. Pulaski. Spoiler Alert: The cure was a clip show.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Worst: Whenever the topic has both “worst” and “TV” in the title, it’s pretty much a lock that I’m going to whip out my punching bag of choice. ‘Heroes‘ had a grand total of four excruciatingly awful season finales, but the worst of the worst came at the end of Season Three. I guess NBC/Universal pulled the ripcord as that year’s finale was drawing to a close. Rather than the epic, special-effects-laden battle royale we were expecting between Sylar, Peter and Nathan (a four-color fight to the finish that the show had spent several seasons ramping up to), instead we just got a bunch of lights flickering from under a door at the Days Inn by the airport, or whatever. Yup, the climax of the season that had been years in the making takes place entirely off-screen. I know that’s what I asked Santa for when I was telling him about the comic book-inspired action/adventure drama of my dreams.

Mike Attebery

Worst: I still think that ‘Roseanne‘ had one of the weirdest finales ever. Totally out of sync with the rest of the show. It was all a book she was writing? Weird. That was Roseanne at her most out-to-lunch.

Best: Call me cheesy, but I thought ‘Friends’ got it right. Funny. Touching. And the outcomes we wanted for most of the characters. A satisfying conclusion.

Josh Zyber

Best: Creating a truly perfect series finale, one that encapsulates all of a show’s themes and brings satisfying closure both narratively and emotionally, is an incredibly difficult trick to pull off. The more beloved a series, the more impossible this task. With some shows (like, oh I don’t know, ‘Lost’…), there’s almost nothing a writer can do that won’t be guaranteed to piss off somebody. Nevertheless, every once in a blue moon, a series will get it exactly right. I’ll second Brian’s pick for ‘The Shield’ above. That show really nailed its ending.

To that, I will also add HBO’s ‘Six Feet Under‘. The last season or two of this show were a rough ride for fans. While I watched them, I can’t say that I entirely enjoyed how bleak most of the episodes got, and a plot twist that happened an episode or two before the finale was… perplexing, to say the least. But then the finale happened, and it pulled everything together beautifully. The final scenes put the entire series, including recent seasons, into perspective, and formed a hugely emotional summary of everything the series had ever been about. I can’t imagine the show ending better than it did. This finale was flawless.

Worst: There have been so many, many lousy series finales in the history of television. I hardly even know where to begin here. I certainly can’t pick just one. For starters, let’s look at the utterly tone-deaf ‘Seinfeld‘ finale, which was not only a clip-show (the lamest and laziest of all TV clichés), but ended by punishing all of the show’s characters for exactly the traits we loved about them over the years. It felt like Larry David (who wrote the episode) had forgotten why people liked the series at all.

Speaking of terrible clip-shows, I can’t leave out ‘The X-Files‘. This series, which was once a favorite of mine, started to lose its way in the sixth season, and rapidly declined afterwards. By the end, the “mythology” of the show had contradicted itself so many times that episode storylines made no sense at all. The series finale attempted to tie up all the loose ends, but only succeeded in making everything even more convoluted and confused (which is different than saying it was “confusing”). I don’t think even creator Chris Carter had any idea what anything meant anymore. The episode was also deadly dull and really stupid. It’s possibly the worst two hours of television I’ve ever suffered through.

Oh, but even that’s nothing compared to the final, astoundingly laughable plot twist in the American remake of ‘Life on Mars‘. This show was always a little uneven, but had finally started to find its groove in the last half of its first (and only) season. Unfortunately, the ratings were poor, but the writers had enough notice of their cancellation to put together a definitive ending. Well, what they came up with in the last ten minutes of the finale is the most howlingly awful thing I’ve ever seen on television. The worst part of it is that, once revealed, all of the pieces to the show’s mystery fell into place, and it became painfully obvious that this asinine conclusion was exactly what the writers had planned all along. The clues were right in front of us the whole time. I felt betrayed, like the writers had been jerking my chain from the beginning, and I had wasted my time investing in the show and its characters.

Now you tell us in the Comments about your picks for the best and worst TV finales.

30 comments

  1. JM

    Best: All the Aaron Sorkin finales. ‘Sports Night’ hit hard twice. ‘The West Wing’ closed our ass all four times. Even ‘Studio 60’ made me wet.

    Worst: ‘Rome.’ I loathed both finales, with their annoying British endings. But worse of all was the bullshit that the show was canceled. They should abandon the ‘Rome’ movie in development and just reboot the series.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Not sure what you didn’t like about the Rome finale. The show’s producers were told at the start of Season 2 that they wouldn’t be renewed again. They wrote the finale knowing that there would be no Season 3. If it’s open-ended, that’s because they had to stop at the beginning of Augustus Caesar’s reign, when there’s a lot of real-life history they couldn’t get to. But, as far as I recall, they resolved all of the show’s important storylines. I thought it was pretty satisfying. Unlike the end of Deadwood, which was clearly never intended to be a series finale.

      • JM

        My emotional makeup has ingrained in me a powerful need for a Hollywood ending.

        In terms of drama, a British ending is the opposite. The hero loses, the love story fails. Not tragically, but randomly. Simply because the euro writer holds the outlook that life sucks and stories need to mirror that.

        Sometimes I can forgive a British ending if it has surpassing craftsmanship. But both endings of ‘Rome’ felt cheap. A hackjob, forcing characters through the meat grinder.

        Perhaps it was the correct ending. The execution didn’t work for me.

        ‘Game Of Thrones,’ as a counterpoint, I was completely satisfied.

  2. Josh Zyber
    Author

    I have to speak up in defense of the Roseanne finale. The last couple seasons of that show, after the characters won the lottery, were awful beyond words. That’s really what was so out of sync with the original concept of the show. The finale was an attempt to reverse a lot of that damage by recontextualizing those events as just the wishful fantasy of a woman who had actually lost everything. It was very melancholy and, I thought, pretty touching.

    I can see why it wouldn’t work for everyone, though. This sort of “It was all a dream!” plot twist usually feels like a cheat.

      • EM

        Since The Bob Newhart Show was a far better series than Newhart ever was, Newhart’s ending was a distinct improvement.

    • Mike Attebery

      The last couple of seasons of Roseanne really were a shame. I pretend they don’t exist when I break out the DVDs.

      When the economic news is crap, and you’re working out the monthly budget, there’s still nothing like a couple hours with the Connors to remind you you’re not alone.

  3. RCorman

    Best:
    Breaking Bad – season 4 finale
    Excellent way to end a season, and would have worked as a series finale as well.

    Babylon 5 – Z’ha’dum – season 3 finale
    Great way to end a season. Gave some answers, but left enough questions make the viewer want to come back next season. Plus having the hero crash a spaceship full of nukes into the enemy didn’t hurt.

    Star Trek:TNG – Best of Both Worlds – season 3 finale
    Amazing cliffhanger ending and what made it better was the rumor that Patrick Stewart was considering not coming back for season 4.

    Not the worst series finale, but worst handling of a series finale: Farscape – Bad Timing
    SciFi, after renewing Farscape for seasons 4 and 5, then cancels the series just as they finished filming the season 4 cliffhanger.

  4. Shayne Blakeley

    Best: Every finale of (at least modern)Doctor Who, Breaking Bad and Buffy, season 4 and 5 of Angel.

    Worst: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

  5. besch64

    Six Feet Under’s finale is the pinnacle of visual storytelling. They might as well have cancelled television after that, because that summit will never be reached by another show again.

    I started to watch Six Feet Under entirely because I heard such good things about the finale. Two months and five box sets later, I finally got to the episode that I had been waiting for. If there was ever a moment in my TV/movie watching life that was primed for disappointment, this was it.

    Instead, it was perfect.

    The greatest. The greatest greatest greatest. Nothing like it in the world. Perfection.

    • merlich

      Agreed. After the finale concluded, my wife and I sat in stunned silence for several minutes, overwhelmed by the depth of emotion we were feeling.

  6. I am not going to go into season finalles, because I will probably confuse too many, so I am going to stick to series finallies.

    One of the best is “Star Trek: TNG”. Absolutely amazing episodes! It did a really good job of bringing closure to the show.

    Two of the worst are “Enterprise” and “Voyager”. Both shows felt like they were canceled toward the end of when they were finishing up the final seasons, and the writers thought, “Oh crap, we got to wrap this up, let’s throw something together”. The downside to this is not only did you have a less than steller finalle, but the last six or so episodes of both series felt rushed and badly written. Story lines that should have been fleshed out over another season or two were suddenly crammed into just a few episodes.

    I HATED how “Stargate Atlantis” ends, mainly because it was left so open.

    “Lost In Space” just kind of ended. But as there was not much of a progressing story there, it doesn’t really surprise me.

    The most mediocore finallee I can think of is “Full House”. It was not even one of the better episodes. But that show was kinda needing to end – the girls were getting up older, and them adding Nikki and Alex just made for a show where there was just too much going on. The show really started loosing steam after the fifth season, and could have probably ended with Jessie and Rebecca’s wedding. Oh, I continued watching, but I just felt like the show kind of lost its course after that.

  7. Kevin

    Well, there are some obvious favorites like Star Trek: The Next Generation “Best of Both Worlds, Part 1” and “All Good Things…”

    One that’s perhaps less obvious, though, that I really enjoyed was what turned out to be the series finale of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. While it’s a bit maddening that the show wasn’t picked up for more episodes after this, it’s just such an awesome episode, with Lord Dread’s forces infiltrating the Power base, and one of Captain Power’s team members having to make the ultimate sacrifice.

    On the flip side, one of the worst finales I’ve ever seen- Star Trek: Enterprise, Season 4, “These Are the Voyages”. Where the stars of the show are forced into the background as a holodeck recreation being watched by TNG’s Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis returning as Commander Riker and Counselor Troi. Aside from the VERY end of the episode with the “Space. The final frontier…” narration passing from Picard, to Kirk, and finally Archer, this episode was just a complete waste of an hour of television.

    • more like a complete waste of a series. i actually quite enjoyed Enterprise but that finale was just one big middle finger to the fans. i guess by 2005 the writers were tired of Star Trek and they didnt give a crap

    • EM

      I disliked Enterprise but did catch the series finale; I can see why it would be an irritation to fans of the show, even those who were also fans of The Next Generation. And if the producers were going to tie into a Next Generation episode, they could have picked a more interesting one than “The Pegasus”—plus did anyone believe Sirtis and especially Frakes looked about the same age over a decade later? They should have reported to Sickbay!

      • Agreed, the finale was awful. Enterprise is my favorite of the Star Trek series, but had the worst finale ever. As I stated above, it was like the writers got the word that the show was canceled at the last minute, and threw this episode together to tie to wrap up the story line.

  8. Brian Haney

    MASH best my favorite show, wrapped everything up nicely and all t he people got to say good bye.

    Worst-Seinfield, jail, really wtf was that?

  9. I really hated the finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not only did it feel extremely rushed, but the story was terrible– Angel randomly reappears to hand over a magical necklace that ends up killing all of the bad guys and solving everything (woohoo). Meanwhile, the uber-vamps, which took Buffy an entire episode to kill ONE, are now being fought off by Giles and Xander with swords (?!).

    That whole last season was pretty bad, but I think the final episode was especially disappointing and ill-conceived.

    • JR

      I didn’t care for the series finale of Buffy either. In hindsight I think they should have stuck to the season five finale/WB cancellation. It was so much better and despite a couple of great episodes the rest of the final two seasons just weren’t worth it.

      • Josh Zyber
        Author

        Season 7 was kind of a mess, and I can understand these complaints about the finale. However, the ultimate climax (not going to get into spoilers for people who haven’t caught up with it) was very satisfying on both thematic and emotional levels. That’s more important to me than some of the specific plot nit-picks.

      • Shayne Blakeley

        I hear that from people a lot, but I feel like the show was best after that, season six being my favorite. The series finale did seem sort of rushed on it’s own, but if watched in tandem with Angel they explain the medallion much more, and it makes sense that Wolfram & Hart would want to step in since they had established that they didn’t like “other peoples apocalypses” stepping on their toes. Also, Willow unlocking all of the potential slayers is a nice end point as it allows Buffy to effectively retire if she wants.

        • I was watching Angel at the time too, so I understood how he got the necklace and why he was there, but I still think it was a major cop-out that the final villain of Buffy was quickly dispatched due to what was otherwise a non-related storyline in a spin-off show.

          I did like the very, very end of the episode, and the idea behind it, but IMO the execution of the whole thing took a lot of steam out of it.