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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.