Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The 5 Best: TV Series Finales

Unless it's The Simpsons or a daytime soap opera, your favorite show will have to end sometime. Maybe the ending will come too late in its run (Roseanne, The X-Files), too soon (Quantum Leap, My So-Called Life) or hopefully just at the right time (Lost, The Wire). Regardless of where you are in that show's emotional journey, you're still invested with the characters and their stories. You want to see where they will all end up. You want closure.

I was too young to experience the ground-breaking finales of M*A*S*H, The Fugitive, Newhart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, St. Elsewhere, to name a few. I loved their ideas of how a series should end, especially Newhart. Waking up in bed with his wife from a previous show? Genius!

Alas, my memories of growing up to series finales are a bit newer in the television landscape. I remember misting up when Alex Keaton came back into the kitchen to hug his family on Family Ties. I smiled when Sam Malone turned off the lights, straightened up Geronimo in a nod to Coach, and sent a customer away in the end of Cheers. How about Cliff and Claire dancing their way off the set of The Cosby Show? Or when Kevin Arnold let it slip that his dad dies in two years on The Wonder Years? All potent stuff. These moments shaped up my television childhood.

As I got older, these events became a little less special. Maybe I've become more jaded, more cynical. There's no such thing as a perfect ending, is there? I've been let down so many times as my favorite shows fumbled the final call. The X-Files and Alias both bombed thanks to their over-extended, convoluted mythologies. Those shows ended long before their last episodes, and their meager attempts at tying loose ends just came too late.

Quantum Leap was extremely disappointing only because it wasn't intended as a series finale. It was filmed as a season ender and when it was learned that a new season was not imminent, they added an excruciating, thoughtless subtitle: "Dr. Sam Becket never returned home." Blasphemy! And they spelled his last name wrong! Gah!

Roseanne, my favorite sitcom of all time, burned out well before the finale. The atrocious final seasons could not be forgiven, not even Rosie's attempt to pretend it all never happened. Meh. No matter what they did to that show, seasons 1-6 are the best six seasons of any sitcom on television. But that's the subject of another post for another day.

Seinfeld's capper was humorous and had its moments, but the show is so much smarter than what essentially added up to be a clip reel. Seinfeld's legacy, and its legion of fans, deserved better than that.

From a critical standpoint, I applauded David Chase's ending for The Sopranos. It was unforgettable and that's exactly what Chase wanted it to be. We can all theorize endlessly about Tony's fate and that's the beauty of it. However, as an audience member who enjoys emotional closure, it left me feeling just a little bit empty.

I know there are more to dissect but dammit, Chloe, I can't fit them all here! This is a 5 Best post!

That being said, below are the finales that rocked my socks. These endings worked on all levels -- emotionally, intellectually -- and lived up to every single one of my expectations.

If you haven't seen these shows, then for the love of all things holy, do not read the synopsis! Trust me when I say: *Spoiler alert!*

Six Feet Under - aired on August 21, 2005
This is the best of the best. This is how you do an ending. Six Feet Under had a rocky run. It started off as quirky in the first season, then as the tone grew darker, it became almost insufferable. But midway into season 3, things were clicking and the characters were finally growing on me. The last half of the show's run became appointment television and when the finale came, I just lost it. Nate had already died (and what an incredible arc that was), while David, Keith, Brenda and Ruth were finally settling into a happy groove. Claire, who always had problems fitting in, realized that it was in her best interest to leave. Leave the funeral home, leave her tormented family, her sad love life, her stalled career. So, set to the wistful tune of Sia's "Breathe Me," she takes off. The open road is hers to travel. The show then gives us glimpses of how each of the characters would eventually meet their maker. What an emotional cathartic release that was. Closure in every sense of the word. Six Feet Under was, above all, a show about death. This beautifully executed ending could not have been more fitting.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - aired on May 20, 2003
In a word: kick-ass. Joss Whedon didn't let me down with the conclusion of one of the most audacious, entertaining and heartfelt thrillers in the history of television. Despite the last season feeling a bit lackluster, Whedon jolted us right back into the Buffyverse we all knew and loved with this heart-stopping and dramatic finale. The season's big-bad (Nathan Fillion) was properly dispensed of in thrilling fashion and not without consequences. The casualties hit us hard: Spike sacrificed himself (well, sorta) and Anya died heroically putting up a good fight. One of the episode's many smile-inducing highlights: huddled in a circle in the hallway of Sunnydale High, the core Scooby gang is shooting the breeze. This is exactly how we remember them from way back in the pilot. Full circle, folks. Beautiful. And the last shot -- Buffy standing over the crater of the town formerly known as Sunnydale -- is a parting image that I will never soon forget.

Frasier - aired on May 13, 2004
A class act all the way. Frasier's quality may not have been consistent during all of its eleven (!) season run, but one thing is for sure - the gang went out with dignity. I went into this finale refreshingly without expectations, without that dread and fear of them screwing it up and letting me down. Will Martin re-marry? Will Niles and Daphne have a boy or girl? Will Frasier be happy with Charlotte? None of that stuff was relevant, really. I only had one hope for this finale: that it would be funny. And it was. In fact, it was riotously funny. One of the great strengths of Frasier is its ability to create situations that make it impossible for our characters to come out without looking like fools. This ending was no different, a simple series capper that produced as many laughs as it did during its peak seasons. A classy, drama-free swan song.

The Shield - aired on November 25, 2008
In the previous year, we wondered what Tony Soprano's fate would be. Death? Jail? Both? Of course, we never found out thanks to Chase's genius (or cruelty?), but we do know that Vic Mackey got his due. The gut-wrenching final season (well-anchored by Walton Goggins, David Snell, CCH Pounder et al) concluded with a firecracker of an ending. The noose tightened so much on Mackey and Shane and their scheming ways, the suspense became unbearable. When we discovered Shane's wife and kid, dead, on the bed, before hearing Shane's self-inflicted gunshot, I was floored. Speechless. And Vic's comeuppance is ingenious. Worse than prison (where he'd fit right in) and death (he doesn't deserve to get off that easy) - Vic Mackey is put in a corner and metaphorically handcuffed. He's a desk lackey. He cannot do a god-damned thing. And it kills him. How's that for punishment?

Lost - aired on May 23, 2010
This one had a lot to live up to. Six years of dramatic cliffhangers, unsolved mysteries, puzzling developments, heavy symbolism and all around brilliant storytelling, Lost was either going to go down in flames or be embraced as one of the best finales of all-time. For many, it was a kick in the balls and right uppercut to the jaw, but for others, it was a cathartic, life-affirming release. Those who demanded "answers" got none, but if you wanted emotional closure and a well-crafted final adventure with our time-traveling Losties, Lindelof and Cuse delivered that in spades. When Vincent cuddled up with Jack in the show's final shot, I was a blubbering fool. After delivering his season 1 "Live Together/Die Alone" mantra, we got to see that neither Shepard nor his friends, in the end, died alone.


Larry Taylor said...

Fully agree with Six Feet Under. And Roseanne's entire final season was such a letdown. It was one of the best before that.

Dave said...

I think Roseanne started showing its signs of deterioration midway through Season 7. The 8th season was a mystifying bore and the last one was mind-boggling. It wasn't even a sitcom anymore. It became this art project for the writers to determine if they can make 22 bad episodes in a row! The characters were virtually unrecognizable.

Sorry. I am still bitter about it, apparently. :-)


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