Bracing for a great series to produce its final episode can be like watching an egg-on-a-spoon race: you tense up, hoping your player doesn’t drop it at the last moment.
—James Poniewozik of Time Magazine
No, I am not going to quit writing these articles. Nor am I being canceled, like so many of the shows on this site. Besides, I’m having too much fun. But it’s time for another general article on television, and this time, I’m going to focus on how various series end their runs, both voluntary and not, and the different ways different shows take their leave.
(FAIR WARNING: Spoilers abound ahead about lots of shows, and how they finished. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
In 1983, CBS aired the highest-rated entertainment series episode in history. Reaching over 120 million viewers in the US, the final episode of the long-running M*A*S*H earned an unprecedented 77 share, meaning that 77% of all televisions on at the time in the entire country were tuned to the finale. It was called Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, and thanks to the modern splintering of television viewership and the explosion of cable networks, such numbers will likely never be seen again by entertainment programs.
Fans of M*A*S*H had fallen in love with the misfits of the 4077th Military Hospital, to the point where the television series lasted longer than the actual Korean War during which it was set. So the emotional goodbye to the characters was fitting, and such an ending was needed for both cast, crew, and the public at large, if only because they’d affected our lives in so many ways. But we can use the title of this landmark episode as our guide to all the other finales of shows, both long and short, and of how the idea of a finale is approached.
Most of the time, this site deals in short-run television, and those shows which have had their dreams of a long and successful existence ended far too soon. Often cut down in mid-stride, most series fall into this category (considering that only a third of any freshman crop of shows ever reaches a second season anyway). Some shows have tried to avoid this problem by creating cliff-hanger endings, hoping that by causing wonder amongst viewers about what might happen if the show is brought back for another season, it would live to tell more tales.
the second season "prequel"
Producers and cast read the ratings, and although hopes are always for the best, bad news can still be disheartening. The producers of ABC’s Sledge Hammer! were so certain their series was destined to be cancelled, they ended their scheduled final episode with all the regulars inside a building… which they promptly blew up with an atomic bomb! Figuring there was no reason for survivors, they went out (literally) with a bang… only to be the subject of a surprise renewal a few weeks later, and a HUGE hole to write themselves out of. The best part? They did so, simply with a caption before the first shot of the next season’s premiere, telling viewers the following season takes place “five years before that nuclear explosion.” And so they continued.
Most shows simply have business as usual, only because word of ending production comes down from their bosses in the midst of normal filming, with no notice of finality. Even if there’s hope of renewal, some shows design their seasons around an arc for their characters, so shows might end… or they might continue. John Rogers (producer/creator of my fave show Leverage) deliberately hates cliffhanger endings (and has stated so on many occasions), so he’s purposely made each season have a type of ending, but with enough openness to allow for the adventures to continue (and fortunately for me, it will start its FIFTH season next year).
To leap, or not to leap...
Some shows have not been renewed when they finish production for the year, and have to plan out a final episode not knowing whether it will be a season-ender or possibly a series finale. Quantum Leap has a notorious last episode, entitled Mirror Image. After an unusual encounter with many familiar faces, time-traveler Sam Beckett must choose if he should return home, or continue with his leaps through time. Ultimately, he chooses to continue (as well he should, because the series may have continued as well), but there’s a final on-screen message, saying that Sam never returned home. This may have been added after filming but before the episode aired, when the production company learned Quantum Leap was not going to return for another season… but fans reacted strongly to the news of a less-than-happy ending for their hero. To this day, some wish for a more proper “wrap-up” to the series.
Fellow genre show Eureka still has one more season to go on SyFy Channel, which will air in Spring of 2012, but the show has already been cancelled officially and all episodes have been filmed. Word didn’t come down until the final week of shooting, however, and once again fans were outraged (especially when it was learned that the final season was to end on a cliffhanger). Under pressure from fans (and with the encouragement of cast and crew), SyFy quickly ponied up the money for a final resolution episode, so the residents of Eureka could end their five-season journey properly. Of course, it won’t hurt that SyFy will promote this episode like crazy, but having some semblance of closure is better than the open-ended alternative.
On the other end of the spectrum is a show where all involved can read the writing on the wall, and know the end is near. I’ve already talked about Wonderfalls on this site, and the fall from network grace they felt during production. Even though the series was cancelled early, the producers were allocated a filmed 13 episodes, and treated them as a mini-series with a beginning, middle, and end. Even though you have to get the DVD set to see them all, at least those in charge gave all of the fans their own gift, and the characters a way to reach the end of a journey.
And yet, the desires of business sometimes mean another journey has to start. Many shows (including the beloved M*A*S*H mentioned above) have reworked themselves into sequel series, with a change of location or setting. Most of these have been less than successful, simply because audiences were satisfied with the ending given, and it tarnishes the emotion of the departure if characters are simply back in a new form the following fall. So shows like AfterM*A*S*H and Archie Bunker’s Place (the direct sequel to All in the Family) still show up, for business reasons if nothing else.
“There are two ways to wrap up a canceled or ending TV show. There’s the oft employed looking back at an empty room and closing the door option. Then there’s the ‘WTF! Let’s stab their eyeballs with crazy!’ approach.”
–Greg Welsh of Cracked.com
There are lots of shows that have done their goodbyes the right way. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (a contemporary of M*A*S*H) literally did the “closing the door” option, with the characters all leaving the WJM-TV newsroom for one last time, and shutting off the lights for good. Friday Night Lights gave their series a proper send-off this past season, appropriately ending with a final triumphant football game and closure to the journey of their main characters. And three of the four modern Star Trek series all had satisfying endings for their respective crews (movie sequels notwithstanding).
Star Trek: The Next Generation did the “look into our characters future” trick as an effective last episode. But in that fourth series, Star Trek: Enterprise, we see a much less effective way to leave. The main people behind the long runs of the other shows in the franchise came back and, for the finale, they wrote a self-professed “love letter to the fans”… and messed it up completely, since it focused on characters from the other series instead of the Enterprise crew. Those who stuck with Star Trek: Enterprise to the end actually preferred the final season, once “the powers that be” let the new producers make the show they wanted. But those same powers returning for the finale left a bad taste in the mouth of many, and resulted in a much less than triumphant ending for the show–to the point that the ongoing novel series had to retroactively construct a better ending, allowing a beloved character to continue after his on-screen death!
Of course, at least this kind of misfire is understandable. But the concept of “Amen” for a series finale leads to making these episodes somewhat incomprehensible, or at least misguided. On modern favorites like The Sopranos, Lost, and the Battlestar: Galactica reboot, the endings were more open to interpretation rather than being a truly final moment for these shows. Some fans of The Sopranos were so confused by the “instant blackout” ending that they called their cable providers, thinking their service had cut out just at the pivotal final moment… but there was no actual “moment”. Lost was confusing enough at times, so perhaps they can be forgiven for their choices, and at least they followed form for their ending. But for a SF series primarily based in space, Battlestar: Galactica ended with a stroll by two characters (one likely imaginary) through what looked to be Central Park in New York City, baffling more than a few with their choice and leaving viewers scratching their heads.
"doing nothing" in jail
Then there’s Seinfeld, and an ending that was so underwhelming that the actors all later reunited on a different show to provide better closure. On the original Seinfeld ending, our four main characters were sent to jail for doing nothing (violating a “Good Samaritan” law by not offering assistance when needed). Of course, Seinfeld was sold on the idea of it being a series “about nothing”, so this ending was likely a great laugh in the writers’ room. But that’s not how the viewers felt about those characters, and so the denouement was not a good one.
The co-creator of the show (along with Jerry Seinfeld) was Larry David, who went on to create and star in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Knowing the troubled reputation of the Seinfeld finale, he wrote a Curb episode involving a Seinfeld reunion (and featuring the four main actors and some of the recurring ones). While this was not an ending per se, it did seem to help give a better moment for the fans.
“Series finales are a tricky business — what works for one show might be disastrous for another. See, we viewers are a loyal bunch. We get emotionally invested in our favorite characters, who we’ve probably spent more time with than our own friends and families. Not only do we want them to have a fitting send-off, with plenty of laughter and tears, just like the network promos promise, but we want closure, or at least the closest thing to closure you can get with people who don’t actually exist.”
–Kat Giantis of MSN Entertainment
Of course, the ultimate finish (as far as pure TV enjoyment was concerned) was the delightful (and surprising) way that Newhart ended. A veteran of many years of television comedy, Bob Newhart’s second successful series (about a quirky Vermont inn) was just as strange as usual (if not more so). But near the end of the finale, Bob’s character is hit in the head by a golf ball, and he blacks out… only to wake up in the familiar bedroom of his previous series, The Bob Newhart Show. He then awakens his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette, reprising her role from the earlier show a decade ago) in one of their typical bedroom scenes, and tells her of this very strange dream he’s had about running an inn in Vermont! It was a great ending that was true to a series, and yet allowed those who loved Bob Newhart and followed him through both shows a great, unexpected present.
"The Bob Newhart Show" and "Newhart", old and new
Finally, I did say I wasn’t going to end these articles, and I mean that. But real life, and holiday celebrations, means I’m taking a couple of weeks off from here (although there may be a repost or two of my faves, or at least something brief to make it through two weeks). Consider it a brief hiatus, or rerun season, or just that bit of anticipation knowing a new season of articles is coming. I’ll be back here soon with new words about old shows, and putting the fun train back on track. In the meantime, I hope everyone gets lots of goodies (I know I’m getting a bunch of new DVDs for the site, and two have already arrived), so watch, enjoy, and have fun… and come back here soon!
Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always!