Now that the Breaking Bad finale is just days away, and it will almost certainly find its place on this list without a colossal letdown. Last week, it was the worst finales, this week it’s the best. I never saw the finales for Cheers, The Shield, Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, and I don’t remember The Cosby Show finale. This list is based on what I have seen. The Wire just missed the cut, and while it was good, the rest of that show was so good, and the finale, somewhat insignificant, that it just didn’t make the cut.
6. Friday Night Lights
This show was never about football. Football is what made all the pieces fit together, but this was always a show about relationships. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton’s on-screen marriage is one of the most realistic ever portrayed, and her performance will always be one of the most underrated performances of the decade1. When Mrs. Hippo and I re-watched it this week, her thought was “there are just too many relationship”, and it was in the based on the fact that watching the finale out of context made it seem “too relationshippy”. But that is what this show always was. No further proof is needed beyond the fact that the final Hail Mary in the state championship wasn’t even shown.
This finale was a hybrid “everyone moves away + life goes on”, but there are some great moments. Coach giving Vince’s dad the ticket. Vince thanking the coach before the game for everything. Coach agreeing to move to Philly for his wife’s career. The Riggins’ brothers sharing a “Texas forever” while building Tim’s house, and of course “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts…we’ll work on that later”. Major misty time.
Along with Friends and Seinfeld, ER was my other favorite show as a kid. It’s 331 episode run is the 2nd longest of any live action scripted show that started after 1980 (Law and Order is first), and the nature of the hospital means that wrapping up this show wasn’t as simple as shutting it down or having everyone move away. The finale had a very “life goes on” quality to it, but what made it perfect were the cameos of past cast members Laura Innes, Sherry Stringfield, Eriq La Salle, Alex Kingston, and Paraminder Nagra. Noah Wyle had returned for a few episodes in the last couple of seasons, and the moment he and his (ex?) wife Kem (Thandie Newton) had were great. The uncertainty of their future was a nice touch.
The cherry on top of course, was the return of Hallee Hirsch, daughter of Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards). It was a nice touch, that created some parallels to the pilot, including the last line of the show, appropriately spoken by Noah Wyle, one of the few main characters who was also in the pilot. Misty time.
4. The Office
Likely the gold standard of this generation of television, despite its awful final couple of seasons. This show went on way too long and it’s finale likely won’t get the long term love it deserves as a result. The documentary angle was stupid, but the time jump before the last episode was a nice touch to make the events a bit more feasible. The ridiculous Shrute rituals of the wedding were funny, and all the old characters coming back, as well as the epilogue-style updates on current characters was a nice touch. But when Michael Scott expectedly shows up, it was misty time.
My friend B-Bo is not a fan of the “everyone moves away” finale, but shows are limited in ways of ending short of “life goes on”. Shows like MASH* can do things like end the war. If The Office had wanted to they probably could have had the company go out of business. The Wonder Years did the whole “life goes on, but here’s what happened to everyone down the road” montage. People generally want closure though. And Friends did that.
Monica and Chandler finally got their kids, and had already been planning to move to the suburbs, which would account for the primary set of the show to be gone. Rachel took a job in Paris and she and Ross decide they need to be together and he chases her down and
ultimately decides to go with[ed- I was reminded that it’s assumed she isn’t going because she gets off the plane instead of him following her, but I guess it’s really open to interpretation] . Some people thought it was lame, but this was the destiny of this show for its entire run. I also thought they did a good job of not trying to promote the Joey spinoff by talking about what he was doing next.
When you start a show about six twenty-somethings, they have to grow up move on, and this was an elegant way to go out.
2. The Sopranos
Possibly the most anticipated, and most controversial finales of all-time. Stealing an argument from Bill Simmons, it’s not that the show ended abstractly, it’s that David Chase made viewers think their cable went out2. Chase has said for years that “everything is there”, which can be interpreted one of two ways. First, that you can figure out exactly what happened if you look hard enough. The other option is that he is referring to the fact that the whole story is there and it’s up to viewers to interpret it how they’d like.
Upon repeat viewings, it seems almost obvious that Soprano died. The suddenly going to black, the delay showing the credits, the lack of music over the credits (the only time in the show’s history?), the mobbish dude who eyeballs Tony before going into the bathroom, the reference earlier in the season to “it all going back when you die”. That’s what makes this finale so great. Despite the looming indictments, Tony looked like he had won. It looked like life was moving on, and while some viewers can interpret it that way, it’s safe to say he didn’t make it.
The MASH finale still remains the most watched non-Super Bowl in TV history, and by number of viewers, it’s not even close3. This of course is almost entirely a product of timing, since MASH ended pre-cable, and therefore the the sheer number of options was so much lower. MASH also had the distinct advantage of a built-in way to end the show, the war ends and everyone goes home. MASH was a great (and underrated by later generations) show that succeeded at mixing slapstick humor with real drama.
The finale focuses on Hawkeye suffering from PTSD, and under evaluation for such. Meanwhile everyone else is anxiously awaiting peace to be declared so they can go home. They are some great twists and turns and ultimately anyone who watched the show along the way was almost surely left in tears. In my mind, even though it aired before I was born, this is the gold standard in finales.