Monday, June 11, 2007

The Greatest Series Finales on Television

Last night HBO aired the final episode of The Sopranos. Many articles have covered the series finale, before and after it aired. This will not be one of them. Instead, I thought it would be amusing to list what I consider to be the best series finales in the history of television. If you haven't seen these series, I have to warn you to proceed with caution. Here There Be Spoilers.

1. Newhart: In the history of television, Bob Newhart was one of the few actors to have more than one hit sitcom. In the Seventies he played Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley, surrounded by a number of strange characters (not all of them his patients) on The Bob Newhart Show. In the Eighties he played writer Dick Loudon, who moves to Vermont to run a small town inn, surrounded by a number of strange characters (nearly all of them his neighbours). Both series capitalised on Bob Newhart's gift as the perfect straight man to sometimes bizarre characters. And both had long runs--The Bob Newhart Show ran for six seasons, while Newhart ran for eight.

Of the two series, The Bob Newhart Show is perhaps the best remembered, but I have always insisted that Newhart was the superior of the two shows. Not only did it have characters as off the wall (and sometimes more so) as those on The Bob Newhart Show, at times it could take a turn to outright surrealism. An example of this is when Larry (whose brothers, "Darryl and my other brother Darryl," never spoke) mentions offhand to Dick that Johnny Carson pays their gas bills. Quite naturally Dick doesn't believe one word Larry has to say, until Carson himself shows up at the end of the episode to tell him that he does pay Larry, Darryl, and Darryl's gas bills! In another episode Larry had a near death experience and met God!

In keeping with a show that could occasionally be surreal, the final episode of the series, fittingly titled "The Last Newhart," was equally surreal. In that last episode a Japanese businessman bought the entire town to turn it into a resort and golf course. Dick and his wife Joanna (Mary Franm) refuse to go along with the whole scheme, leaving them the lone people of the town when everyone else sells out. Five years later, the newly rich townsfolk are now stranger than ever. George Utley (wonderfully played by the late Tom Poston), formerly the inn's handyman, wants to build a theme park dedicated to handymen. The Wayside Inn is constantly pelted with errant golf balls from the golf course. And Joanna has taken to dressing like a geisha. Larry, Darryl, and Darryl have all married women who talk a mile a minute, resulting in a historic first for the series--Darryl and Darryl speak (telling their wives in unison to "Quiet!"). From there things get even more out of hand than in the average Fawlty Towers episode. At last, Dick has had enough and announces that he is leaving for good. As he steps out the door, however, Dick is hit by an errant golf ball. He blacks out and the screen turns black.

It is a few seconds later that a light is turned on to reveal the familiar bedroom of Dr. Robert Hartley in Chicago. Beside him in bed is his wife Emily (played here, as in The Bob Newhart Show by Susanne Pleshette). Hartley tells Emily that he dreamed he ran a Vermont inn, surrounded by strange townsfolk, a dense handyman, and Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. He also reveals that in the dream he was married to a beautiful blonde. Emily's interest is piqued when Hartley mentions the "beautiful blonde," Harley, realising he has made a tactical error, tells Emily to go back to sleep and adds that " should wear more sweaters (something Joanna wore quite a bit of on Newhart)." That's right, in the end the series Newhart was revealed to all be a dream!

The end of Newhart works on more than one level. First, it was a parody of the final episode of the eighth season of the nighttime soap Dallas. In that episode, it was revealed that the entire eighth season of the series was a dream! This deus ex machina naturally infuriated many fans. Second, never before had an actor appeared as a character from a previous series on his current series. In some respects, then, the end of Newhart was the ultimate, self referential, television in joke. It would have been as if in the final episode of Gilligan's Island Maynard G. Krebs had awakened and then called Dobie Gillis to tell him about this dream in which he was the first mate of a boat that had crashed on an uncharted, desert isle... Third, there is a good deal of humour to be had in Robert Hartley apparently finding some appeal in Dick Loudon's life. Just why did he mention to Emily that he was married to a beautiful blonde? You have to admit, both Robert Hartley and Dick Loudon were darn lucky men...

2. The Fugitive: The Fugitive was in some respects a revolutionary series. First, it was one of the earliest "road shows"--shows on which a character or characters travelled from place to place. Second, it was one of the few series in the history of television with its very own McGuffin. The premise of the series was that Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Jansen) had been accused and falsely convicted of the murder of his wife. Fortunately, he escaped execution when the train carrying him wrecked and he was able to get away. Kimble was pursued by Lt. Gerhard (played by Barry Morse) at the same time that he searched for the man who had really killed his wife, the mysterious one armed man (the show's McGuffin). Kimble was on the move for two reasons, to avoid capture by Lt. Gerhard and to catch the one armed man and clear his name. The Fugitive was also revolutionary in a third way. Until that point, most shows ended as if they were not going off the air, with no special episodes that brought the series to a conclusion. The Fugitive broke with this tradition in that it had a definite conclusion in which the series was brought to an end.

After a successful four year run in which The Fugitive had won both ratings and awards, it was decided to bring the series to an end. In the two part, final episode of The Fugitive ("The Judgement" Parts One and Two), Kimble is finally captured by Gerhard. As Gerhard takes Kimble back to Indiana (fittingly aboard a train), Kimble persuades him to give him one more chance to capture the one armed man and clear his name. Following a trail of clues, Kimble and Gerhard trace the one armed man (named Johnson) to an abandoned theme park. There, atop a water tower Kimble has his classic confrontation with the one armed man. The one armed man confesses his crime and is about to throw Kimble from the tower when Gerhard, finally convinced that Kimble was innocent along, shoots him. Not only was it the first, definite conclusion to an American series, it was also arguably the most dramatic. Indeed, the climax of the overrated movie based on the classic series, The Fugitive (in which the one armed man wasn't even the chief villain!), was nothing compared to the climax of the TV show. The final episode of The Fugitive would remain the highest rated episode of a TV series until it was eclipsed by the November 21, 1980 episode of Dallas, "Who Shot J.R."

3. Cheers: Arguably, Cheers was the most successful sitcom of the Eighties. Oh, at the time The Cosby Show received higher ratings, but ultimately Cheers would outlast it in syndication and, arguably, in pop culture cachet as well. I don't think it was simply because I preferred the show to The Cosby Show, then, that I perceived more anticipation about the Cheers series finale than there had been about the final episode of The Cosby Show in the previous season.

In some ways Cheers was a deceptively simple show. It had begun as one of those romantic comedies so popular in the Eighties, with former baseball player and owner of the bar Cheers, Sam Malone (Ted Danson), intrigued by his new, pseudo-intellectual waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). As the series progressed, however, it became much more of an ensemble comedy, focusing on such characters as Norm (George Wendt) and eccentric postman Cliff (John Ratzenberger), particularly after Long's departure from the series five years into its run. Although starting out with bottom of the barrel ratings, Cheers soon became a top rated show and ultimately ran eleven seasons. It is easy to see why its final episode would be eagerly anticipated.

The final episode (a three parter titled "One for the Road") of Cheers was not what anyone expected, and throughout the episode it provided a red herring to what many thought would be the ending of the series. Namely, after Diane Chambers wins an award for a cable movie she wrote, Sam gets back in touch with her, resulting in her returning to Boston. The two reunite and for a time it looks like the series might end the way many thought it had--with Sam and Diane riding off in the sunset together. Indeed, they even go so far as to board a plane to leave together. The two of them soon figure out, however, that they may not be meant for each other. Diane then returns to California and Sam returns to Cheers.

The final episode of Cheers is remarkable for three reasons. First, many had expected for the series to end with Sam Malone reuniting and maybe even marrying Diane Chambers. The series did not end so predictably. What is more it gave good reasons for Sam and Diane not to be together. Indeed, it is established that Sam's true love is not Diane, but Cheers itself. That the episode threw out a rather large red herring (for a time it looked like Sam and Diane might be together) made it all the more better. Second, the episode did not simply focus on Sam and Diane, but on the rest of the ensemble as well. Rebecca (who started out as Sam's boss, then became Sam's employee, and later his partner and best friend) is finally getting married. Dense bartender Woody has, believe it or not, become a Boston city councilman. Norm has finally gotten a good job as an accountant at City Hall. Cheers started out as a romantic comedy, but in the end it was very much an ensemble comedy. Third, the end of Cheers differed from the final episodes of many series of the Eighties and Nineties in that ultimately nothing earth shattering happened in the episode. True, most of the characters underwent changes during the episode, but in many respects life continued as usual. They would all continue to be friends. It is not too far fetched to assume that Rebecca's marriage failed (indeed, it was revealed to have done just that in an episode of Fraiser) and that Norm lost his job at City Hall (he never could hold down a job). Regardless, it was safe to say that they would all return to Cheers. While the characters seemed to be experiencing major changes in their lives, in many ways their lives were very much the same.

4. M*A*S*H: In many respects M*A*S*H was a bit of an anomaly. First, it was one of the few TV shows based on a movie to be successful. After all, who remembers Delta House (based on Animal House) or Ferris Bueller? Second, it was a show that in some respects defies classifications. Ostensibly, M*A*S*H was a situation comedy. Indeed, in its first season some of its episodes were not too different from other service comedies that had preceded it (The Phil Silvers Show, AKA Sgt. Bilko, and McHale's Navy). That having been said, it was not long before M*A*S*H would begin to feature more and more dramatic content. Indeed, M*A*S*H was the first show to actually kill off a continuing character (previously when a character on a TV show died it was because the actor playing that role had died). In the third season finale, "Abyssinia, Henry," Col. Henry Blake (played by Maclean Stevenson), returning home, died when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Arguably, after Combat the series became one of the most serious treatments of war to ever air on television. In this respect, perhaps the label "dramedy," coined in 1978 (but not in common usage until the Eighties) for shows that combined comedy with drama, was the best one for the show. Third, it was the only show ever set in the Korean War (all the other war shows have been set during World War II, the Vietnam War, or some other war entirely). It was perhaps because M*A*S*H was so unique that it lasted eleven seasons.

Naturally, the final episode of M*A*S*H was one of the most anticipated events of the 1982-1983 season. In an unprecedented move, the entire two and a half hour episode, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," was aired in its entirety on a single night. Summed up succinctly,"Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" covered the last days of the Korean War. That having been said, it was the most complex episode of M*A*S*H ever to air, with a number of ongoing plots. Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda) had finally had a nervous breakdown and was being treated in a mental hospital by psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freeman (a recurring character played by Allan Arbus). Sidney finally cures Hawkeye and he is sent back to the MASH 4077th just in time for the war's end. In the meantime, Major Winchester (played by David Ogden Stiers) takes a group of Chineese POWs who are also musicians under his wing. Knocked out by a mortar round while trying to save a group of prisoners, Father Mulcahy (played by William Christopher), loses his hearing. Klinger (played by Jamie Farr) not only proposes to Soon Lee (played by Rosalind Chao), elects to stay in Korea to help hear search for her parents. While in surgery, it is announced over the radio that a truce has been signed and the war is over. The various personnel of the 4077th then begin the process of packing up and saying their farewells. In the end, Hawkeye is frustrated by the inability of B.J. (played by Mike Farrell) to say "Goodbye," only to realise as a helicopter takes him away that B.J. has spelled the word "Goodbye" out on the ground in toilet paper. It was as if he was telling television viewers, "Goodbye," as well.

Not only was "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" the most anticipated television event of the 1982-1983 season, it also became the single highest rated episode of a TV series of all time. For 24 years, its record has not been broken. Besides the fact that M*A*S*H was then one of the most successful shows on the air, it is no wonder it got such ratings. It was arguably a great ending to a great series. Arguably, some of the plot lines seemed a bit contrived (namely, Father Mulcahy losing his hearing, for instance), but ultimatley it was a touching, sensitive, and logical end to one of the most beloved shows of all time.

5. The Avengers: Okay, "The Forget-Me-Knot" was not the last episode of The Avengers, but there are those of us who think it should have been. For those of you have never had the pleasure of seeing the series, The Avengers was a British series that centred around superspy John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) and his various partners over the years. In its first season Steed was technically not the primary character. That was Dr. David Keel (played by Ian Hendry), a surgeon whose fiance had been murdered. In the course of the investigation he encountered a mysterious figure named Steed, who frequently calls upon Keel to assist him in his adventures. Initially a secondary character dressed in a trenchcoat (typical spy wear prior to the Sixties), he eventually became the series co-star and the familiar figure dressed in a suit and bowler, armed with his ever present umbrella. The first season was cut short by a strike and following the strike, Ian Hendry decided to leave the show. John Steed then became the main character on the show.

For the second season Steed would be be teamed with two different partners, each appearing in different episodes. Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens), a single nightclub singer, proved to be the least popular of the two. She had no real crime fighting skills and was very much a typical female character in Fifties and Sixties American and British television. Steed's other new partner would turn The Avengers into a hit series and a cult series in Britain. Dr. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman) was like no other woman to ever appear on American or British television. The widow of a farmer in Africa, she was a degreed anthropologist with a black belt in judo and an independent streak that was unseen in female characters prior to her first appearance in 1962. In her fighting gear she could be most intimidating: a leather outfit (in reality it was green, but it because The Avengers was then shot in black and white, it looked black on the screen) and leather boots. Capable of taking care of herself, Mrs. Gale almost never needed Steed to rescue her. With the series' third season, she became Steed's only partner.

At the end of the third season, Honor Blackman left the series to co-star in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. This was not the only change for the series in its fourth season. Previously shot on videotape, the series would now be shot on film. This gave the show superior production values to what it had before. It also received a new theme song, written by Laurie Johnson. Yet another change was that the series would air for the first time in the United States (it debuted on the American Broadcasting Company in March 1966). Still later it would be shot in colour. Of course, the biggest change was the introduction of Emma Peel. Initially British actress Elizabeth Shepherd (perhaps best known for her role in Damien: The Omen II) was hired to play Emma, but the producers soon figured out she was wrong for the part. The role then went to the relative unknown Diana Rigg. With Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, the character proved every bit as popular as Mrs. Gale, if not more so. Mrs. Peel was the daughter of industry magnate Sir John Knight and the widow of test pilot Peter Peel. She was trained in chemistry and was familiar with most sciences (she had a genius IQ). Like Mrs. Gale she was trained in the martial arts, although she was more inclined to use kung fu than judo. Unlike Mrs. Gale, she did not dress in leather, but preferred fighting suits of stretch jersey instead. She was every bit as independent as Mrs. Gale and was rarely rescued by Steed. The character was so named because the producers wanted her to have "Man Appeal" or "M Appeal." She certainly had that. Indeed, it always seemed to me that Steed was not simply attracted to her, but that he had been carrying a torch for her for some time...

By 1967 Diana Rigg had decided to leave the series and it was decided to replace her with another female partner (in this case, Tara King, played by Linda Thorson). The change would be made in the episode "The Forget-Me-Knot." Not only was "The Forget-Me-Knot" not the final episode of The Avengers, it was the first episode of the show's final season. The episode centred on an amensia inducing drug that is initially used on a suspected traitor and later on Emma herself. While Emma is under the effect of the drug, Steed teams up with Tara King, a spy in training, for the first time. By the end of the episode it is discovered that Emma's husband Peter Peel is alive and has been rescued. Emma decides to retire from adventuring to be with him. This leads to one of the most touching scenes in the whole series, as Emma tells Steed to "...always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds." As Emma is about to leave, Steed speaks her name, "Emma," in what I have always felt was a pained voice. This is significant as as it is the only time Steed addressed one of his married female partners by her first name in anything but special circumstances (he always addressed Mrs. Gale as exactly that). As Emma leaves, she tells Tara King that Steed "...likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise." As Emma leaves, Steed looks out the window to see that Peter Peel looks almost exactly like him.

In some respects "The Forget-Me-Knot" is a rather typical Avengers episode. The plot of an amnesia inducing drug does not stand out the way a sentient, alien, telepathic, man eating plant ("The Man-Eater of Surrey Green") or a revival of the Hellfire Club ("A Touch of Brimstone") does. And though it is not Linda Thorson's fault, Tara King comes off as rather goofy in this episode. Ultimately, however, it is that final interaction between Steed and Peel that makes "The Forget-Me-Knot" one of the most memorable episodes of The Avengers. Indeed, it confirms my suspicion that not only was Steed in love with Emma, but the feelings may well have been mutual. It is curious that Steed addresses Mrs. Peel by her given name, with a tone that sounds to me as if his heart is breaking. And it is even more curious that Peter Peel looks suspiciously like Steed. John Steed may have been very close friends with Cathy Gale. And he may have flirted with Venus Williams and Tara King (his two female partners who had always been single). But his one true love was Emma Peel. And who could blame him?

Anyhow, those are my favourite series finales of all time (although I'll admit that "The Forget-Me-Knot" is not really a series finale by American definitions of the term....). I am sure others will have their own. And one can only guess what ends lie in store for such long time series as The Simpsons and Law and Order. Whatever they may be, I'm sure they'll be interesting.


Jeremy Barker said...

I've never liked the need for shows to wrap up with grand changes to characters and plot lines. That's why I loved the Cheers ending. You got the idea that things would carry on as normal, we just wouldn't have a window into those lives.

I also loved Seinfeld's finale for the same reason. Despite being incarcerated, you knew that they had learnt nothing and would go back to their shallow lives when the sentence was over.

Mercurie said...

I have to agree with you up to a point. I think when a show revolves around a historical event, as M*A*S*H, it did makes sense for the war to end with the final episode. And when a show has a McGuffin, as The Fugitive did, it makes sense for it to end with a wrap up (in the Fugitive's case, catching the one-armed man and clearing his name). But a typical sitcom? No. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I have to agree with you, that's what made the ends to Cheers and Seinfeld so good.