TV show finales often become the forgotten leftovers of shows that either ran too long for their own good, or didn’t run long enough to gather a following that would even remember them. But there are some series finales that do get noted, finales that capped off shows that were smash hits — shows that dodged sharks and still managed to remain on the air long enough to matter. When a much-loved show ends, fans want it to end a certain way, and the final episode can mean the difference between a happy audience and one that refuses to buy the DVDs afterward out of pure spite. These are the 15 best — and worst — series finales in TV History.
Battlestar Galactica – Best
When the final episode of this massive series aired, audiences were split pretty evenly down the middle on whether or not it was perfect, or horrible. Looking at it objectively is difficult, but when you take into account everything that had happened during the show’s run, it was a finale that managed to not only tie off any lingering loose ends, but also to tie the space-faring storyline into our own present-day reality — fictionally. Starbuck was revealed (in a roundabout way) to be an angel of sorts, while Hera ends up being our very own Mitochondrial Eve, having successfully lived out her life in Africa, breeding with the primitive humans that existed here on (second) Earth when the fleet arrived. Overall, it was very well done.
X-Files – Worst
The entire run of The X-Files was confusing enough, but the final episode somehow managed to be so convoluted and ridiculous that fans were left sitting — mouths agape — wondering whether or not Chris Carter was at all serious about creating what they had just spent two hours watching. For one thing, Cigarette Smoking Man was somehow not only miraculously alive, but holed up in a cave dwelling in New Mexico — where he dies (again) at the mercy of several gunship helicopters that firebomb the entire area. Mulder does manage to get an answer from him before his demise, but it’s not one that really made the fans feel like they’d got any closure. CSM tells him the date that the aliens are supposed to finally invade Earth, and it’s Dec 22, 2012. We’ll give them kudos on the date, since this was quite a few years ahead of the whole 2012 end of the world fad.
Arrested Development – Best
For a show that struggled to stay on the air as long as it did, Arrested Development was bang-on in its series finale. The show only lasted three seasons, and fans are still fighting tooth and nail to get it back on the air today (or get a movie put into production), because it was so well-loved. The team behind the show were just as pissed, and they showed it by creating a two-hour finale that more or less flipped a cinematic bird at Fox (who aired the final episode opposite the opening ceremony of the Olympics) and every critic who ever snubbed them. In a word, it was genius. Along with tying up several loose ends that developed along the way, the finale managed to take the sort-of-but-not-really incestuous sub-plots to astronomical new levels, while giving George Senior his freedom and Buster the chance to have his final battle with the seal. It all ended in a mocking, heavily ironic tale of Maeby taking the story of her dysfunctional family to Ron Howard (who actually voiced the narrator in the show) in hopes that it be made into a TV show. He tells her he just doesn’t see it becoming a series, but that it may do well as a movie.
Roseanne – Worst
In a surprise ending reminiscent of Saint Elsewhere (also on this list), the show’s heroin, Roseanne, explains quite somberly in the final moments that everything that had happened had never happened. The entire thing was a lie, just writings in a novel written by her, a sad bitter widow. Dan never recovered from that heart attack. Jackie was a lesbian all along. They never won the lottery, Darlene married Mark and Becky married David. Basically, the last season was so bad that Rosie decided she’d just deus ex the whole thing by making herself God in the postscript.
The Sopranos – Best
There’s never been a series finale as controversial as the final episode of The Sopranos. Some key figures are shot dead, a truce is called between the families, Tony gets confirmation that a man is testifying against him, he visits Junior briefly, and leaves saddened by the old man’s severe dementia. Finally, Tony goes to a diner to meet the rest of his immediate family for dinner. He plays Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the jukebox, and waits for his family to arrive, one at a time, while watching the door and other diner patrons. Am an catches his eye, but goes to enter the bathroom in the back of the diner. Finally, as Meadow makes her way across the street to the door, Tony looks up one final time before the screen cuts to black and the audio cuts to silence. To this day, there has been no definitive explanation as to whether or not Tony was killed at that moment (by the man who earlier went to the restroom), or if the cut to black was only to signify that the story of the Sopranos simply never ended. To sum it up, it was brilliant.
Seinfeld – Worst
For a show about nothing, Seinfeld managed to cover an astonishing amount of topics in its nine seasons of nihilistic meandering. Seinfeld wasn’t like any other show before it; it didn’t revolve around an all-American family or a cuddly group of friends in a coffeehouse. It was about a group of mismatched characters who hated each other as much as they loved each other, going through the mundane trivialities of life in the most haphazard manner possible while barely maintaining their sanity. It was genius, and hilarious. The final episode of the show, on the other hand, was not seen the same way. Audiences saw the final episode, in which the characters they had come to love for being bad people had been sentenced to a year in prison for not helping a victim of a carjacking, as a betrayal by the writers. The entire show had been pointless, and the characters were expected to behave a certain way. Making them so disdainful in the last episode was like telling the viewers that they themselves had become horrible people for watching.
Six Feet Under – Best
HBO’s award-winning drama Six Feet Under was only around for five seasons, but is still one of the most critically-acclaimed television series in history — described as having one of the greatest series finales of all time. If you haven’t seen it, do so, and make sure you have a box of tissues handy. If TV shows don’t usually make you cry, this one will, and if it doesn’t… well there’s just something wrong with you. The finale ties up the characters’ lives and shows glimpses of their future deaths, all set to a musical montage while Claire drives away from everything. If you’re still not interested in watching the series, at least grab the two soundtrack albums — the music from the series alone won an Emmy and two Grammy Awards.
Stargate SG-1 – Worst
Stargate SG-1 was the longest-running North American science fiction series — surpassing The X-Files — running for 10 seasons. Fans expected closure in the end after ten years of Goa’uld, Replicator and Ori drama. Instead, they were left with the Asgard’s mass suicide and a cast withering away for fifty years in a time-warped ship. Although the writers wanted the finale to be the ultimate “team episode” to satisfy viewers, the fact that producers had a follow-up movie in the works was simply not an excuse to leave a massive story arc unfinished. To make things even worse, the one and only satisfying piece of the episode — Daniel and Vala finally hooking up — was completely wiped from existence once the team broke free of the time-bubble they were trapped inside for the duration of the episode. It was a complete waste, and viewers felt it.
Cheers – Best
After an impressive 111 Emmy nominations and 11 seasons on the air, comedy sitcom Cheers tied everything up beautifully. Marriages, promotions and relocations sent the characters off on their respective merry ways, and true to form, balanced laughs with heartfelt emotion. In the end, as Sam turns off the lights, he tells a shadowed customer, “Sorry, we’re closed,” and stops to straighten the picture of Geronimo on the wall as he heads to the back room. It was enough to shed a tear, but we were happy to at least have Frasier to hold onto. It was a mature ending to a very long-run show.
Firefly – Worst
Space-western Firefly only lasted 14 episodes — only 11 of which actually aired on Fox — but turned into an instant cult hit with a huge fan base. Why the worst finale then? Well, most people wouldn’t even consider the last episode a finale at all, since the series was completely robbed of life due to cancellation just as things were getting good. A bounty hunter was sent to capture River, since she’s some kind of amazing government experiment, and things don’t quite go his way. In short, the crew kicks ass and flies off into space. Basically, it was just another episode. There was no finality whatsoever. What happens to Mal and Inara? River and Simon? This series could have gone on for years, but instead we were left with endless questions, and had to wait three years before we got any answers from the movie follow-up, Serenity.
St. Elsewhere – Worst
For some fans, this series finale was a masterpiece, but it was nothing short of enraging for the rest of us. After following the hospital staff’s shenanigans on medical-drama St. Elsewhere for six seasons, it would have been just fine for everyone to simply say their goodbyes and end it, but the writers insisted on getting creative. Turns out that the staff at St. Eligius aren’t who they seem to be — Dr. Westphall is a construction worker, and Dr. Auschlander isn’t, and wasn’t ever, dead. In fact, it turns out that none of it ever happened at all, as your mind is blown when you see that it was all a figment of an autistic child’s imagination. That’s right, it all took place in a snowglobe.
M*A*S*H – Best
Emmy award-winning medical dramedy M*A*S*H captured 77% of all TV viewers during it’s series finale on February 28, 1983. At 105.97 million viewers, the M*A*S*H finale became the most-watched television episode in U.S. history, and maintained the record for 27 years. The two-and-a-half hour episode tied off everything you could imagine, and more — Hawkeye’s trip to the mental hospital, the bombing of the camp and even Klinger’s decision to stay in Korea. But to top it off? BJ rides off on his motorcycle and shouts out to Hawkeye that he left a note. Only as he flies away does Hawkeye see BJ’s note: The word GOODBYE spelled out in stones on the ground in front of the former 4077th. It was an ending that simply worked.
Gilligan’s Island – Worst
Three seasons and 98 episodes into Gilligan’s Island, the producers were under the impression that there would be a fourth season, so the final episode ended like any other — with the castaways stranded on the island. Turns out the series was cancelled, and the castaways remained, forgotten, on the island for 11 more years — until 1978 — when we were updated with two reunion shows. What did the castaways miss from 1964 to 1978 while stranded? The death of Elvis and dissolution of The Beatles, most of the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s Presidency. Well, maybe it was for the best.
Quantum Leap – Worst
Time travel drama Quantum Leap was yet another series expected to last longer than it did. The original finale was simply written as any other episode, with Sam “leaping,” except this time into his own body, instead of someone else’s. He goes on to save some trapped people in a mine, and then decides to consciously leap to help his friend Al. It was meant to be a cliffhanger for the season, but when the producers realized this episode was all they had to work with, they decided to end the entire series receding into darkness with the words, “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” Pretty weak stuff — but it makes one wonder if there isn’t a chance that this show could be resurrected today, revamped and retooled with modern studio tech.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Best
TNG fans had good reason to be as rabidly loyal as they were, since the show wasn’t just a fan-favorite, but a critically-acclaimed one. The final episode did not disappoint, as it spent two solid hours tying up the entire series through a genius plot-line, leaping all the way back to the events of the very first episode. Picard finds his consciousness jumping between time-periods — between the present, 25 years into the future, and back to the beginning of the Farpoint mission. In each period, there’s an anomaly in space, growing in size, that seemingly can’t be stopped. Q shows up to inform him that he must solve the puzzle to save mankind, as this is the final test put forth by the Q Continuum in the trial that began in the original Farpoint mission — seven seasons past. In the end, after jumping relentlessly between three completely different timelines, the episode ends with Picard and the crew sacrificing themselves before Q reverts everything back to normal — pleased the Picard solved the puzzle and saved Humanity from the Continuum’s judgment. The episode ends with Picard deciding to join his officers in their regular poker game for the first time, which he had flatly refused to do for years. There couldn’t have been a better end to the series, since it not only provided excitement, drama, final character development, and clever writing — it left viewers smiling.