Endings - Both Good and Bad

April 16, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

I'm going to push off my discussion of the R-rating and the MPAA in general (a rant that it likely to take three days because there are three aspects of the ratings system I want to cover) by another day or two because there's another subject that popped into my mind. Yesterday, I was discussing the end of "NYPD Blue" with a co-worker. I think it was about as perfect an ending as the show could produce: low-key and satisfying. It felt like a conclusion, and, in a strange way, a beginning. The hype didn't overwhelm the story. That, of course, is not always the case with series finales. So here are some of the best and worst I can recall.

Note: as only a part-time watcher of "Seinfeld," I did not see the finale, so I can't comment on it. Ditto for "Frasier." I never watched "Friends" or "Sex in the City," so I'm exempt when it comes to mentioning their last episodes. In fact, if the truth be told, I have probably missed about 90% of TV's series enders. (That comes from being an inconsistent TV watcher.)

One that I do recall was the last episode of "MASH," and I was, to put it mildly, disappointed. Instead of the usual drama wrapped around wit (or is it the other way around?), we were subjected to a weepy melodrama in which it was apparent that the participants were aware that this was a Big Television Event. Granted, "MASH" had become increasingly self-important during its last season, but the final episode was insufferable.

"Cheers" did it much better, although it should have trimmed down the running length. Still, it was nice to have the long-hanging story arc of Sam & Diane resolved. It felt like a closure, even though nearly everyone from the cast showed up again at one time or another on "Frasier." Still, although there were plenty of dry eyes after the last call at "Cheers," few went away cheated.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" had a brilliant final episode, something called "All Good Things" that explored possible futures for the characters. Unfortunately, the second "Trek" spinoff, "Deep Space Nine," ended in a disappointing muddle. Can't say anything about "Voyager," because I had tuned out by then. Even a sexy Borg couldn't get me interested. And I haven't watched an entire episode of "Enterprise." Early reports of the series finale, which airs next month, are that it's horrible. That wouldn't surprise me.

"Dr. Who" (original series, not the new one) was the longest-running science fiction (term used lightly) television series, and it came to a conclusion with a whimper. The show lasted for an amazing 26 years, but probably should have quit after about 21. During its final five years, the Doctor limped along, with the actors forced to utter increasingly idiotic lines of dialogue while the stories got progressively worse. By the time Sylvester McCoy uttered his last words in the series' halfway-decent final story, it was long past time for the Doctor to take a break. Now, 16 years later, he has returned to the television revived and refreshed.

Another BBC series that almost no one has heard of is called "Blake's 7," and it ran for four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its bleak final episode puts to shame the endings of other series I have seen. Talk about wrapping up all the loose ends... The only question that "Blake" (the episode's title) leaves unresolved is whether the last man standing is still standing once the end credits are done rolling.

Staying with British TV, I want to mention "The Prisoner." I loved the show, but the ending stunk. I have read dozens of interpretations of the last episode, but the bottom line is that fans who had stuck with the program for 15 episodes deserved something more cathartic and less cryptic from #16. The first time I saw the last hour of "The Prisoner," I think the word "huh?" summed up my reaction.

I didn't see "Babylon 5" until it was available on DVD, so I ended up going through the series at a clip of about four episodes per day (still took almost a month). The series has a good final episode, but a weak final season. There are reasons for that, but it sill leaves a bad taste. When I re-watch "Babylon 5," I will skip the majority of Season 5. I'm only a completist the first time through.

"Newhart" was another show with a satisfying ending. In a drama, turning a program (or a season) into a dream is a betrayal. In a comedy, it can work, and that's how this sit-com chose to end its run. The final scene, which hearkens back to an earlier show, remains a classic amongst fans of the unassuming comedian.

The conclusion of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" was about as unfathomable as much of its second season. By the end, I don't think viewers were supposed to figure things out. The last episode ended with a series of cliffhangers. The official word was that the plot threads would be resolved in a movie follow-up, but the promised feature film turned into a prequel, leaving the faithful high and dry. Today, Leo is still in serious trouble and Cooper remains in thrall to the creepy-looking Bob (who resembles a gas station attendant I know). As for Laura Palmer - she's stuck in a room with red drapes, hanging with a dwarf and speaking backwards.

"Remington Steele" closed with more of a whimper than a bang. This was the series that kept Pierce Brosnan from taking over the role of James Bond after the departure of Roger Moore. During it's heyday, "Steele" was a lot of fun, with plenty of humor and sexual chemistry to enliven the mystery capers, but the last season was dull, and the final episode was forgettable.

Speaking of forgettable, that describes the ending of both "Moonlighting" and "The Cosby Show." I know I saw the last episode of those series, but I can't recall a thing about them. I'm sure there are other shows whose curtain calls I have seen, but whose names I can't recall. And that probably says all that needs to be said about them.

To close with, it's probably worth noting that before the 1980s, it was rare for a program, even a long-running one, to have a final episode. The usual run ended with an episode that was no different from any other episode. There were no tearful good-byes, just another half-hour (or hour) no different from any other half-hour (or hour). Eventually, someone figured out that there was money to be made and rating to be gained by specializing endings, and that led to the phenomenon that has dominted the airwaves since "MASH" signed off. (I'm not saying that "MASH" was the first farewell episode, but its huge ratings guaranteed it would not be the last.)