Friday, July 15, 2011

The 5 Best TV Series Finales

There was a time when the final episode of a TV series was nothing special--it was literally just the last episode of the last season. That changed when The Fugitive ended with its four-season run in 1967 with a finale in which wrongly accused Richard Kimble was finally vindicated. Surprisingly, it would be a decade before another TV series closed with a memorable conclusion. Here are my picks for the five best TV series finales in the classic era (shows must have begun no later than the 1980s):

1. M*A*S*H. The exploits of the the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War spanned eleven seasons. This acclaimed comedy/drama was still a ratings hit when its producers and cast decided to end the series on a high note. The episode "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" was broadcast in February 1983 and showed its beloved characters finally going home. Nearly 106 million viewers watched it, a ratings record that wasn't eclipsed until the Super Bowl in 2010--when there were many more TV sets in use.

2. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After six successful seasons, this popular series (and critics' darling) had tailed off substantially in the ratings. That undoubtedly influenced the decision to end the series with a seventh season in 1977. In "The Last Show," the entire staff of WJM-TV is fired--except for the incompetent news anchor Ted Baxter. The closing shot of the characters (and the cast) hugging each other is a classic television image. When originally broadcast, the cast returned for a curtain call. That clip was omitted when the series was syndicated, but restored when it was released on DVD.

3. The Fugitive. When David Janssen balked at doing a fifth year of The Fugitive, executive producer Quinn Martin decided to end the series with a two-part finale in which Kimble confronted the one-armed man who murdered his wife. As Mel Proctor points out in his book The Official Fan's Guide to The Fugitive, the idea of giving the show closure originated in series creator Roy Huggins' original treatment. The final episode, "The Judgment" was broadcast in August 1967. For many years, it held the record as the most watched TV episode. It was so anticipated that Proctor notes that a scoreboard during a Twin-Orioles baseball game that night flashed the message: "The one-armed man did it."

4. The Prisoner. It's unclear whether Patrick McGoohan intended to end his cult series after 17 episodes. According to some sources, the original intent was to film more episodes and the conclusion was hastily written. Whether that's true or not, one can safely say that The Prisoner boasted the most bizarre series finale to date. The show's premise concerned a former spy, known only as No. 6, who is held captive in a quaint village. He will not be allowed to leave until he tells his captors the reason he retired as a spy. The villain of each episode is No. 2 (though not always the same one). No. 6 never gets to meet No. 1 until the final episode--and that encounter is a puzzler for the ages!

5. Newhart. After eight years, Bob Newhart ended his second sitcom in 1990 on a memorably quirky note. The episode "The Last Newhart" has a Japanese millionaire buy the entire town where Dick and Joanna Loudon live. Jumping ahead five years, we learn what has happened to each character. Then, Dick is struck in the head by a golf ball and wakes up beside his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) from the earlier The Bob Newhart Show. It turns out that Newhart was just a dream!

Honorable Mentions:  Cheers and St. Elsewhere. 


  1. A personal favourite of mine is "Perry Mason" which ended its 9 year run in 1966 with "The Case of the Final Fadeout". An egotistical actor is murdered on a television set, and when police interrogate the crew it is the actual crew of the series. Erle Stanley Gardner appeared as a judge. Producer Gail Patrick Jackson had a bit as a bar patron. Barbara Hale, in a blonde wig, played a ditzy actress. The name of a producer character was Jackson Seidmark, an amalgam of execs associated with the show. Tongue in cheek fun for fans.

  2. Great idea, Rick! I never saw The Prisoner, but your line-up is perfect. Mash made me cry, it was such a special show. I loved the Mary Tyler Moore show, and it was sad just to see it go. I'll never forget my favorite episode, the one with Chuckles the Clown's funeral. Thought I'd die laughing. That is so funny about flashing the ending of The Fugitive at a baseball game! Nice touch. And that Newhart ending was absolute comic genius!

    I think you left an important one out, though. The final episode of Mr. Ed was a real tearjerker. He was sold and sent off to a glue factory to be chopped up and end up in some first-grader's Elmer's glue bottle. I'll never forget Mr. Ed being driven off the farm, sadly warbling "W-i-l-b-u-r!" Chokes me up even now.

  3. Becky, you're going to have MISTER ED fans and PETA flooding the Cafe with e-mails. We all know the final episode was "Ed Goes to College", where Ed decides to leave home and study to become a doctor!

  4. THE PRISONER tends to make me scratch my head throughout the series, but it's original and wonderfully quirky, and the finale is memorable (and fits in nicely with the other episodes). I think NEWHART had one of the best series finales ever. Have you heard the story of filming said finale with Suzanne Pleshette? They sneaked her onto the set, so when the light came on, the studio audience was genuinely surprised. I'm also a fan of the TWIN PEAKS finale, which angered many viewers, but which I thought was appropriate and terrific (and all those people who stopped watching midway through Season 2 deserved to be disappointed).

  5. Rick, I really enjoyed this post about TV series finales and think you did an excellent job with your list. I did not know about the scoreboard that flashed the Fugitive message. I agree that the ending of Newhart may be the most clever of all. These are all great choices, Rick!

  6. Great selections Rick! I especially liked the NEWHART ending which was genius!


  7. Awesome post! Just found your blog. Love it, will be checking back soon!