It’s conventional wisdom that a series finale can be a delicate matter. Obviously, relatively short-lived series rarely get the opportunity to wrap things up. Long running shows lose viewers over time, and with the phenomena of “shark jumping” and “Cousin Oliver’s” coming into play, they often go out with a whimper. Resolve too much, and it seems forced. Resolve too little, and the fans are unsatisfied. What if there’s a last-minute decision by the network to keep the show on another year, or some of the people involved want to keep going?
A couple years ago, I came across one of the few Murder, She Wrote episodes I’d never seen, the Season 7, spring 1991, finale “The Skinny According to Nick Cullhane.” The episode had the feel of a series finale–including bringing Jerry Orbach’s Harry McGraw of eponymous short-lived spin off fame to Cabot Cove. I did some digging online and found where it had, in fact, been planned as a finale and written a year or two before it aired. Lansbury, as happened several times in the course of the show, was tired. The show was always teetering because of its high ratings but being week in the “coveted 18-49 demographic” that advertisers look for. So they thought Season 7 would be the last and produced the episode. As it happened, the following fall, Orbach left for New York City on Law & Order and the fictional Jessica Fletcher moved to NYC as well, extending the show’s life for another 5 years.
On the other hand, there’s the infamously week ending of The X-Files that seemed remarkably forced and rushed for a show that had dragged on for 9 years with many opportunities to wrap up its stories more neatly.
The writing has been on the wall for USA’s Psych for a couple years. Renewals had been slower in coming as ratings dropped each season–a couple years ago almost an entire calendar year went by before the new season started–but it was the oldest show on the network, the last from the Monk-era glory days. Few of its newer series have managed to take off, so USA kept it going perhaps a bit too long. Many story lines were resolved with last season’s finale. What little happened this season could have been condensed into a single episode, the rest seeming to drag on. Even Monk seemed to lose a lot of its quality in the final season.
In the case of Psych, the stories this season have been inconsistent. Often the attempt at overarching “final season” stories indicate only a few days, at most, have passed between episodes, yet Lassiter’s wife discovers her pregnancy and gives birth within the space of a few episodes? We get two “Cousin Oliver” characters: Anthony Michael Hall’s Harris Trout, the hugely unpopular new chief, and then Mira Sorvino’s Det. Betsy Brannigan, a much more interesting new character whose main role, however, is to render Shawn obsolete leading up to the finale.
The finale was written and filmed before much of the rest of the season, though some parts were filmed after everything else (I read that a big surprise cameo, the revelation of off-screen Det. Dobson, was the last scene filmed). The title, “The Break Up”, given the situation, was ominous. It was originally 8 of 8. Then USA ordered 15 episodes. USA increased the order to 13 but only 10 were produced. They saved the official announcement until late January or early February, but most people knew it was coming. Then they did their best to make everyone think it was an unexpected cancellation. The promo for the finale said something like, “Next week: a life-shattering revelation; a marriage proposal; a career ruined. . . . OK, none of that’s going to happen. . . . ”
But it did, sort of. I never understood how they could “resolve” the show without something like the end of Season 7, with everyone getting fired, minimally, but they did it–quite amazingly well. And, like a good finale, it was a new beginning, almost a pilot for a new show, and has fans wanting to know what comes next, though nothing will).
So, in no particular order, I thought I’d reflect on some of my favorites:
Nicely done! As I said, I didn’t think it could end on a positive note, but it did. Storylines were resolved. Characters literally got to say their good-byes. I have read many reviews that speak highly of the finale, and there’s no need to rehash their praise. My favorite moments were Henry saying he helped because Shawn finally called him; Lassiter refusing to hear Shawn’s confession and destroying it instead; Chief Vick, now Chief of Detectives in San Francisco, saying “We already have a guy–he’s alphabetizing the condiments in the kitchen” (Shawn replies, “Do you think that guy’s better than we are?” and fans across the Internet are saying, “Crossover movie!”); and the very beginning with its fourth wall breaking self-referential introduction where Shawn talks about leaving his job for the woman he loves, which in some sense James Roday was doing at the time (Maggie Lawson having left the show, and moved to LA, for the short-lived Back in the Game; she has another pilot next fall).
Speaking of “the other guy,” it had to be one of the most moving finales I’ve ever seen (obviously, it’s on the list). Seeing everything come together: Adrian finally getting to be happy (realistically not “cured” but functional); Trudy’s murder solved; a sort of step daughter to have in his life; Randy getting a sheriff job in NJ and marrying Sharona; it all fit. And the poignance for me of thinking how, when the show had started, my eldest was a baby; how for a few years in VA it was the weekly ritual for me to go hang out with my father in law and watch Monk together: those memories added to the poignancy of the event, but the story was so well resolved.
I was on the fence about whether to list this as an example of a badly done finale or well done. In 1991, Dallas ended after 13 years with its weird inverted It’s a Wonderful Life episode. Miss Ellie has left Southfork for good, tired of all the feuding, and has turned the Ranch over to Bobby (the full deed, retconned to a trust in the revival series). Cliff Barnes owns Ewing Oil. Sue Ellen has been in England for a few years with her new husband. John Ross has decided he wants to live with his mother, and Christopher is going along till he gets adjusted. J.R.’s illegitimate son James has moved away with his grandson. His second wife Callie has left and given birth to a son, and JR decides to let them live in piece. Really, the penultimate episode had resolved all the storylines. Everyone knew the show was on its last legs, although they wanted to leave room for a possible 15th season.
Alone at Southfork while Bobby drives the boys to the airport, J.R. gets drunk and contemplates suicide, and a mysterious man appears and shows him how different everyone’s lives would be if he’d never been born, almost always for the better. When he tries to convince J.R. to shoot himself, J.R. says, “What kind of angel are you?” “Who said I was an angel?” Then his eyes turn red and he starts laughing. Bobby comes home to a gunshot and runs into J.R.’s room, with a look of horror on his face. Did J.R. shoot himself?
6 years later, J.R. Returns attempted to answer the question with a TV movie intended as a pilot about the next generation–the series had, often through the voice of their Grandma–hinted at a third generation (the story of Jock and Jason Ewing and Digger Barnes having been told in the miniseries Dallas: the Early Years), though the sensitive, soft-hearted John Ross always seemed destined to be the future “good guy,” while the often brooding, mischievous Christopher seemed destined to be the future “bad guy.”
Fans didn’t respond to the show, and the younger characters were still too young for it to be anything but a 90210 kind of show. However, it managed to resolve a plot or two, and ended with J.R. in charge of WestStar and Bobby in charge of Ewing Oil, J.R. saying, “Bobby, it’s our town again.” War of the Ewings focused more on the elder characters and resolved a few more storylines. Growing demand on the internet and internationally to see a new series might have seen it happen but for two things: the Hollywood trend towards adaptation of TV shows and the Enron scandal. David Jacobs pitched to rights-holding Warner the notion of doing a big screen reboot of Dallas as a metaphor for the Enron scandal. This languished in pre-production for 10 years, and was finally scrapped in favor of TNT’s new series, which also ignores the reunion movies.
Last year’s finale of 30 Rock definitely ranks, with its parody of the notorious St. Elsewhere finale. In other news, you may have heard of the Tommy Westphall Universe Theory, a tongue-in-cheek “fandom” theory that points out all the cross-overs connected to St. Elsewhere, such that arguably the only “true” events in the history of most TV shows were those last few minutes. It’s kind of like “Six Degrees of Separation”. For example, St. Elsewhere–Homicide-Law & Order-X-Files-Millennium.
Then there’s Newhart’s famous finale parodying Dallas’s 1986 “It was all a dream” resolution that brought Bobby back from the dead after he flatlined on screen a year before.
The producers of The Office said they’d planned several scenarios for ending the show, so they just put them all together as a bunch of mini-finales, and they did a great job of it.
-Star Trek the Next Generation
“All Good Things . . . ” is a fantastic wrap-up, but has the dilemma, like some of the others I’ve mentioned, of being written with more in mind. Its time-travelling events were immediately contradicted by Generations which came along just a few months later. Really, the farewell to the NCC-1701-D Enterprise crew was in the lackluster Nemesis, with Riker & Troi’s wedding, Riker’s new ship and Data’s “death.”
-Star Trek Deep Space Nine
“What You Leave Behind” left me as emotionally moved as Monk, for a similar reason. As dramatic series go, I’d still say it’s my all-time favorite. It wraps up the stories and, like I say, has that feeling of being as much a pilot as a finale–a feeling followed up by a series of engaging novels that I started reading years ago and never continued with.
Again, this isn’t meant to be in any way scientific, just some thoughts on what I think makes a good series finale and some of the ones that come to mind when I think of good ones, out of shows I’m familiar enough with to say.