All the hubbub over Sunday’s series finale of “Lost,” which bitterly divided its fans, got me thinking about the difficulty of pulling off a satisfying conclusion. It hasn’t been done very often. It’s pretty much impossible to please everyone, and if a series has been airing long enough to win a corps of diehard fans, it’ll likely have too many loose ends to neatly tie up (I’m looking at you, “Alias”).
Then there’s the question of what makes a great finale. Does it have to leave you satisfied, or is it better to leave you wanting more? Artistically, “The Sopranos’ “ last scene was great, but it was anything but satisfying if you wanted everything resolved neatly. On the other hand, if you try to wrap up everything, you can end up with a boring mess, like the anticlimactic military tribunal of Mulder on “The X-Files.” It’s a very fine line. There are the emotional notes that need to be hit, to give viewers a proper feeling of goodbye. “Six Feet Under” managed to do that by showing each character’s eventual death. (Yep, that’s closure all right.) And can a great final scene save an otherwise weak episode, like “Northern Exposure”?
Personally, I like series finales to wrap up the story relatively neatly, but leave it open-ended enough to suggest that life in that fictional little world goes on, and there are more stories to tell. They just won’t be on your TV.
It’s tough to accomplish, but it can be done. Here are my completely subjective picks for the five most satisfying series finales in recent memory:
5. “Arrested Development”
Probably the funniest finale ever, and for a show with such multilayered storylines and obscure inside jokes, it wrapped everything up absolutely perfectly. The series basically came full circle to where it all started, with the feds breaking up the family’s yacht party and Michael finally able to escape for a little quality time with his son. By staying true to itself, it managed the rare feat of staying funny until the very end.
4. “The Wire”
You’d think one of the most complex series in TV history would have too many loose ends to tie up, but David Simon & Co. managed to pull it off. There was even a satisfying resolution to McNulty’s crackpot scheme that at times had threatened to spin into a predictable, network-ish stunt plot. The series closed out with a stirring final montage of familiar characters and random scenes of street life, showing that life would go on in Baltimore, for better or worse. It felt like driving down a street in your old neighborhood, pointing out people you used to know: Hey, there’s Lester! There’s The Greek, with . . . . is that Slim Charles? There’s Dookie! (Awww, Dookie, no!)
Here’s that montage:
3. “Battlestar Galactica”
Yeah, the angel thing was stupid and the final scene with Baltar and Six in the present day was completely unnecessary, but the rest was mind-blowing. It divided a lot of fans, but I loved it. “BSG” went out with a fantastic, pulse-pounding space battle with the fate of two races at stake. There were rousing moments of heroism — often from where it was least expected — sweet revenge and, ultimately, fist-pumping triumph. That the second hour, post-battle, was so peaceful and so full of hope was a pleasant surprise. Like “Lost,” not every question was answered, but by the end I was so completely satisfied that I didn’t care.
Here’s the scene the finale should have ended on:
2. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
“Buffy” went out with a bang, a spectacular, apocalyptic crescendo that had been building up for seven seasons. Pretty much every loose end managed to be tied up — which was pretty amazing for a series built around such a rich mythology — and it ended with a real sense of closure. Considering how close each and every character was to being killed off in the epic final battle, the biggest surprise might have been the palpable sense of relief when it was all over, and the message of hope it closed out on.
Here’s a preview of the finale:
1. “The Shield”
I remember sitting there afterward just going “Wow.” In my book, it was the most satisfying finale ever, bristling with tension up until the very end. The most corrupt cop ever to grace a TV screen finally got his comeuppance, and for all the twists and turns and wild cards dealt over the previous seasons, there was somehow closure on every front. The ending was perfect justice — death would have been too good and too easy for Vic Mackey — and the wordless closing scene, with so much fury and frustration and regret being played out entirely through Vic’s eyes, is the best parting shot ever.
Here’s that last scene:
So what was your favorite series finale? And what were the most disappointing?