News Column

The Top 10 greatest TV series finales: 'Breaking Bad,' 'Newhart,' 'The Sopranos,' more

November 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 03--As we bid an early, abrupt farewell to some of this Fall TV season's new shows, it seems more remarkable than ever that some series manage not only to survive, but stay around long enough to wrap things up on their own terms. It's even more astounding how many shows have been able to create finales that remain memorable decades after they were first broadcast.

Recently, we asked readers to share their votes, and comments about the best TV series finales of all time. The nominees ranged from shows that wrapped up more than 30 years ago ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") to a new classic that closed out its spectacular run only a month ago ("Breaking Bad").

We took into account hundreds of reader votes and feedback, and also applied some editorial judgment to come up with this Top 10 list. You may agree, disagree, or wonder what planet we've been living on. Don't keep it yourself. By all means, share your thoughts in the comments. Now, here's our list:

1. "M--A--S--H": The much-loved comedy-drama about life at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean Wars, still bears the distinction of being the most-watched series finale of all time. If you were around then, and you watched TV, you probably remember where you were and who you were with. The 1983 closer was a long goodbye for the characters, who went their separate ways as the Korean War was ending. The final shot shows Hawkeye (Alan Alda) looking down from his helicopter to see the word "GOODBYE" spelled out in large rocks on the ground.

2. "Breaking Bad": And here's our new kid, ranking right up there already among the best of the best finales. It was the much-anticipated ending of this brilliant series that got us to thinking about finales, and the last episode brought closure for its antihero, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), viewers and provided a fitting, satisfying end for his victim/ally, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and for Walter's beleaguered family, including his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn).

3. "Newhart": One of the cleverest series-enders ever. The finale scene of Bob Newhart's 1982-1990 Vermont-set sitcom showed his character waking not in the country inn he ran with the wife played by Mary Frann -- but in the bedroom set from "The Bob Newhart Show," which ran from 1972-1978. His wife was Suzanne Pleshette, who played Newhart's spouse in the older show. Newhart told her, "You won't believe the dream I just had." It was completely surprising and weirdly appropriate, as well as hilarious.

4. "St. Elsewhere": Also playing reality vs. imagination tricks was the famed 1988 ending to this medical drama, in which it seemed the entire series had been something imagined by a young boy with autism. The finale was audacious and unique, an honorable conclusionf or an intelligent show with a fantastic cast, which included Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, William Daniels, David Morse, and, believe it or not, Howie Mandel.

5. "Six Feet Under": As a series whose subject was often death -- it was set in a funeral home, after all -- the HBO series ended in 2005 in the only way possible. After the death of the lead character Nate (Peter Krause), we saw the other characters react in grief-stricken, extreme ways, but then they seem to recover themselves. That's not the end, though. For that, we see Nate's young sister, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), driving, and as she does, we segue to visions of how everyone will ultimately die. Scored to Sia's "Breathe Me," the extended closing montage was gorgeous, moving, sad, celebratory and so affecting it helped make up for the fact that the show had, to be honest, run a few seasons longer than it should have.

6. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show": The 1977 finale is widely regarded as one of the best of the best, for good reason. In it, we see the TV station where everyone works is under new management. The result? Everybody gets canned, with the exception of the news anchor doofus, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). At the end, Mary and the rest of the gang all go in for a group hug in the newsroom. Sniffling, they shuffle as one to a box of tissues. As the others leave, Mary pauses just long enough to give the newsroom one last, fond look. She turns out the light and closes the door. Perfection.

7. "The Sopranos": It aired in 2007, but memories are still fresh -- and for some, irritation still stinging -- when it comes to the controversial finale of the HBO classic. With the possibility of indictment looming in the near future, and the ever-present danger associated with life in the mob hovering in the air, Tony (the late James Gandolfini), Carmela (Edie Falco) and A.J. gather for a meal at a diner. There's a guy who seems to be paying too much attention to Tony sitting nearby. As Meadow comes in to join her family, we hear the song on the soundtrack, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" halt on the words, "Don't stop," as the screen goes to black. Did the menacing guy shoot Tony? Who knows? It's perverse, it's completely unexpected, and it leaves us sitting there on the edges of our seats. Forever.

8. "Cheers": A victory lap for one of the best comedies of all time, the 1993 final episode was a ratings monster. It brought back Diane (Shelley Long) to at long last reunite with Sam (Ted Danson) and head off into the romantic sunset -- until they realize that would be a horrible mistake, and we see Sam head back where he belongs, to Cheers.

9. "The Wire": Another television high-water mark, the HBO series never gave its characters the easy way out, tied up loose ends, or glossed over the gritty realities of poverty, crime and corruption in its Baltimore setting. The finale stayed true to the form, leaving some characters dealing with the results of bad choices, others rewarded for them, and the systems that shape society unchanged.

10. "Friends": The hugely successful ensemble comedy ended in 2004 by finally pairing up Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston); giving Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica (Courteney Cox) a family; and leaving Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) happy and contented. The last scene finds them all, for the last time, gathered in Monica's apartment. They decide to go out for a cup of coffee, and Chandler deadpans the question, "Where?" They head out, leaving the apartment empty.

-- Kristi Turnquist

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