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Top Ten TV Series Finales
Saying goodbye to a long-running TV show is tough for viewers and even tougher for writers. Concocting a satisfying sendoff without devolving into a sappy, syrupy mess can be exceedingly difficult. Many a strong show has been blemished by a weak final episode, with Seinfeld and Game of Thrones perhaps the most glaring examples.
Fortunately, several terrific shows managed to successfully stick the dismount. The following are ten, in chronological order.
10 The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977)
The easiest way to end a show about a show, of course, is to cancel the fake show that the real show is about. The final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, aptly named “The Last Show,” stays true to the program’s feminist themes without getting overly preachy—a balance it struck for seven acclaimed seasons.
As the final installment begins, something is clearly up at WJM-TV. A new station manager, Mr. Coleman, is dismissing long-term employees and has his sights set on Mary’s six o’clock news team. At this point, the finale could have gone off the rails. Had Coleman fired only Mary, the scene would have been too on-the-nose politically. It would have seemed hackneyed, even in 1977.
Instead, Coleman cans Mary… and Lou, Murray, and Sue Ann. Two gals, two guys. That Coleman doesn’t ax the vain, buffoonish Ted Baxter is enough to showcase the undo preference males often enjoy in the workplace, especially back in the 1970s.
After sitting through a bumbling on-air farewell from Ted, Mary and her dismissed colleagues huddle up in a group hug. Teary-eyed, they won’t let go of each other—to the point that they stay attached as they collectively shuffle toward a box of tissues. The message is clear: this is sad for everyone, not just the women. As the scene closes, Mary looks back at the camera for one last smile, letting viewers know that she’s gonna make it after all.
9 M*A*S*H (1983)
Set during a real war, M*A*S*H was a fictitious show… that Americans paid more attention to than the actual war. America’s anti-Communist foray into the Korean Peninsula lasted just three years, from 1950 to 1953. Less than a decade after the largest armed conflict in world history, Americans were war-weary personally and disinterested generally.
By contrast, a show about a mobile army surgical hospital—a MASH unit—behind the Korean front lines ran for 256 episodes over 11 seasons, starting in the early 1970s. Somewhere between a sitcom and a dark comedy, the show broke ground despite a laugh track that today seems dated at best and inappropriate at worst. What hasn’t staled is Alan Alda’s multiple Emmy-winning performance as chief surgeon Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, an incredibly well-acted role for its time period.
Despite continuously high ratings, by season 11, it was time for the three-year Korean War to conclude. Showcasing its ability to drag something out while remaining compelling, M*A*S*H shut down the unit with a 2½-hour television movie watched by 106 million people—which remains the most watched series finale of all time.
The most bittersweet moment is saved for the final scene. Hawkeye says his farewells and boards a helicopter to begin his journey home. As the unmistakable instrumental theme song wells up in the background, he gazes down to see that his closest friend, Mike Farrell’s B.J. Hunnicutt, has spelled out “goodbye” in stones.
8 Cheers (1993)
On May 20, 1993, 93 million people tuned in to see America’s favorite bartender announce last call for the last time. By comparison, the highest-rated show in the U.S. currently, Paramount’s Yellowstone, attracts 11 million viewers.
The two-hour Cheers sendoff did something few series do: implicitly admitted the show wasn’t what it once was. It had been six long (and mediocre) seasons since Sam’s original love interest, Diane (Shelley Long), had left. Then Sam sees her accepting an award on TV for (a poke at the finale’s length) Outstanding TV Movie writing.
Sam sends congrats.. and Diane shows up, albeit with her husband. Only it’s actually her gay friend acting as her husband. Her cover is blown when his partner shows up, and she and Sam rekindle their own flame.
At this point, the end of Cheers is in sight: viewers start to surmise that the return of this character—a far better one than Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca—would mean the end of Sam’s bartending days. The two announce their engagement, and Sam says his goodbyes despite his barroom buddies’ protests.
Then, the payoff: With their plane delayed, Sam and Diane realize they were glorifying their past at the cost of their present. Smartly, their breakup both acknowledges the abruptness of the popular character’s departure several seasons back while trolling the audience a bit about what her staying may have meant. In the end, Norm knew Sam would “always come back to her”—her being Cheers.
7 The Larry Sanders Show (1998)
Okay, channel surfing is now permitted. Aptly named “Flip,” the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling as a neurotic yet arrogant late-night talk show host, managed to do the stellar program justice while spoofing the overdone, fake-tearjerking finales of other variety shows.
One of HBO’s first Emmy-caliber efforts, The Larry Sanders Show was the perfect vehicle for two established stars—Garry Shandling and Rip Torn, as Larry’s foul-mouthed producer—as well as several up-and-coming ones. Jeffrey Tambor and Bob Odenkirk gained traction there, as did Janeane Garofalo. While featuring an endless parade of celebrity cameos, the show offered a behind-the-scenes look at the pettiness and backbiting that occur backstage and during commercial breaks.
The last episode put this motif on steroids, as former show employees profanely confront Larry before the show and, once the cameras roll, a who’s who of 1990s celebrities give sappy farewells that are quickly reneged at each commercial break. Jim Carrey performs an outrageous song praising Larry… then tells him to go screw. Carol Burnett brings out Ellen DeGeneres to settle a long-running disagreement with Larry. Tim Allen tells him they should hang out on-camera, then to piss off off-camera.
Finally, the one person whose farewell is sincere—Larry’s co-host, “Hey Now” Hank Kingsley—is interrupted by a surprise pop-in from Jerry Seinfeld. All the while, a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart feigns gratitude as he waits in the wings to take over Larry’s time slot.
6 Six Feet Under (2005)
The five-season saga of the Fishers, an adult family of funeral directors in Los Angeles, broke ground for several reasons. For one, David Fisher, played by future Dexter star Michael C. Hall, was among the first non-cartoonish portrayals of a gay person (and a gay couple—an interracial one, no less) on television.
But the show’s signature was that each episode opened with a death, typically of someone who ended up at Fisher Funeral Home. Suicides, car crashes, cancer, household accidents… each show started with sorrow and either ascended or descended from there.
Was it a top-ten all-time show? No. But it might have the best final scene ever. Beginning her journey to the East Coast for a fresh start, youngest sibling Claire pulls out of the driveway to the tune of Sia’s “Breathe Me” (in fact, this scene almost singlehandedly made Sia a star). Her brother Nate, who’d recently died of a brain aneurysm, appears and then fades from the rearview mirror. Claire starts sobbing.
Then, the show fast-forwards through time, showcasing the deaths of each main character. The matriarch, Ruth (1946-2025), passes in a hospital. David’s now-husband, Keith (1968-2029), is murdered in a bank robbery. David (1969-2044) collapses at a picnic. Finally, a centenarian Claire (1983-2085) passes as the credits roll.
Last year, rumors surfaced that HBO would risk grasping defeat from the jaws of victory with a Six Feet Under reboot. Fortunately, the exhumation (2021-22) died in committee.
5 The Sopranos (2007)
The Sopranos began television’s second Golden Age, one dominated by dramas like The Wire and Breaking Bad. Creator David Chase knew he’d started something big. But he didn’t know how to finish it.
Everyone knows how it turned out. In the final scene of the final episode, “Made in America,” Tony and his family assemble at an endearingly typical New Jersey diner. AJ enters and sits down at the booth as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blares. A shady man walks past and goes to the restroom as while Meadow parallel parks. She enters, Tony looks up, and…
… nothing. A black screen so abrupt that many viewers thought their cable went out. What ensued was the most hotly debated series finale in television history. Did Tony die or not?
Chase waited until 2021 to confirm what most long suspected: Yes, Tony is dead. In fact, Chase was surprised at the controversy. Tony was always doomed—just not necessarily that way.
“The scene I had in my mind was not that scene,” Chase said. “At the beginning of every show, he came from New York into New Jersey, and the last scene could be him coming from New Jersey back into New York for a meeting at which he was going to be killed.”
Eventually, Chase realized Tony’s standing as the head of two families—one crime, one nuclear—could be more cathartically concluded at a diner. The eatery, Holsten’s in Bloomfield, NJ, has a plaque commemorating the scene.
4 Breaking Bad (2013)
Bryan Cranston’s Walter White is likely the most compellingly complex antihero in TV history, nudging out House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, the aforementioned Tony Soprano, and, more recently, Marty Byrde from Ozark.
Given how layered a character White was, an appropriate sendoff was a tall task. Many an antihero-driven series has crashed on its final approach, perhaps Dexter most notoriously. His family estranged, his lungs succumbing to cancer, and with both the law and a drug cartel closing in, Walter needs to settle various scores for his loved ones and his legacy.
More importantly than any guns-blazing action scene, the finale pinpoints Walt’s intentions and motivations. In a farewell pop-in on his estranged wife, Walt confesses that his impetus for becoming the infamous Heisenberg was far more than a dying man’s desperation to secure his family’s financial future. “I did it for me,” he tells Skylar. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… alive.”
The rest of the episode is almost irrelevant but brilliant nonetheless. We see Walt get back at two wealthy former colleagues who’d chiseled him out of millions, finding a means of funneling his illegal earnings to his son in the process. And finally, he rigs a machine gun into his car’s trunk that pops up and blows away the drug gang while he fake-tackles his longtime partner, Jesse. Jesse flees, and Walt dies, gut-shot, as the cops close in and the camera fades. Perfect.
3 The Americans (2018)
From the start, The Americans had a firm end date: the collapse of the Soviet Union. But could the “Jennings” family, deep-cover Soviet spies in the Washington D.C. metro area, hold out that long?
Set during the 1980s Reagan administration—the beginning of the end of the Cold War—the show portrays the types of incredibly credible spies that both sides employed. But the front careers, convincing disguises, dead drops, and clandestine assassinations are just dressing because the show thrives on the relationship of its married co-protagonists, Phillip and Elizabeth.
Or rather, sort of married. As Soviet plants, they’ve been instructed to act as a married couple, up to and including having kids who think they’re normal Americans. Eventually, that wall is broken with their eldest, Paige, but not their younger child, Henry.
The finale succeeds by resolving exactly none of these complications. So tangled are the Jennings in their constructed American existence that leaving it brings nothing but hanging questions. As their cover is blown—by their friendly FBI agent neighbor, no less—Phillip and Elizabeth flee. Paige decides to stay, possibly to carry on her parents’ work. The FBI agent, Stan Beeman, tells a sobbing Henry about his parents’ true identities.
Will Phillip and Elizabeth’s arranged marriage in America parlay into an actual one in the USSR? We don’t know. What we do learn is they bring home information that prevents an overthrow of then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who would be instrumental in the USSR’s dissolution.
2 After Life (2022)
Written by and starring Ricky Gervais, After Life ran for just three seasons, each with six half-hour episodes. Despite its confounding Emmy Award snubs, the comedian has called it the best project of his career, which says a lot coming from the creator of The Office.
Gervais plays Tony, a local journalist in small-town England who loses his 40-something wife, Lisa, to cancer. As she approaches death, Lisa records a long-goodbye series of videos. During each episode, we find Tony wistfully watching these sentimental snippets, interspersed with clips of their happy pre-diagnosis lives together.
What’s unique about After Life is the elevation of a dog to essentially the primary supporting cast member. Brandy, the couple’s German shepherd, is a living, live-in link between wife and widower. Among other salves, Brandy saves Tony from committing suicide on several occasions.
Brandy also becomes key to the show’s phenomenal final installment. At a local fair, Tony, still deep in grief, performs several niceties for friends gathered there. It seems like the sort of “affairs in order” acts a depressed person might do before suicide. We then see Tony and Brandy ominously walking away. His deceased wife’s ghost joins them momentarily. A question asked 15 years earlier with The Sopranos—”Will Tony die?”—hangs over the scene.
Then, we see Brandy disappear as Tony continues walking. This particular Tony has been spared, showcased by the fast-forward suggestion of his dog’s lifespan naturally expiring before his own. A can’t-miss scene in a can’t-miss series.
1 Better Call Saul (2022)
Vince Gilligan is the only show creator included twice on this list—once for Breaking Bad, the other for the conclusion to what is easily the greatest spinoff in television history. The six-season prequel slow-leaks the gradual transformation of small-time “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill into cartel lawyer Saul Goodman.
In some ways, Better Call Saul surpasses its predecessor. For starters, it has two sublime acting performances—Bob Odenkirk’s McGill and love interest Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn)—to Bryan Cranston’s one. It also thrives despite the inherent limitation that we know Jimmy doesn’t die (since Breaking Bad occurs after it).
As the episodes dwindle in the final season, we see the full formation of Saul Goodman into a ruthlessly self-serving con man, able and willing to justify others dying for his financial gain. What the finale does so brilliantly is show us EXACTLY how far Jimmy is willing to go in his selfish interests.
Faced with spending the rest of his life behind bars, Saul once again wriggles himself mostly off the hook by implicating others—including his estranged lover, Kim. He’s set up for an easy stint in a low-security prison. But then, in one last manipulative courtroom monologue, Saul reverts to Jimmy… because he simply cannot harm Kim. He goes away for life; she walks out a free woman. The finale proves Saul a monster with one caveat—a precise answer to the “how far will he go?” motif the series spent six seasons fleshing out.