By Ben Silverman
Special to MSN TV
Remember the first episode of "M*A*S*H"? You know, when the 4077th holds a raffle to send
Korean houseboy Ho Jon to Hawkeye's alma mater? Of course you don't, and if it
weren't for the Internet, neither would we. That's because when it comes to
great television, it's not how a series starts, but how it's finished. A great
finale trumps a terrific debut every time; if you don't believe that, then
perhaps you were one of the few who missed the beloved (if a bit overwrought)
"M*A*S*H" finale, which is still the most watched episode of a television series
Also: All-time Best Finales
However, all too often, great shows fumble at the one-yard line, scarring otherwise stellar franchises with lousy, unsatisfying finales. Rabid "Lost" fans will no doubt pore over every detail of that show's upcoming finale, which gives us a golden opportunity to school overzealous TV writers on the ins and outs of crummy endings. How does one appropriately finish a great television series without ticking off viewers or compromising artistic vision? Start by avoiding these four finale sinkholes.
If you're going to wrap it up, just go ahead and wrap it up. Cliff-hangers work fine for season-enders -- they've kept viewers glued to "Lost" for years despite a plot with more holes than the hull of Oceanic 815 -- but they make for terribly frustrating finales.
Take the controversial cut that signaled the end of "The Sopranos." Did Tony get whacked? Who took over New York after Phil ate pavement? Will Sil pull through? So many questions and so little answers turned the ballyhooed finale of HBO's hit-man hitmaker into a crisis of faith. Once viewers realized their suddenly black TV screens weren't the result of a downed cable line, legions of distraught fans took to the Internet with passionate complaints and vicious diatribes, only to be met with a "bada bing, bada boo-hoo" grunt from creator David Chase.
Five years earlier, "The X-Files" writer Chris Carter confounded his fans with a confusing two-hour finale that included ghosts, a murder trial, plenty of shooting and precious little explanation for exactly what the hell Mulder and Scully had spent eight years trying to unravel. To top it off, the Cigarette Smoking Man dies, but not before blurting out the date of the upcoming alien invasion: Dec. 22, 2012. Huh? We smell a conspiracy. Or at least a movie sequel: "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" was released in 2008.
We know you think you're being clever, Mr. and Ms. Grumpy Underpaid Television Script Writer, but sometimes the best way to say goodbye is to just blurt it out. You don't need to blow our minds by pulling a perplexing plot twist out of your keyboard. Trust us: Finding out that six seasons of a touching, dependable medical drama were really just the random neuron firings of an autistic kid staring blankly into a snow globe doesn't make us like your show more.
Of course we're referring to the infamous last episode of "St. Elsewhere," the M. Night Shyamalan of finales (the crappy "Lady in the Water" version, not the creepy "Sixth Sense" one). Discovering that every character, conversation and cardiac arrest of St. Eligius was little more than an autistic's obsession with a plastic bubble of water and white flakes stunk like yesterday's cafeteria chow, nailing the door shut on this once-proud hospital.
A similar act of script-wronging befell "Roseanne." No subject was too touchy and no joke too raunchy for the Connor clan, who enjoyed a decade-long run as television's foremost dysfunctional family. However, nothing could have prepared viewers for the show's ninth season dip into surreal situations and tired gags, culminating in an absurd finale that revealed that most of what's come before has been part of a book penned by the potty-mouthed matriarch, who apparently found enough time in the back to jot down 15 minutes worth of inspirational thoughts on life, gender roles and spiritual salvation. Heaven help us all.
The Whoopsie Daisy
Life as a hit show is, at best, unpredictable. One season it's Emmy
nominations and Nielsen-rating supremacy, the next it's disgruntled stars and
six time-slot shifts. The fickle winds of network change can change direction in
a heartbeat. Producers would be wise to embrace the trite Boy Scout motto: Be
prepared for anything, including the off chance your ace in the hole ain't
Sherwood Schwartz, for instance, never saw it coming. Having just wrapped the third season of "Gilligan's Island," the legendary producer received word in the summer of '67 that his tropical paradise was scheduled to be wiped off the map in favor of a new season of "Gunsmoke," turning the last aired episode into an impromptu series finale. Unfortunately, the final act was a far cry from the rescue operation that fans clamored for. Instead, it was just another goofball plot in which Gilligan gets caught up in some awkward shenanigans with hitherto unknown natives and a cheap wig. Forced to slurp coconut soup indefinitely, the castaways stuck it out in prime-time limbo until sailing into mediocrity with the made-for-TV movie "Rescue From Gilligan's Island."
Go ahead and pity the shipwrecked seven, but don't bother saving any pity for the deranged minds behind the time-bending sci-fi drama "Quantum Leap." Hoping to avoid cancellation, the producers ended the show's fifth season with a cliffhanger. The network didn't bite, but the frantically edited finale sure did. In the biggest space-time-continuum gaffe since Marty McFly made out with his mom in "Back to the Future," the finale stunned fans by signing off with the tragic line, "Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home," leaving the intrepid time-traveler lost in space and earning his otherwise great show a spot on this list.
The Going Nowhere
So you've leapt over the cliff-hanger, unraveled the twister and outworked the whoopsie daisy, but you're not out of the woods yet. A great finale brings closure to a series, leaving its fans full with the knowledge that, truly, there was no story left to tell. Anything short of that feels like just another episode, forever miring the show in neutral.
That's how Jerry Seinfeld planned it when he underwhelmed us all in 1998's overpromoted "Seinfeld" finale. Putting its kooky quartet through a brutal trial for their general crimes against decency sure seemed clever on paper (particularly the bit where we get to have one last fling with memorable characters such as the Soup Nazi and the Low Talker), but it ultimately turned the lovable no-goodniks into unlikable caricatures of themselves. The show about nothing strained to make a point about something. Seemingly disinterested in the fact that they're about to spend the next year in prison, the foursome simply prattles on about inconsequential minutiae, leading us to believe they'll remain locked in neurotic purgatory forever. No soup for them, and no fun for us.
What TV series finale did you find frustrating? Write to us at email@example.com.
In addition to his contributions to MSN TV, Ben Silverman writes about film, music and video games for a variety of questionable Web sites.