A series finale refers to the last installment of a series with a narrative presented through mediums such as television, film, and literature. In many Commonwealth countries, the term final episode is commonly used in regard to a television series. While the term itself is usually applied to series that were able to make their final episodes according to plan, it is also used when a show already knows it's been cancelled, or has a strong feeling that it will not be renewed, as was the case with Medium. Episodes labeled "series finale," or ones leading up to it, often include remarkable events in the overall series story arc. An extended length episode, or television or theatrical film may serve as the series finale. The finale may also be used as a device to create a spin-off series.
Typical plot devices
Series finales frequently feature fundamental deviations from the central plot line, such as the resolution of a central mystery or problem, the separation of the major characters, or the sale of a home or business that serves as the series' primary setting. Some alter the entire premise of the series, such as in St. Elsewhere and Newhart.
The final scene often takes place in the show's primary setting, such as in That '70s Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Martin, Little House on the Prairie, Full House, Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, One Day at a Time, Lost, Boy Meets World, Friends, Knots Landing, and One Life to Live.
Cast members who have left the show often return, such as:
- Steve Carell, B.J. Novak, and Mindy Kaling in The Office
- Shelley Long in Cheers
- Ron Howard in Happy Days
- Linda Gray, Mary Crosby, Joan Van Ark, and Ted Shackleford in Dallas
- David Duchovny in The X-Files
- Denise Crosby and Colm Meaney in Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Sherry Stringfield, Noah Wyle, Laura Innes, Eriq La Salle, and Alex Kingston in ER
- Donna Mills and Joan Van Ark in Knots Landing
- Taylor Momsen in Gossip Girl
- Elizabeth Mitchell, Ian Somerhalder, Dominic Monaghan, Rebecca Mader, Jeremy Davies, Cynthia Watros, and Maggie Grace in Lost
- Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
- Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher in That '70s Show (However, Kutcher had appeared in earlier episodes in a recurring role)
- Amanda Seyfried in Big Love
- Jennifer Morrison, Anne Dudek, Kal Penn, Amber Tamblyn, Sela Ward, and Olivia Wilde in House
- Michael Rosenbaum, John Glover, Annette O'Toole, and John Schneider in Smallville
- Jessica Biel in 7th Heaven (originally intended finale)
- Tisha Campbell in Martin
- Kristy McNichol in Empty Nest
- Sean Flynn in Zoey 101
- Estelle Harris in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody
- Robert Pastorelli and Pat Corley in Murphy Brown
- Adrianne Palicki, Zach Gilford, Taylor Kitsch, and Jesse Plemons in Friday Night Lights
- Dana Delany, Roger Bart, Richard Burgi, Christine Estabrook, Lupe Ontiveros, and Steven Culp in Desperate Housewives
- Nicole Sullivan in The King of Queens
- David Canary in All My Children
- Michael Landon and Karen Grassle in Little House on the Prairie
- Caroline Rhea in Sabrina the Teenage Witch
- Brian Krause and Drew Fuller in Charmed
- Larry Bryggman in As the World Turns
- Scott Weinger in Full House
Unseen characters may be revealed, such as Eddy's brother (who had only been referred to) in Ed, Edd n Eddy and millionaire Charlie Townsend on Charlie's Angels, whose voice was only used previously, appears in a clip show only; likewise, silent characters may speak for the first and only time on a series finale (such as Clarabell the Clown on The Howdy Doody Show and the two Darryls on Newhart). Characters may make cameo appearances such as Huckleberry Hound in Johnny Bravo. Series finales can also serve as a lead-in to a spin-off series such as the finale of The Andy Griffith Show "Mayberry R.F.D." Many series finales often kill off several of the main characters, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Roseanne, Medium, Sisters, and Star Trek: Enterprise.
Most series in early television consisted of stand-alone episodes without continuing story arcs, so there was little reason to provide closure at its end. Early series which had special ending episodes were Howdy Doody in September 1960 and Leave It to Beaver in June 1963.
In early 1964, when Route 66 ended its four-season run, it became one of the first dramatic series with a planned wrap-up. The series was about two young men traveling the United States by automobile. In the two-part finale, the journey ended and the two friends went their separate ways, with indications about what each would be doing in the future.
Considered to be "the series finale that invented the modern-day series finale," the 1967 final episode of The Fugitive, "The Judgment: Part 2", attracted a 72% audience share when broadcast. This finale received the highest viewing figures in American history prior to being surpassed by the Dallas episode "Who Done It" that resolved the Who Shot J.R.? story (among regular television series episodes; the final episode of the miniseries Roots topped The Fugitive first).
Scrubs aired its two-part finale episode billed simply as a "My Finale" in May 2009 as the show's renewal or cancellation had not been decided as of its airing, and so it was not known whether the episode would conclude just the season or the entire series; Scrubs would eventually be renewed for one additional season, which became a spin-off series titled Scrubs: Med School.
Futurama has had four designated series finales, due to the recurringly uncertain future of the series. "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings", "Into the Wild Green Yonder (Part 4)", "Overclockwise", and "Meanwhile" have all been written to serve as a final episode for the show.
The series finale of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (itself an epilogue to I Love Lucy) was unintentionally fitting: stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were about to divorce and end the show, a fact that the show's guest star for what would be the final program, Edie Adams, did not know when she chose the song she would sing on the program. Prophetically, the song was named "That's All." The series also ended with Lucy and Ricky making up and kissing, while in reality Ball and Arnaz would not (the two would eventually reconcile later in life, although both would go on to marry other people).
Notable series finales
By audience share, the highest rated finale to date was from the series M*A*S*H in 1983. The episode, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen", gained an audience share of over 77%. In the extended-length episode, the Korean War ends, and the characters of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital make their goodbyes and finally go home. Another famous series finale is that of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired in 1977.
Friends ended in 2004 with 52.5 million Americans watching, making it the most watched entertainment telecast in six years. The finale was the second most-watched television show of the year, behind the Super Bowl. Named "The Last One", it showed all six main characters starting new lives: Rachel moving to Paris but later returning after Ross says he loves her, Monica and Chandler finally having children when their surrogate gives birth to twins, Joey is still living in his apartment with a job on Days of Our Lives, while Phoebe and Mike decide to have children. The show ends with all six friends standing in Monica's empty apartment, before going to get some coffee.
Some positive critical reviews come from shows that have controversial or twist endings. The finale of The Prisoner, "Fall Out," caused controversy by providing a cryptic end to the series. The lead actor of the series, Patrick McGoohan, wrote and directed the final episode. He recalled in an interview years later that the final episode attracted a large audience, who demanded a clear resolution to the series. McGoohan recalled having to hide from fans immediately afterwards because of the reaction to the ending.
The episode "The Last Newhart" ended the series Newhart, by revealing the run of the series to be a dream conjured up by the main character of The Bob Newhart Show. In a similar vein, the series St. Elsewhere ended with the suggestion that the entire series is a fantasy of a small boy in the episode "The Last One".
The series finale of Seinfeld, "The Finale", was seen by 76.3 million viewers. The episode has the four main cast members facing most of the show's minor characters as they testified against them in a criminal trial; the four had been charged with, and would be convicted of, violating a Good Samaritan law. The episode ended up with mixed reviews, with its supporters believing that it summarized the series perfectly and its detractors stating that the finale was inadequate for fans who had watched the series for nine years.
The 2005 series finale of Six Feet Under, "Everyone's Waiting", was ranked as episode #22 on TV Guide's list of "TV's Top 100 Episodes of All Time", and was also named one of the best TV moments of the decade.
The Sopranos finale caused millions of viewers to temporarily believe they had lost cable service due to an abrupt blackout finale; the final scene left open the fate of Tony Soprano (series creator David Chase had wanted the cut to black to last for several minutes and take the place of post-show credits, so that the first thing the audience would see was an HBO notice, but the network refused this and there was a very short jump from the final shot to the credits).
The 2013 series finale of Breaking Bad, "Felina", had the highest ratings of any episode of the series and received critical acclaim, praising the proper conclusion of a series that ties up all loose ends and a wrap-up that proved to feel conclusive and satisfying. The finale also set records on the social media network Twitter, with 1.24 million tweets from 601,370 unique users during the live broadcast of both the EST and PST telecasts. The Breaking Bad finale hit a peak of 22,373 "tweets"-per-minute as the final episode began on the East Coast.
Use as spinoffs
Series finales are sometimes used as a platform for spinoff shows. Examples include:
- Three's Company's series finale was a platform for the spinoff Three's A Crowd.
- The Andy Griffith Show's series finale was a platform for, and shared the same title as, the spinoff Mayberry RFD.
- Duet's series finale was a platform for the spinoff Open House.
- M*A*S*H*'s series finale was a platform for the spinoff AfterMASH, starring Harry Morgan, William Christopher, and Jamie Farr.
- The Closer's series finale was a platform for the spinoff Major Crimes.
- The Practice's series finale, and much of the final season, was used as a launching pad for Boston Legal, starring James Spader and William Shatner.
- iCarly's series finale, along with the cancellation of Victorious, were a platform for the spinoff Sam & Cat.
- Rugrats' series finale was a platform for the pilots to the spinoffs All Growed Up, All Grown Up, and the Rugrats episode: Pre-school Daze to Rugrats Pre-School Daze.
- Breaking Bad's series finale was a platform for the spinoff Better Call Saul.
Some of these, however, never materalized due to various reasons:
- Laverne & Shirley had a proposed spin-off for Carmine that never came into fruition.
- iCarly also had another spin-off proposal for the character of Gibby, which was passed in favor of Sam & Cat.
- That's So Raven's finale was supposed to serve as a platform for a Raven spin-off, but it was passed for a spin-off for Cory & Victor.
- The Suite Life of Zack & Cody's finale was supposed to serve as an intro of the spin-off of the character Arwin, but it was also passed to due another spin-off.
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