The way a show ends can have a huge and lasting affect on what viewers think of the entire series. Here are the TV finales that made audiences rethink everything they knew about a show.
Whether you loved it or hated it (and just about everyone hated it), The Sopranos’ season finale shocked fans when it abruptly cut to black while Tony (James Gandolfini) sat in a diner with a hit on his head that could be carried out at seemingly any moment.
Once they realized the black-out wasn’t a mistake, fans debated whether or not Tony was killed. But series creator David Chase wasn’t interested. More than a decade later he told the New York Times, “I’ve got to say I’m just bored with it. I also feel like, Jesus, there were 86 episodes and you’re fixated on that? Can’t we talk about something else?”
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Because the original Star Trek was cancelled without having a proper finale, Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first in the franchise to have a well thought-out ending that fit the series as a whole. The writers went with a time-travel theme, setting a precedent for the series finales of two of its successors, Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise.
In TNG’s finale, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) goes back in time, revisiting moments from earlier in the series that viewers never got to see, like addressing the crew upon his first arrival at the ship, with (now dead) Lt. Tasha Yar at his side. We also get to see bits of the future—like the gray streak in Data’s hair—but Picard warns the crew that the timeline has shifted and anything can happen.
Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under, one of the first dramas to ever air on HBO, is a show about funeral directors that regularly featured a main character’s ghost after he passed. So the finale, which showed how every single main character on the show dies, had a major impact on the series as a whole.
In the final moments of the finale, Claire (Lauren Ambrose), leaves home, finally no longer driving the family hearse, and heads toward New York. The strains of Sia’s “Breathe Me” make sure we’re crying before we’re even shown (in montage form) the final moments in the life of each member of the Fisher clan.
The American Office was based on a British show of the same name, which pioneered the “faux documentary” style sitcom, later seen in such hits at Modern Family and Parks and Recreation. But unlike on those shows, on The Office we got to actually find out who the characters were giving all of these interviews to.
In the series finale, we not only see the camera crew that’s been filming a documentary about the Dunder-Mifflin crew, we find out what became of their film. The finale jumps a year in the future for when the gang reunites in Scranton and answer questions about it on a panel.
When Roseanne originally aired, no one dreamed that beloved TV shows from the 90s would later be revived thanks to something called streaming series. So no one thought it was a problem when Roseanne Barr decided to take the Connor family in a truly bizarre direction during the show’s final season. And besides, John Goodman was off filming The Big Lebowski.
After the Connors wins the lottery, Dan (Goodman) cheats and Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) meets a literal prince. But in the series finale, Roseanne revels that not only were these plot twists fake, the entire series was fake—Dan is dead, her daughter’s boyfriends are reversed, and many more oddities. The surreal moment didn’t sit well with viewers and writers pretended it never happened when the series was revamped in 2018.
As the airdate of the series finale of Seinfeld, one of the greatest comedies of all time, approached, many critics wondered how the show could satisfy everyone who hoped to see their favorite bit character in the final episode. Somehow, the writers managed to pull it off, setting the episode in the courtroom and allowing the gang’s past foils to come testify as to their characters.
Peterman, David Puddy, Mr. Pitt, Uncle Leo, the Soup Nazi, Marla “the Virgin” Penny, Sidra “They’re Real” Holland, lawyer Jackie Chiles, baseball player Keith Hernandez, and of course, Newman are all on hand to explain their take on the events we saw throughout the series. And in the end, the ultimate sentence is handed down by none other than Judge Art Vandelay, a long-running gag turned serious.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
One of the best workplace comedies ever made, the Mary Tyler Moore show revolved around a tightly run newsroom of professionals—except one. Ted Baxter, played by Ted Knight, was the bumbling fool who ruined the rest of the crew’s hard work on-air so often they placed bets on it.
The season finale of Mary Tyler Moore changed the way you look at every joke about Ted. When the characters’ TV station is taken over by new management in the series finale, management fires every single WJM employee you’ve come to know and love—except Ted.
The only thing better than hanging out in a bar where everyone knows your name? Hanging out at one with an owner like Sam Malone (Ted Danson). Throughout Cheers’ run, Sam dated his fair share of Boston ladies. But his most memorable romance was with his longtime workplace foil, Diane Chambers (Shelley Long).
Sam and Diane’s “will they or won’t they?” relationship gave a sexual energy and suspense to the first half of the series, until Diane leaves Sam at the altar at the end of season five. Six years later, Shelley Long returned for the finale, where the couple plays out their dilemma once again. The ultimate answer was “they won’t,” but we’ll never know if it stuck.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
The series that showed how Will Smith’s life “got flipped, turned upside down” had a finale that did the same, with the entire Banks family picking up and moving to the East Coast. Left behind is Smith, who tries many of his characteristic shenanigans to keep the family’s Bel Aire mansion from selling.
But sell it does, and in the end, the Fresh Prince is alone. Knowing that he doesn’t get to spend forever with his aunt, uncle, and cousins in the end changes how you view the entire series. Happy family moments that are the hallmark of the show are filled with even more meaning and heart.
The series finale of The Fugitive didn’t just change the series forever, it changed all series forever. The 1960s action-drama about a doctor on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit was aired relatively early-on in television history, and no one had ever thought much about having an ending for a genre that was supposed to episodic and long-running.
But Len Goldberg, ABC’s vice president of programming, convinced higher-ups that it would be good for ad rates, and Dr. Richard Kimble was allowed to confront the one-armed man who killed his wife and be cleared in her murder. The episode was viewed by 45.9 percent of American households.
Two and Half Men
After Charlie Sheen had a public, possibly drug-fueled breakdown that involved trashing both a hotel room and other cast members of Two and a Half Men, he was written off the show and fired. He almost came back for the series finale, but after not liking the plot he ultimately declined.
The way creator Chuck Lorre went about writing around this hiccup after building up Sheen’s possible return in the media was nothing short of #tigerblood-level bizarre. A character who looks like Sheen’s gets killed by a falling piano, then Lorre himself appears. “Winning!” he turns around and says, and then a piano falls on him as well.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show had what many consider to be a perfect ending, but it also opens up a meta thread that’s hard to get out of your head when you watch reruns of the classic show. In the finale, Robert Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) writes his memoirs, and sells them to his boss Alan Brady (Carl Reiner).
Alan asks Rob an open-ended question: “Who’s going to play you?” and suddenly, in a twist worthy of a sci-fi show, you realize that Dick Van Dyke ends up playing Robert Petrie, and that there’s a real Robert Petrie out there who’s married to a Laura who’s not Mary Tyler Moore.
A series that revolved around secret identity, Gossip Girl had no choice but to make a big reveal in its finale: who was Gossip Girl? It turns out it wasn’t a girl at all; it was Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley). Although most fans weren’t surprised, many weren’t happy either.
“[I]s anyone tempted to go back and rewatch the whole series and count the inconsistencies, like how Dan would be able to send all those Gossip Girl blasts while with his girlfriends (they couldn’t all be pre-scheduled),” TV critic Laura Prudom wrote, “Good luck, godspeed, and if you really are that masochistic, at least make it into a drinking game.”
How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother was a sitcom centered around the premise that a narrator (Bob Saget) is telling his children the story of, well, how he met their mother. But the plot of the series, which centered around the interweaving the stories of five New York friends, got more complicated that the cute hook that sold the show.
Quickly into the series’ run, the creators decided that the character telling the story should end up with the “Diane” to his “Sam,” Robin (Cobie Smulders). So they filmed an ending that had the children reacting to “the mother” dying, and encouraging their father to go after “Aunt Robin.” Unfortunately, by the time the scene aired, it fell flat, and the the finale is often named one of audiences’ most-hated.
Parks and Recreation
Amy Poehler’s beloved comedy took a risk when it set its entire final season (its seventh) in the future. The series finale went even further, and farther. In a storyline that moves from 2017 to 2048, we see the fates of our favorite Pawnee residents unfold.
Andy and April have a boy named Jack, Ron is made superintendent of the Pawnee National Park, Donna is happily married, and Tom is a motivational speaker. But the most surprising vision of the future is that either Leslie or her beau Ben (we’re not sure which) has presidential-level secret service. Oh, and Jerry/Larry/Garry became mayor of Pawnee.
Sex in the City
The women of Sex and the City may have dated a lot, but the core of the show was the friendships they had with each other. The men in their lives never seemed permanent, and none more so than “Mr. Big” (Chris Noth), who was never referred to by his real name.
So it came as a surprise to many viewers when Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) ends up with “Big” in the end, a man who calls her “Kid” and used to cheat on his wife with her. His name is finally revealed, and it’s as mundane as the show’s ending: “John.”
All in the Family
Sometimes, a finale is so heartwarming it colors how you feel about the characters for the rest of your life. Such is the case with the series finale of All in the Family, which finds Edith (Jean Stapleton) in the hospital after putting Archie’s (Carroll O’Connor) needs before her health.
“I been blowing my own horn for alotta years and I’m gonna tell you something: I ain’t nothing without you,” Archie tells Edith, while holding her in her hospital bed. As the characters share the vulnerable moment they cry a few tears, and it’s hard not to join them.
M*A*S*H was ahead of its time in many, many ways. “Dark comedy” wasn’t exactly a TV genre in 1973. (To put it in perspective, Bojack Horseman would have still been a hopeful colt watching Secretariat in the early 70s.) But here comes this show, based on a popular movie, which is itself based on a best-selling book, that centers around a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. I mean, the opening song for M*A*S*H is Johnny Mandel’s “Suicide is Painless,” which itself is a pretty great tip-off.
The show’s two-hour finale was particularly bleak for a series that managed to find humor and romance even amongst the corpses. Alan Alda’s character, Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce, recovering from a mental breakdown in a hospital. His psychiatrist is trying to uncover clues to what happened; which includes Hawkeye riding a bus which is boarded by a refugee woman and her chicken. When enemy patrol rides by, Hawkeye tells the woman to kill the chicken so it won’t cluck and give away the bus’ location. Except…oh no…it turns out it wasn’t a chicken Hawkeye peer-pressured a woman into smothering after all. No, the woman was carrying her baby. M*I*C D*R*O*P
FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) specialize in investigating bizarre paranormal cases, including alien abductions, poltergeists, genetic mutants, and actual werewolves. They eventually uncover a joint conspiracy between the government and a group of extraterrestrials to colonize the Earth with human/alien hybrids.
Mulder gets arrested for the apparent murder of a military officer who is actually a government super-soldier and is thus not really dead. Scully helps break him out of prison and the two become wanted federal fugitives, learning that the alien colonization will take place in 2012 and there’s nothing they can do about it. The subsequent 2008 film The X-Files: I Want to Believe and the revival seasons 10 and 11 sort of ignore this.
Big Love, the critically acclaimed HBO drama about a polygamist (Bill Paxton), ended in the most dramatic way possible, with the murder of their main character. The scene was shocking: Paxton on his back in the street in front of his home with his three wives gathered around him.
Although the character’s murder was fast, it could be seen as the ending thread of several themes it had be exploring over time. As TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, it was a “shocking twist that reordered the hour, the season, and the show, forcing viewers to view everything that came before in a fresh context.”
If you ever wonder why executives often don’t tell the cast and crew of a show that they’ve been cancelled under after they’ve filmed their final episode, Moonlighting might be it. In what starts as an average episode, the finale suddenly veers off track when the characters themselves find out about the show’s cancellation.
Characters die after speaking their last lines, whole rooms are carried away after scenes are completed, and the two leads (played by Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis) try to save the show to save their lives. While it may have been fun for the actors, it’s not so fun for the audience. It’s hard to see the show’s characters as real people after that.
Will & Grace
Will and Grace…end up as in-laws? It happened in the series finale of the long-running sitcom, which depicts the two friends growing apart only to reunite more than two decades later when they’re moving their children into dorm rooms at the same college.
When the show made a comeback in 2017, the entire episode was forgotten, including the kids and the friends’ fallout. “I had the craziest dream,” Karen (Megan Mullally) tells her friends to explain away the discrepancy, in a throw-back to the famous Newhart finale.
Unsurprisingly for a TV show from the 60s about a single woman, much of That Girl focused on the marriage prospects of its main character, Ann Marie (Marlo Thomas). In the final season, she finally gets engaged to her longtime beau Don Hollinger (Ted Bessell).
But for the finale, Thomas didn’t want what many felt would be a natural ending: a big wedding. Instead, the series ends with Ann and Don being caught in an elevator during a conversation about feminism. Rewatching old The Girl episodes, you’re reminded that it was always about the woman and never the trappings of womanhood.
If you yelled, “They’re in the afterlife?!” at your TV during the season finale of Lost, you aren’t alone. Many fans were angry at the reveal that the “sideways timeline” of the final season wasn’t a trick of the island, but simply the old “they were dead along” trope.
The finale also failed to solve some of the many mysteries that plagued Lost through its six seasons, and rewatching the series isn’t the same when you know you’ll never find out the source of Walt’s powers, where Kate’s black horse came from, why Libby and Hurley share an off-island connection, or even the meaning behind those damn numbers.
The show that gave Jennifer Garner her start, Alias centered around a badass spy’s vulnerable moments. Nothing epitomized this dual nature more than Sydney Bristow’s (Garner) relationship with her handler, Agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), who she ultimately falls in love with.
Unfortunately for Bristow, Vaughn is erroneously thought to be dead several times throughout the series, including in a sideswipe car crash, one of the first times the now widely used CGI trick was used on TV. The season finale finds him very much alive and living at the seaside with Sydney.
One of the first critically acclaimed dramas that aired on basic cable, The Shield told the complicated tale of Det. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his “strike team” within the LAPD. As the series goes on, Mackey becomes more and more corrupt, teaching his team how to blackmail, kidnap, steal, and kill while his co-workers, Detectives Wagenbach and Wyms are always on their trail.
In the series finale, widely considered to be one of the best in TV history, Vic Mackey accomplishes the impossible, managing to get full immunity for his many, many crimes. The moment isn’t as shocking as when low-key strike team member Ronnie (David Rees Snell) takes the fall, and it changes how you’ll view their crimes in retrospect.
TV finales tend to have a lot of tropes, like the death of a main character, finally resolving a long-running “will they or won’t they?” romantic plot, or having a character go on to write about the experiences you’ve just seen in the series. When Dawson’s Creek ended, it attempted all three.
Like many finales, it also flash-forward into the future. Dawson (James Vanderbeek) is the hot-shot producer of a show called The Creek, Joey (Katie Holmes) ends up choosing Pacey (Joshua Jackson). As for Jen (Michelle Williams)? She’s the one who ends up dead, by a simple, yet gut-wrenching heart condition.
The medical drama St. Elsewhere was one of the first shows to feature a character on the autism spectrum, Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen), son of Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders). But its finale twist was even more groundbreaking. At the end of the episode, Tommy is looking at the window at falling snow….
The scene then changes, with Tommy inside an apartment, looking at a snow globe. The camera pulls out and we see that Donald isn’t a doctor, but a blue-collar worker. He asks, “What’s he thinking about?” as we see the setting for the show—St. Eligius Hospital—is in the snow globe. In other words, the entire series was Tommy’s daydream.
Mad About You
One of the most charming sitcoms about love and relationships from the 90s, Mad About You revolved around married couple Paul and Jamie Buchman (Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt), who have a baby during the show’s final season. So it’s shocking that in its flash-forward finale, their now-grown daughter Mabel reveals that they’re divorced!
Now a filmmaker like her father, Mabel (Janeane Garofalo) seems to see her parents through a much more negative light than the audience ever did, explaining how their neuroticism led to their separation. Ultimately, Mabel reunites Paul and Jamie at her film premiere, but knowing they weren’t able to successfully raise their daughter together changes how you rewatch the series.
The finale of ALF is only something executives could have gotten away with in the era before social media, as the show was cancelled after a “To be continued…” cliffhanger episode that had Alf almost reuniting with his alien family only to be abducted by government agents right before making contact.
Although the TV show ALF was never seen again, Alf himself appeared on an episode of Blossom the next year, and distraught children still bought his merchandise and wondered about the wise-cracking, furry hero. Six years later, they got some answers with a TV movie, Project ALF.
What is arguably the most famous series finale of all time came from a show that is otherwise rarely seen on “best of” lists. Newhart was comedian Bob Newhart’s second show, in which he played a Vermont innkeeper. Although funny, it wasn’t as cutting-edge as his previous outing, The Bob Newhart Show, where he had played a Chicago psychologist.
The series creators seemed to poke fun at this notion themselves in the series finale of Newhart. In its final moments, Newhart wakes up in his Chicago home in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife in the original Bob Newhart Show. “Honey, wake up, you won’t believe the dream I just had,” he tells her.
Little House on the Prairie
When you think of Little House on the Prairie (if you think about it at all), you probably think of quixotic storylines involving hoop skirts, cows and…I want to say…a blind chick? Didn’t one of the sisters go blind? Whatever it was, the proletarian saga of the Ingalls, a family living in the late 1880s in Walnut Grove, Minn. endured for nine seasons (and three made-for-TV movies!) and almost a decade precisely because the characters were nice, the plot was prosaic, and it was easy nostalgia viewing for people who never lived in that time period and would probably never want to.
Then comes along LHotP finale episode, in which–spoiler alert– the whole town explodes. Literally, all of Walnut Grove is leveled to the ground by no less a force than its collective citizens, who–in a bout of The Tommyknockers madness–decide that they’d rather burn it down to the ground than let an evil land developer buy it out from under them. This mirrors the real reason director and star Michael Landon decided to go with this ending: by blowing it all up, he made it impossible for another show to come in and use his set after the show was canceled.
After a time-traveling experiment goes wrong, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is trapped leaping into different bodies in the past. The only way he can leap out of each person is to prevent some tragedy or injustice to change the timeline for the better, with the hopes that eventually he’ll be sent back to his own time.
Sam leaps into a bar on the day he was born and starts talking with the bartender, who we slowly realize is probably God. The bartender tells Sam that he has a choice – either return to his own time, or keep leaping forever to right the wrongs of the universe. Sam decides to go home, but first asks to do one last leap to help his friend Al. The episode ends, and we’re told in some on-screen epilogue text that Sam never made it back to his own time. What a quantum drag.
If you were in the United States in the early 90s, you undoubtedly remember a dinosaur baby screaming “not the mama!” somehow permeating every corner of pop culture. The star of a strangely popular show called Dinosaurs, he was known simply as “Baby” and had zero respect for anyone who wasn’t his mother, who was voiced by Jessica Walter.
Other than being a showcase for Baby to beat people who weren’t his mother with whatever items were within his tiny arms’ reach, the show contained lots of hokey sitcom laughs. So it was a shock when finale went super-dark, killing off every member of the family and neighbor in a too-real-for-TV mass extinction.
David, the Gnome
David is a 400-year-old kindly gnome doctor who lives in the forest and helps patients in need, which usually wind up being animals. He lives in a tree with his wife, Lisa, who is also four centuries old. He gallops around the woods on his friend Swift the fox, dispensing medicine and gentle wisdom.
In the final episode, David and Lisa decide that it’s their time to die. Along with their friend Casper, they slowly climb a mountain into a field, saying goodbye to all of their animal friends along the way, and then just kind of die. Their dead gnome bodies then turn into trees, and Swift finds a new gnome to live with. The end.