By Matt Roush,
That's a wrap! The stakes are rarely higher for a TV series than at the end of a season — whether it's signing off until next fall with a climactic grand gesture or taking a well-earned final bow. As part of TV Guide Magazine's Finale Preview issue (on newsstands this week), and reflecting the magazine's ongoing celebration of its 60th anniversary, we take a fond look at 60 of the best series and season finales of all time. We hate goodbyes, except when they're done this well.
First, the Top 10:
1 Newhart (1990) "You won't believe the dream I just had." We'll never forget it, either. The delightfully nostalgic surprise ending — Bob Newhart rousing from an eight-season dream as Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon, waking up as Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley alongside previous sitcom wife Suzanne Pleshette from The Bob Newhart Show — was one of TV's best-kept secrets ever. Also an instant, audacious classic.
2 The Fugitive (1967) Best payoff ever. After four years on the lam, Richard Kimball (David Janssen) confronts and defeats his wife's one-armed killer. Their thrilling battle drew a then-record 72 percent share of the TV audience.
3 Dallas(1980) Who shot J.R.? Everyone had a motive in the delicious Season 3 finale, igniting a media frenzy and setting the bar for all future cliffhangers. Because of an actors' strike, the answer wouldn't be revealed for another eight months, setting new ratings records.
4 The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977) Comic genius with a poignant sting, as Mary and the rest of the WJM newsroom staff — except that idiot Ted Baxter — are fired, and a group hug becomes a hilarious mass shuffle to the tissue box. We needed one, too. Mary's wistful look back as she turns out the lights is a heartbreaker.
5 M*A*S*H (1983) Epic in emotional scope and length (two and a half hours), TV's most watched series finale gave the nation a sentimental catharsis as the beloved Army docs left Korea and each other's fine company.
6 The Shield (2008) In a chilling, fitting and perfectly satisfying denouement, crooked cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) wins immunity from prosecution but loses everything that matters: family, friends and pride, trapped in a desk job that might as well be prison.
7 Lost (2007) A show infamous for game changers topped itself in the Season 3 finale when Jack wailed, "We have to go back!" Did he say back? We had flash-forwarded without even knowing it.
8 Friday Night Lights (2011) With wet eyes and uplifted heart, we watched Coach Eric and wife Tami Taylor put Texas in the rearview mirror as life moved on after one last inspiring championship season. Tim Riggins got the last words: "Texas forever," which is how long we'll remember this glorious series.
9 St. Elsewhere (1988) Do we really think the entire series took place within the imagination of an autistic child as he gazes upon a snow globe containing the edifice of St. Eligius? Hardly, but it's a haunting image preserving this landmark hospital drama in memory.
10 Six Feet Under (2005) Befitting a series so consumed with death, the rhapsodic final montage reveals how all of the Fishers meet their maker.
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Here's an annotated list of 50 more finales, in alphabetical order:
Alias "Almost Thirty Years," Season 1 finale (2002) In captivity again, Sydney comes face-to-face with "The Man," who's actually her long-presumed-dead mom.
All in the Family The Stivics Go West," Season 8 finale (1978) Not a dry eye in the Bunker house as Mike and Gloria leave for California, and even Archie and the Meathead manage to make peace.
Arrested Development "Development Arrested," network series finale (2006) "Maybe a movie," says Ron Howard (finally seen, not just heard) in the meta climax, as Maebe pitches him her wacky family's story as a series. Would you believe a Netflix comeback first?
Battlestar Galactica "Lay Down Your Burdens," Season 2 finale (2006) The Cylons occupy New Caprica, no thanks to President Baltar.
Bonanza "A Matter of Circumstance," Season 11 finale (1970) An intense change-of-pace episode for the classic Western is shown largely from Little Joe's point-of-view, as he's injured by a spooked horse when left alone on the Ponderosa and considers amputating his broken arm.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Becoming," Season 2 finale (1998) Angel's soul is restored too late, and Buffy stabs him through the chest, sending him through a vortex into hell. No wonder she takes the first bus out of Sunnydale.
Cheers "One for the Road," series finale (1993) In one of the most anticipated and watched finales ever, Diane comes back to Boston, and she and Sam almost end up together. But he returns to the bar, and his friends, and when a new patron comes knocking, Sam announces, "Sorry, we're closed."
China Beach "Hello Goodbye," series finale (1991) In a moving coda to the Vietnam medical drama (recently released on DVD — yay!), the veterans reunite in 1988 and take a road trip to the memorial wall in Washington, D.C., exorcising old ghosts.
The Closer "Standards and Practices," Season 1 finale (2005) It took an entire season, but Brenda finally wins over the Priority Homicide squad, which rallies en masse to save her job when an "anonymous" complaint (hello, Capt. Taylor) is filed for "conduct unbecoming."
CSI "Living Doll," Season 7 finale (2007) Grissom discovers the identity of the Miniature Killer, but not before his beloved Sara is put in danger, exposing their relationship to the rest of the team.
Dexter "The Getaway," Season 4 finale (2010) Wrapping the show's finest season, Dexter takes down the Trinity Killer (Emmy winner John Lithgow), but returns home to a nasty surprise: Trinity's murder of Dexter's wife Rita, found in the bathtub, with little Harrison sitting in a pool of her blood.
Downton Abbey "Christmas at Downton Abbey," Season 2 finale (2012) The war is finally over, and Matthew proposes to Lady Mary in a snowy storybook ending.
Dynasty "The Testimony," Season 1 finale (1981) During Blake's murder trial (for his son's lover's accidental death), a surprise witness for the prosecution arrives: a veiled Alexis. We wouldn't see Joan Collins until Season 2. (Yes, the Moldavian Massacre was a bigger finale, but we'll save that for our "jump-the-shark" list.)
ER "Kisangani," Season 9 finale (2003) In a searing departure from all the Chicago melodrama, Carter joins Kovac in the war-torn Congo for a harrowing, inspiring mission of mercy.
Farscape "Die Me, Dichotomy," Season 2 finale (2001) A mega-cliffhanger, with Crichton literally speechless after his Scorpius neural chip is removed, leaving him in torment, reliving Aeryn's icy (though temporary) death.
Freaks and Geeks "Discos and Dragons," series finale (2000) Ended too soon, but left with a flourish, as Daniel (James Franco) embraces his inner "geek" with the A/V club and a game of Dungeons & Dragons, while Nick (Jason Segel) gets down to disco and Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) gets off the academic bus to follow the Dead for the summer.
Frasier "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," Season 7 finale (2000) Niles and Daphne finally acknowledge their love for each other — but he's a newlywed and it's her wedding day.
Friends "The One With Ross's Wedding," Season 4 finale (1998) Forget the misbegotten nuptials. This is the one where Monica and Chandler end up in bed in London after the rehearsal dinner. That changed everything.
Grey's Anatomy "Sanctuary/Death and All His Friends," Season 6 finale (2010) For two terrifying hours, a grieving gunman goes on a shooting rampage at the hospital, with casualties and corpses galore.
Homeland "Marine One," Season 1 finale (2011) A real nail-biter. Brody comes thisclose to activating his suicide vest in the VP's bunker, and Carrie gets electro-shock therapy just as she makes the connection between Brody and Abu Nazir.
House "Wilson's Heart," Season 4 finale (2008) Wilson can't save Amber after the bus crash that scrambled House's mind, and their bromance could be wrecked permanently.
I Love Lucy "Return Home From Europe," Season 5 finale (1956) Capping an arc of overseas misadventures, Lucy tries to fool customs by smuggling a giant Italian cheese onto the plane as a baby.
Knots Landing "Cement the Relationship," Season 8 finale (1987) Abby spends an entire Hitchcockian hour trying to bury Peter Hollister's body. After she does, cracks are discovered in the cement. D'oh!
The Larry Sanders Show "Flip," series finale (1998) Larry's final late-night show is more bitter than sweet, with bruised egos and star tantrums, but a final reconciliation for Larry, sidekick Hank and producer Artie leaves us sighing, "Hey now."
Law & Order "Aftershock," Season 6 finale (1996) Soul-searching in the aftermath of witnessing an execution ends in tragedy when ADA Claire Kincaid is killed in a drunk-driving collision.
Mad About You "The Final Frontier," series finale (1999) In a flash-forward, Paul and Jamie's adult daughter Mabel (Janeane Garofalo) makes a biopic about her parents, who separate but ultimately reunite for a romantic happy ending.
Mad Men "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," Season 3 finale (2009) A game- and life-changer, as the partners abruptly start their own firm (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) while Betty files for divorce from Don.
Marcus Welby, M.D. "Designs," Season 5 finale (1974) Nostalgia alert: Robert Young reunites with his Father Knows Best co-star Jane Wyatt in a romantic storyline complicated by the fact that she's married.
Melrose Place "The Big Bang Theory," Season 3 finale (1995) Crazy Kimberly Shaw prepares to blow the apartment complex to kingdom come.
Modern Family "Family Portrait," Season 1 finale (2010) The terrific end to a near-perfect debut season, as control-freak Claire gathers the clan to sit for a photo, all wearing white. What could possibly go wrong?
Murphy Brown "Birth 101," Season 4 finale (1992) Spectacular physical comedy, as a hysterical Murphy gives birth to baby Avery, with a sentimental finish, as she croons "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" to her soon-to-be-controversial newborn.
NCIS "Twilight," Season 2 finale (2005) A shocker, when Kate is fatally shot in the head in front of her colleagues by the evil Ari Haswari (later killed by his half-sister Ziva).
NYPD Blue "Safe Home," Season 6 finale (1999) A multiple-hanky workout. The long-suffering Job of police detectives, Andy Sipowicz, mourns the loss of wife Sylvia and ponders how to tell adorable little Theo, while the rest of the squad frets about his mental health and sobriety.
The Office "Company Picnic," Season 5 finale (2009) While Michael hopes to win back Holly at a Dunder-Mifflin outing, Pam's volleyball injury leads to the joyful discovery that she and Jim will soon be parents.
Seinfeld "The Pilot," Season 4 finale (1993) Airing the same night as the epic Cheers finale, this meta milestone involves the chaotic taping of Jerry's sitcom pilot and its instant cancellation. Art did not imitate life.
Sex and the City "An American Girl in Paris," series finale (2004) In Carrie's appropriately fairy-tale ending, Big sweeps her off her feet and whisks her from Paris back to Manhattan, where we learn his first name: John.
The Simpsons "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" Season 6 finale (1995) A playful tweaking of the Dallas J.R. phenomenon, as Springfield's Most Hated is plugged — but by whom?
Smallville "Finale," series finale (2011) We waited 10 years for this high-flying climax. Clark saves the world, and Lois, one last time, achieving his destiny as the Man of Steel and finally putting on the iconic suit.
The Sopranos "Whitecaps," Season 4 finale (2002) The non-ending seris finale? No thanks. The emotionally bruising episode in which Tony and Carmela have it out over his infidelities and separate was much more memorable.
Star Trek: The Next Generation "The Best of Both Worlds," Season 3 finale (1990) Capt. Picard is assimilated by the mighty and fearsome Borg. Call him Locutus. Resistance is futile, but will that stop the Enterprise?
Supernatural "No Rest for the Wicked," Season 3 finale (2008) Dean's time runs out, and after being mauled by hellhounds, his soul is trapped in a truly nightmarish Hell.
Survivor "The Final Four," Season 1 finale (2000) Susan Hawk's riveting "snakes and rats" diatribe, as she lashed out at Richard Hatch and Kelly Wiglesworth in the breakthrough season's final tribal council, has yet to be topped.
24 "11:00 pm-12:00 am," Season 1 finale (2002) Poor Jack Bauer. He saved the day, but couldn't rescue wife Teri from evil mole Nina. As the clock strikes midnight, he holds Teri's lifeless body in despair.
The Vampire Diaries "The Departed," Season 3 finale (2012) The transition begins. To bring Elena back to life after drowning, she is given vampire blood, and the endangered human population of Mystic Falls shrinks by one.
The Waltons "An Easter Story," Season 1 finale (1973) America wept (at least my household did) when Earth Mother Olivia Walton contracts polio.
Weeds "Go," Season 3 finale (2007) As Agrestic goes up in smoke, Nancy burns down the house and flees for points South. The show would never quite be the same, or as good, again.
The West Wing "Two Cathedrals," Season 2 finale (2001) An electrifying, pivotal moment for President Bartlet, who curses God for taking Mrs. Landingham while debating whether to run for re-election as he prepares to make his multiple sclerosis public.
The Wonder Years "Summer/Independence Day," series finale (1993) "Growing up happens in a heartbeat," the adult Kevin Arnold reminds us, projecting into the future to reveal that while Kevin and Winnie didn't end up together, everything turned out all right for this family man, who still regards his childhood with wonder.
The X-Files "Anasazi," Season 2 finale (1995) A thrill a minute as the alien conspiracy kicks into full gear. David Duchovny helped concoct the story for this cliffhanger, in which Mulder's father is killed, and the "Spooky" agent ends up in peril in a New Mexico boxcar filled with alien-like corpses.
Other Links From TVGuide.com
Alias All in the Family Arrested Development Bonanza Buffy the Vampire Slayer Dallas Lost M*A*S*H Newhart Six Feet Under St. Elsewhere The Fugitive The Mary Tyler Moore Show The Shield Bob Newhart David Janssen Michael Chiklis Ron Howard Suzanne Pleshette Battlestar Galactica Friday Night Lights