No matter what your perception is of the world, one thing we all seem to agree on is that no one truly wants any good thing to end. In the video game universe, controller connoisseurs cried foul quickly regarding the last stage of Mass Effect, which in my opinion is the most realized story that had ever graced a console at the time. Who can forget the controversy where millions of fans sent hate and anger across the web, just to get more depth and understanding from a 120+ hour adventure? On the music front, acts such as The Rolling Stones and Tina Turner have made careers out of “One Last Tour” announcements, giving their dedicated, lifelong fans one more chance (or hope, if you will) to see and hear their favorite performers before they pull the plug and retire. As we know by now, there isn’t ever a “last tour” for both of the performers I’ve mentioned, but it’s that thought of a full stop that sells tickets to sellout level proportions.
Television is a beast in and of itself when it comes to pop culture. This is a medium that people follow, and no matter how good or entertaining your show may be, the plug can be pulled at any moment due to ratings or a contract dispute. Nothing sucks more than having your favorite show cancelled prematurely, and while the ending is usually tainted, several sitcoms have been better for not having an ending. Take a look at Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. Both shows were created by Sherwood Schwartz, and both are constantly in rotation on some channel (even as I type this) as their legacy wasn’t made by a final moment, just a journey that just seems to loop infinitely in the minds of fans due to a chain of memorable episodes that have become timeless to viewers of all ages. I honestly imagine that both of these programs would have ended in a terrible way if they stayed on the air, as if you have seen the made for TV movies and specials that followed…well, they were shit.
This isn’t about the cancelled television shows or any one sitcom that was pulled early. This edition of Pop Capsule is about the end, and with that, we need to get back on track and start the conversation. For the record, I am only considering shows that had an episode labeled as a “series finale” at its original airdate.
Oh yeah, be ready as SPOILERS are obviously ahead…
In my own lifetime, no televised comedy had more hype surrounding those last minutes than the story of six lives that intertwined daily, Friends. I find it funny that just typing the title “Friends” places that famous Rembrandts’ theme song in my brain while a small smirk crosses my face. Friends was a show about life and dealing with the transition into adulthood, and during its run, became one of the most beloved comedies of all time. Friends was successful for a lot of reasons, but the true key to its success wasn’t Rachel’s hair or any other random pop culture phenomenon it bestowed, but instead an ensemble cast that worked off each other’s chemistry.
It is very rare when any television show that lasts more than five or six seasons retains its cast throughout its entirety, but due to some dedicated actors and NBC’s deep wallets, this show went the distance and lasted for ten whole seasons. Hell, even Gunther (the barista at Central Perk) managed to keep his job for ten years. I clearly remember that every year after 2000, every single entertainment news show would do stories daily on “Will Friends Return?”, or “Is this the last season?”, and while the show didn’t end until 2004 – that should easily give you an idea of how important Friends was to its audience. After all that time of watching Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, and Chandler live their lives, it finally came time for the fans to let go.
For the Friends’ series finale, many expected all of the stops to be pulled out. Guest stars out the ass, references galore, and a non-stop celebration to take us into that final curtain call. Sure, we wanted the world, but that isn’t what we got. Instead, Friends ended by ending in a very literal sense. Monica and Chandler were finally ready to start a life of their own and were moving out of the apartment across the hall and into a new house due to their newly adopted twins. Rachel and Ross finally decided to be together, and Joey and Phoebe just kind of existed, supporting their friends as they always did and standing as a six-piece unit until the last shot of the framed peep-hole on the apartment door faded to black. There was no death. No hidden messages, no random fan service. This ending is fantastic nevertheless though, as Friends finished by allowing its characters to finally move on in life. For a sitcom, ten years is honestly pushing it as so many “jump the shark” by trying to add characters or death or cheap storylines into the plot. This show will live on in history because it never needed to do any of that, as the ensemble of characters were so rich in terms of personality that even during a dull story arc, there were still laughs and people that we, as an audience could relate to and laugh with, during the good times and the bad. It sucks to move on, but there comes a time when you have to make that choice. Friends picked the perfect moment to make its exit and did so in a manner that was both fitting and eloquent, cementing itself as a ratings juggernaut while giving us one last chuckle out the door.
I don’t just want to focus on the best finales here, by any means. Sure, this is about series finales that had an impact, but what if the impact you had just wasn’t enough? The Office was Friends’ non-official successor. NBC tried for years, even during the early years of The Office to replace Friends with another ensemble.
Sadly, every show for the next year or two ultimately failed.
Through their failure however proved that fans were ready for something different, and the U.S. version of The Office was just what the doctor ordered (damn, that sounded cheesey). Before I start speaking about The Office I first must address the little shits who are out there, and I know you’re out there as you interrupt me in real life when I speak about this show, thinking in your head or saying it out loud regarding how much better the British version was. I don’t care how great it was as I am not referring to that version and you can jump on the Mayflower and ride back to England to go give Ricky Gervais a stapler sized fluffing for his work, as we are speaking solely about the Steve Carell-lead sitcom that had a fantastic run for nine seasons.
The Office was a show about a small group of people that were being filmed for a documentary that captured their day to day lives working in a paper supply company. When it started, the focus was really only on a young associate by the name of Jim, a secretary named Pam, an intern, a suck-up, and their eccentric boss, Michael Scott. As time progressed, we got to know all of these characters, and the once background faces became more relevant to the story, making for yet another large ensemble cast in a televised sitcom. It was and still is a hilarious show that had a great number of talented writers who used details and quirks to define the characters within the show. Sure, I liked Michael Scott fine, but as I watched the show I began to get behind so many other characters that seemed like they would just be filler when the show debuted.
It wasn’t just about the characters in the main credits. It was about the interactions of an entire workplace. Have you ever went into work only to be around your co-workers? That is what The Office felt like. On top of the decent main story with Jim, Pam, Michael, Dwight, and so on, we had these once little characters that actually stole the spotlight in nearly every episode. Kelly Kapoor was the pop culture fantastic who was quick to gossip and judge. Toby Flenderson was the awkward older guy that everybody ignored. Stanley was the disgruntled soul who was ready for retirement. I could go on and on, but there was indeed a large cast at work that were a blast to follow due to their larger-than-life personas. I get frustrated when so many people run down this show for its last few seasons. Sure, Michael Scott left, but by removing him we got to see more characters in the spotlight and that made the show even more interesting. It’s like when you get a new employee at work and you hate them by default, and then get to know them and realize that they are human, and then it’s not so bad.
The critical reception of those later seasons is not an easy thing to ignore, and while I felt season 7 and 8 were fine, the season that lead up to the end (9) was actually a mixed bag. We got two new characters who were made to be close, but not exact replicas of Jim and Dwight by the name of Clark and Pete (I had to google Pete’s name just now, he was that forgettable). Andy also changed, going from a lovable oaf to a complete dick who was unfunny – even when the joke was on him. Jim and Pam also went through a marital crisis, and Kelly and Ryan moved away. The show just was not as much fun to watch, as it tried to be serious and then funny and then serious again, as if it was switching directions after each episode during the last season. There were even themes of a potential affair. Really, you’re going to make me watch two people fall in love for eight years just to tease that? Right before the finale hit, those wrinkles got ironed out rather well and the show patched itself back together, just in time to end completely.
The finale took place after a time jump of a year. The documentary was finished, a few employees moved on (or got fired), and we got to see a lot of the past cast members reunite as they spoke of the past few years to cameras for the special features of their documentary DVD. I know I didn’t like the last season much, but the finale was honestly perfectly fine thanks to a few moments. Dwight and Angela finally got married, Pam decided to move the family for the sake of Jim’s dream job, and the rest seemed to all find their little place in the story to go out on a high note (for the most part, anyway). Erin, who had been a main cast member since the middle of the show’s run took the emotional moment from the finale, finally being reunited with her parents. That was one of the brilliant takeaways from The Office though, as little things that are serious to one person become just another story when you’re in that setting amongst everyone else. Erin’s moment was the most important as throughout her time on the show she wasn’t a main face, but remained memorable. She was quirky, light, and innocent, and would playfully speak of her parents or being an orphan for a quick laugh. During that moment where she was reunited, it was finally relevant for the show to be serious as someone who always took the backseat got to carry some weight in the biggest episode of the series. Call it a promotion of sorts.
Michael Scott didn’t even get that honor, as while present, he kind of faded to the background as the finale rolled along – allowing the cast that carried the show to its final point to get their last hoorah. Many say the show ended when Michael left. I understand that sentiment completely as he was a huge character, but displaying that opinion undermines how well The Office was actually written for most of its tenure. It wasn’t about Michael, nor Dwight, nor Jim, nor Pam. It was about Dunder Mifflin, a paper company where people were employed, and we as the viewer got to watch.
For the third sitcom, I guess I will write about the one that hit closest to home. It is rare when I ever find a sitcom that is often relatable, as hell – most are of families that are what we should aspire to be. That is the point, right? Leave it to Beaver, Happy Days, and all of the rest had this cookie cutter image about what a family should be. Up until more unconventional sitcoms started, such as Family Ties, we never got a chance to have a varied cast in a primetime slot that featured a family. In the late 80’s, Roseanne changed everything.
I should start speaking about Roseanne by saying that there is nothing wrong with displaying happiness on television. That seems to be a theme that more and more writers of these modern shows are trying to shove in our faces. You know, the whole…
LOOK HOW DIFFERENT THEY ARE!
I never liked Modern Family because it came across as way too forced, pasted together for cheap laughs. Sure, that family is diverse, but in Roseanne it just felt natural. Everyone started on the same page but as the kids grew, they became individuals with personalities. Roseanne was a sitcom about a family that were not well off (or blue collar, if you will), but that wasn’t really the point. Roseanne was about one woman who dealt with shit every day that we all experience. A crappy boss, disrespectful people, social ignorance, and so on. As the show progressed it seemed to try to push boundaries by including cultures that had not been featured on television. We saw main characters come out of the closet, domestic abuse, adultery, and death, all mixed into a formula where the audience would laugh along by the time the credits ran. It was smart television that could appeal to the lowest common denominator without sacrificing its intelligence.
By the last season, the sunset was already in the clearing. The show still had strong writing, but these characters were starting to age a little too much, and let’s be honest…no one wanted to watch DJ go through his teenage years. The Conners won the lottery after just facing a near-fatal heart attack with Dan, and everything got confusing real fast. Suddenly, Dan left Roseanne for another woman, Roseanne was traveling the country with Jackie going to spas and so on, and the kids that we spent years getting to know faded into the background. Many call the final season of this show the worst for good reason. To any viewer who didn’t stick around until the end, it was convoluted, confusing, and not funny at all. I personally found it to be fun, even if some of the charm was dimming just a bit. When the last episode aired however in two parts, we got to see a lot of those loose ties mend together. Did it make up for the mess? Well, yes and no.
The last scene of Roseanne is appropriately set at the dinner table, with the entire family (including Nancy, Leon, and several other familiar faces) gathered in one setting, sharing that social experience that greeted us for years through the opening credits. Everyone is laughing, joking, and so on – right before Roseanne begins to narrate. She goes from person to person, detailing that what we, as the audience had seen over the years were not all true events, as everything was actually Roseanne writing a story of her life in a fairy tale fashion. Whatever she disliked, she changed in her writing to make life finally go her way. For instance, David was actually Becky’s love interest, while Mark and Darlene were a couple because she thought they fit better the other way around. Her mother never became a lesbian, but her sister Jackie was. I know what you’re thinking, that is a bit to chew on. It keeps going for around a minute before all is revealed. Roseanne slowly looks over at Dan, only for the camera to pan to an empty seat. The background soon goes black and all we as the viewer see is Roseanne, giving an empty look as the narration continues.
As it turns out, the Conner family never won the lottery. Dan died of his heart attack and the whole last season was just her trying to write away the pain by creating happy situations that could never happen. It’s a painful scene to watch and one that I have viewed time and time again as at first, it didn’t make sense (I was ten after all during the original airing). Over the years though I feel like I have grown to love this finale up and down, as the last few minutes made a huge impact while still remaining eloquent and in line with the concept of the show’s premise. It isn’t the moment that Dan’s death is revealed that remains memorable, but those that come after when you hear a woman talk about her human vulnerability and pain, as she went sentence by sentence over all of the emotion she felt. The last bit of dialogue is by far some of the most powerful lines ever stated in a sitcom, as they hit hard when I was young but came back even harder when I went through the same sort of pain myself when my mother died.
As I mourned during those first few weeks, this scene kept popping up in my head, and let me tell you that fiction or not- that moment where Roseanne turns her head at that empty chair is as real as it gets. It’s a feeling of emptiness and being completely helpless, and I feel like even though this was a television show and completely fiction, I have never related more to an experience on television until the same event occurred in my own life. I was a kid who watched a lot of shows, old and new with my mom (including Roseanne and Friends). She was my rock, and losing her turned my life into a roller coaster that is simply trying to find an even field to ride on. That is what makes sitcoms great though. No matter how fucked up our lives are, we can still laugh and relate with the same characters every week and re-watch the same show until every line and moment is stapled to our brain. I am not saying that Roseanne or any other piece of entertainment made anything better, but it did make me feel less alone as it taught me that I was not the first to feel that kind of hurt and that I too would be “ok” due to some fantastic writing. Some may say that Seinfeld’s ending was brilliant and that I should have listed it, but I never felt any sort of connection with that show as while it had some funny episodes, I was the wrong age at the wrong time and never got a true understanding of the characters.
Other shows shot themselves in the foot before ending, even after long runs. Look at Family Matters. It started out as an amazing family sitcom that was a spin-off of Perfect Strangers. Add in a lovable yet annoying neighbor named Urkel and the show became unstoppable. After about three or four seasons however, the gimmickry kept going and going with the show becoming a true work of ridiculous fiction that wasn’t even fun to watch anymore. I also loved All in the Family which was before my time, but when the spin-off killed off Edith, it kind of tainted the reruns in general for me. Boy Meets World however had an amazing finale, but due to the fact that is was more a coming of age show rather than your by the book sitcom, I feel like that is for a completely different piece in the future.
It’s hard to find a place to make a full stop when your purpose is to make an audience forget about their own problems and chuckle at a screen for thirty minutes a week, but with the right writing and finesse, we can see a finale from a sitcom that makes us remember the end as well as the journey in-between. Sure, we may not remember the last moments of legendary players and believe me, there were a ton of simply “fine” endings I left out, but when it comes to being memorable, I think the three I listed above will have a longer shelf life and overall greater legacy because of their attention to detail and quality up until that last minute.