Finales can make or break a series. A great finale can turn a dud of a season around, while a poorly conceived one can take a series on its way to legendary status out at the knees. Yet, there's no formula you can follow to have a hit series ending.
We just know one when we see it, and the best series finales of all time prove that there isn't a ceiling too high or a box too small to break out of.
M*A*S*H was the definition of appointment TV in the 1970s. Ordered into a series after Robert Atlman's successful 1970 comedy introduced the world to iconic characters like Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan and Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H tempered violent stories of the Korean war with an army surgical team that could've moonlit as a traveling comedy troupe.
It was fresh and raw, and perfect for a decade that felt like it had hit the century's rock bottom. And the finale that aired in 1983 solidified exactly why people were still watching after 11 years.
The Korean Armistice Agreement was a natural ending to the show, but the kicker was the way that, despite being relieved of duty, none of the characters could escape the effects of war. Klinger doesn't return home despite doing everything in his power to try throughout the series, Hawkeye encourages a woman to smother her baby to save a caravan of people and in doing so went against his pacifistic nature, etc. And there's just no way you didn't cry over Hawkeye getting his rocky goodbye.
Succession is another incredible show in HBO's massive catalog, and audiences were wary when the creators decided to end it after just four seasons. Yet, we can confidently say that the 88-minute-long finale was the best television finale of the decade, and perhaps the century.
A show whose main cast of characters resembles more of a Greek tragedy than that of a modern conservative legacy media enterprise has kept audiences on its toes, and it continued to do so into the very final moments. While we'll spare any spoilers, we can assure you that however you think the Roy family's quest for the crown is going to end, it's not that.
Six Feet Under
The only way to explain HBO's huge catalog of massively successful shows is that they were hit with a curse, ala the Glinda the Good Witch. Six Feet Under's touted as one of the company's best, despite being a complete underdog of a premise; family drama? Totally normal. Running a funeral home? Much less so.
But, they wrapped up the show in the only sendoff befitting of something that looked death directly in the eyes - killing off every single one of its characters. The writers didn't let us wonder where the Fisher's lives would end up. But not all the deaths parse out to be pretty pictures; and that's what makes it so incredible. They unflinchingly served up life (and death) in all its messy moments.
Cheers was the sitcom that made us fall in love with the messiness of chosen family. For all of the hijinks, relationship drama, and beers drunk around the bar, Cheers was always a show about the little moments that build up to create the friendships that last a lifetime. And the finale turned the "bringing back an old cast member" into the best plot device ever.
Sam and Diane (who had left several seasons prior) were the epitome of toxic, and that toxicity rears its ugly head when she returns in the finale. But, when the two's flight gets delayed and they have a moment to think before running away to L.A. leaving Cheers in the dust, Sam shows a moment of incredible growth, choosing to return to the family that didn't leave him and was still waiting there with open arms.
Breaking Bad, helmed by Bryan Cranston in the performance of a lifetime, was at the very start of network TV's foray into prestige television. A far cry from traditional sitcoms and copaganda dramas, this series showed everyone a new side to the drug crisis in America - the side that's desperate to turn a profit, at all costs.
It's hard to believe a show with that much impact only lasted five seasons. But the finale showed Breaking Bad at its best: honest, violent, and not afraid of making people face the repercussions of their actions. The finale mirrors the opening, with Walter White's cancer coming back, and his seasons of sins come back to bite him in the form of a single stray bullet. After all, it was only Walter White who could end up killing Walter White.
Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black was a groundbreaking hit for Netflix in its early studio days, as it detailed the incarcerated women's lives at Litchfield Penitentiary. Undertaking the finale was an ambitious affair due to having a cast of characters practically a mile long whose storylines needed to be wrapped up.
And yet, the writers gave every character the chance for closure. They refused to allow these characters we'd grown to love to be overshadowed by Piper and Alex's love story, instead giving them a voice in a way the world hasn't yet. And for that reason, it's one of the best series finales ever.
Hannibal, with its baroque aesthetics and visceral boundary-pushing primetime gore, captivated audiences for three seasons. Despite the plot being driven by the characters hunting down various killers over the years, it was really Hannibal and Will's relationship that kept the show centered. Like two magnets, they circled each other until the finale, when they teamed up to get rid of The Great Red Dragon.
In the end, there wasn't any other option for Will and Hannibal than to fall prey to their hunger to consume each other. And since that was off the table, death in each other's arms would have to do. The finale didn't spare Will and Hannibal from the violent fate they deserved - and craved - and we were all the happier for it.
With the sheer quantity of incredible television out there, you might be surprised to see a black and white series make the list. But the four-season drama, The Fugitive, wrote the playbook for impactful finales. The series, which aired between 1963-1967, couldn't be more aptly named since it followed a man on the run from being wrongly convicted of his wife's murder.
Audiences spent 120 episodes watching Dr. Kimple evade the law and try to hunt down the man who actually killed his wife. And what better way to send off the show than actually bringing us face to face with the real killer? Even after 50+ years, this finale's suspenseful and satisfying ending still holds up today.
BoJack Horseman was born in a new era of adult animation, one whose sole purpose wasn't to pass thinly veiled innuendoes over kids' heads. Instead, it focused on truly flawed characters as they made mistake after mistake and slid backwards from any marginal step made towards progress. Yet, the series did something beautiful in showing that there was still love between those characters, even among the cheating, lying, and manipulation.
The finale brings an incarcerated BoJack back into the fold of his old posse. But watching them interact with one another in that stilted, uncomfortable way knowing how their lives are veering in different directions puts a mirror up to BoJack's own internal struggle over which road he'll take (a sober or addicted one) when he gets out. For all times there is a season, and we're confronted with this inevitability right up to the very end.
In a world where so many TV show plots are centered around character growth and development, we love to see a finale with a character that sticks to its guns. Don Draper, the suave salesman who never quite let anything crack his veneer in Mad Men, appears in the finale to have taken a hard left turn into a quasi-cult retreat environment full of meditation.
Yet, those first few bars reveal that it's all ammo for another classic Draper pitch. Sometimes the best characters are the ones who never change along the way.
Were You There for the Most Watched Series Finales?
We were definitely biting our nails to the quick waiting up for these series finales to air. Were you lucky enough to catch these most watched series finales when they premiered?
- M*A*S*H - 105.9 million viewers
- Cheers - 84.4 million viewers
- The Fugitive - 78 million viewers
- Seinfeld - 76.3 million viewers
- Friends - 52.5 million viewers
- Magnum, P.I. - 50.7 million viewers
- The Cosby Show - 44.4 million viewers
- All in the Family - 40.2 million viewers
- Family Ties - 36.3 million viewers
- Home Improvement - 35.5 million viewers
All Things Come to an End
All things must come to an end, and if you're lucky, it'll be a pleasant one. If you were a fan of one of these tv shows, then you hit the jackpot. But we're not always lucky, and sometimes we walk away with snake eyes, like these shows with the worst finales ever filmed.