TV Lists

The top 5 TV finales of all time

What makes a great TV finale? An episode that offers closure? That wraps up the character journeys and plot? One that goes out with a memorable bang? The one that leaves you wanting more but content to leave the story where you end it? In truth, a really good finale needs all of these. It has to be more than simply saying goodbye to the characters you have followed all of these years, delivering something that satisfies the audience and gives them something special to finish with.

It’s all too easy then to think of bad season finales, something we’ll also discuss at Set The Tape. It’s harder perhaps to think of the greatest TV finales though. For a start, what is satisfying for one person can be frustrating for another. Take Angel for example: it ends on a cliff-hanger as the team face one final battle against a literal Hell unleashed on LA. But the point of the show was that the journey never ends. When Angel says “Let’s go to work” he’s continuing the mantra of the show begun five seasons earlier. At the same time, there’s no neatly wrapped bow to say goodbye to the Buffyverse.

Considering all the elements I’ve discussed above, I’ve picked the five best TV finales that offer a satisfying closure, a fitting farewell to the characters and offer something heartfelt and special for the audience as a parting gift.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – ‘All Good Things’

Star Trek finales are a mixed bag. While the original series didn’t get a proper finale on the small screen, the four spin-offs ranged from mediocre (Star Trek: Voyager) to heartfelt and epic (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), while Star Trek: Enterprise was one of the worst finales of all time. But the franchise also had one of the greatest endings a show could have. The films may have continued the adventures of Picard and the crew of the Enterprise, but the critical success of Star Trek: First Contact aside, they never really offered anything more satisfying than the show’s final feature length episode that went right back to where the pilot episode, ‘Encounter At Fairpoint’, began.

John De Lancie’s Q was one of Star Trek’s best creations and there was something rather satisfying about seeing him return to his villainous roots, revealing that the trial of Humanity had never really ended. In a true test of his worth, Captain Picard finds himself jumping from his present day self to the maiden voyage of the Enterprise D (complete with a returning Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar) and a twenty-five year vision of the future where he was an ailing ambassador suffering from neurological disease and rounding up the old crew to solve a mystery impacting all three timelines.

It’s a hugely fun episode with Patrick Stewart at his finest, his Picard going head to head to solve the mystery of the anomaly travelling back through time. It’s both an intellectual challenge, a burst of nostalgia in a revision of the pilot episode, and an action-packed romp into the future complete with Crusher now bearing the mantle of Captain Picard, and Riker the Admiral of a souped-up Enterprise D going head to head with Worf over the death of Troi. It’s a future that never comes to fruition (Star Trek: Generations sees to that), but it is a terrific, emotional time travel story and that final scene where Picard joins the crew at the poker table is just lovely.

Blackadder Goes Forth – ‘Goodbyeee’

The finale to the fourth series of Blackadder also serves as a finale to the TV series as it existed, and what an ending it is. All of the finales on this list pack an emotional punch but ‘Goodbyeee’ is something different. The humour is somewhat subdued in this episode as Captain Blackadder and his men face the daunting aspect of charging over the trenches as part of the ‘big push’ by General Melchett. But there is plenty of wit and dark comic dialogue too as Blackadder tries to convince his superiors he is too insane to go into combat.

And the whole thing was insane. Blackadder Goes Forth doesn’t sugar coat the horror and desperation of the First World War, and the sense of impending doom hangs over the entire series in a melancholy haze, balanced with ludicrous characters like Lord Flashheart and the core relationship of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder and Tony Robinson’s Baldrick with its balance of intellectual humour and slapstick.

The final scene with the men is bittersweet and filled with tension. The moment Lieutenant George delights at surviving the Great War 1914 to 1917, the outcome is inevitable and even then there’s time for one last cunning plan from Baldrick and cutting rebuke from Blackadder. And with a “Good luck, everyone” they charge. It’s horrible and beautiful and likely to leave a tear in your eye even on repeat viewings, the fade to the field of poppies as solemn, closing reflection on the madness of Blackadder and company and the real world horrors that were faced.

Frasier – ‘Goodnight Seattle’

Friends may have also had a satisfying finale (and nearly a spot on this list), but it is fellow US sitcom Frasier that makes the cut, with a hugely emotional finale that brings to an end for every character involved. Martin remarries, finding happiness again and finally moving away from Frasier; Daphne has a baby, giving her and Niles the happy ending they always deserved; and Ros gets the all-important promotion to station manager, giving her closure in the career stakes, if not in romance.

But it is also a full circle moment for Frasier, who leaves Seattle for pastures new. He accepts a huge career opportunity in California, setting up a whole new series of adventures in the same manner that the transition from Boston’s Cheers to Seattle’s Frasier offered Kelsey Grammar’s iconic character.

Frasier’s  final radio show, watched by virtually every main and recurring character, is a real pull at the heart-strings moment. But the episode pulls a final satisfying twist at the very end, revealing that he has flown not to San Francisco but Chicago to be with new love Charlotte, offering a new romantic chapter in his life. It is an ending that leaves you wanting more but very satisfied with what you’ve got. Of course, while it is terribly sad that John Mahoney is no longer with us to play Martin once more, the rumours of a revival of Frasier is one that we all hope comes true… as long as they get it right.

Babylon 5 – ‘Sleeping In Light’

With the threat of cancellation high at the end of season four, Babylon 5 creator JM Straczynski made the big decision to wrap up his five-season arc for the show early, leaving the final season as a bit of an epilogue series after the events of the Earth and Shadow wars. It was only when TNT picked up the show for a final run that Straczynski was offered the chance to tell more stories with Sheridan, Delenn, G’Kar, Londo and the rest of the characters (though sadly off-air disputes saw Claudia Christian leave at the end of the fourth run).

Fortunately for fans of the show, Christian filmed ‘Sleeping In Light’, the finale of the entire series that was set nineteen years after the end of the two conflicts. Straczynski moved the episode to the end of the fifth run and it served as a gorgeous, emotional epilogue to the show, dealing with Sheridan’s final days. This wasn’t a huge, action packed finale, but a beautiful send off to the cast and station, as Ivanova, Franklin, Garibaldi and now Emperor Vir join Sheridan and Delenn on Minbar for one final, bittersweet goodbye. For the audience as much as the characters, this is a chance to reflect on five seasons of epic, rich storytelling and also get a glimpse of the happiness some of these characters have carved out for themselves. Garibaldi is a successful tycoon on Mars, while Franklin and Ivanova’s careers have flourished, even if the latter has left her somewhat hollow.

There are so many beautiful, spine-tingling moments, from Sheridan and Delenn’s final goodbye, to his reunion with Lorien as he passes beyond the Rim. And the destruction of the station (with Straczynski fittingly playing the engineer that shuts down the power) is breathtaking; the score as the explosions ripple through the stations and the ships sails around from the fire is powerful stuff. ‘Sleeping In Light’ is a pure example of doing a finale without big fanfare and action. It’s the characters that matter the most, and this is one of the most fitting farewells to any series that has been made.

Six Feet Under – ‘Everyone’s Waiting’

And finally, we have the finale of Six Feet Under which, like the series itself, is a powerful meditation on life and death. ‘Everyone’s Waiting’ is a deeply moving finale that deals with the surprise death of Peter Krause’s Nate three episodes earlier, as the characters start to reflect on the new directions their lives will take.

From the drama of Nate and Brenda’s child being born premature to Claire finding photography again, along with an offer of a job in New York, there is a lot to digest. Nico and Vanessa’s struggles to start their own funeral home and David’s own angst about the direction his life will take all feel richly personal. Nate guiding everyone is also terribly bittersweet; he’s gone but the show still makes the impact on everyone’s lives keenly felt.

But nothing could have prepared everyone for the final act of the episode and the show as a whole; TV finales will always be measured by their impact compared to the final scene as Claire drives off into her new life, accompanied by Sia’s ‘Breathe Me’. The audience is taken into the future, glimpsing the deaths of every main character – some beautiful (Ruth on her deathbed, accompanied by her loved ones) to tragic (Keith dying in a botched robbery), but all feel earned and passionate and leave the audience breathless, culminating in Claire’s own death, many, many years later, blind and unable to see the art she has passionately created over the years. If this sequence didn’t leave a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye, you should probably have checked you still had a pulse…

Do you agree with the choices above? Do you have your own personal favourite TV endings? Let us know in the comments below…

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