Producing a finale that does justice to a series can be a delicate business. David Edelstein looks back on the hits . . . and misses:
Along with millions, I've got butterflies because "Lost" is ending. Six seasons of cool actors hop-scotching through time, billions of Internet posts dissecting every metaphysical conundrum . . . and it could all disappear down a black hole.
A series finale is a heavy responsibility. We live with these surrogate families a long time. We want closure, but not too much, or the wrong kind - nothing to keep us from going back in our minds, or our reruns.
The two-and-one-half-hour finale of "M*A*S*H," the most-watched ever, got it right. Now, the goodbyes did go on, but the show's bittersweetness was perfectly summed-up, the characters desperate to leave that bloody, tragic war, but not one another - or us.
Yet I still haven't gotten over last year's ending of "Battlestar Galactica," that daringly political sci-fi odyssey that suddenly went all gooey and supernatural. The finale wasn't just bad; it poisoned all that had come before.
The last "Seinfeld," now that was creepy, as if writer Larry David believed the critics who complained about the characters' selfishness. He ended with them in jail for being jerks.
But to me "Seinfeld" was the most inspiring testament to friendship in TV history, because those people were so awful-crazy-dysfunctional, yet formed a perfect nurturing ecosystem.
Now, too-tidy finales leave me cold. "The Fugitive" was a big deal in 1967, when David Janssen caught up with the one-armed man who killed his wife. But it was too neat. The chase was over. Nothing more to think about. Move along.
"Newhart" killed with a final joke reaching back to Bob's previous sitcom. It was a riot, but also kind of slighting, don't you think, to the series actually finishing?
The great finales close the circle, yet remind you that circles have no end.
Take "The Mary Tyler Moore Show": The station bought, almost everyone fired, everyone clinging and trying to move as one, a metaphor both heartbreaking and hilarious for a TV family in all its clumsiness and joy.
The end of "Cheers" harkened beautifully back to its quiet beginning.
Thanks to time-travel, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" assembled three incarnations of its characters: the ones we met seven years earlier, the ones now, and the ones in the future, who'd be there, we believed, long after the show went off the air.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" didn't just slay her demons, she passed on her powers to young women everywhere - as the show itself had empowered young women with this vulnerable yet heroic new archetype.
"Six Feet Under" closed with a young woman's mystical vision of her family members' deaths in decades to come: Risky, but the show was set in a funeral parlor, and it made for a great, lyric, bizarrely hopeful climax.
The most controversial finale, of course, was the cut-to-black "Sopranos" non-ending.
I hated it. The next day I decided I loved it. It was conclusively elusive.
For me, that family is still sitting in that New Jersey diner with either a sandwich or a bullet on its way.
Let's hope that "Lost," "24," and "Law & Order," the shows that will end in the next weeks, leave us with an image so final - and in our imagination's eye, so ongoing.
For more info:
The Projectionist (David Edelstein's Movie Blog)