"Friday Night Lights" ("Always," original airdate: February 9, 2011)
The finale to "Friday Night Lights," which limped along, first on NBC and then on satellite channel DirecTV for five-ish seasons, satisfied on every possible level—emotionally, intellectually, viscerally. Those of us who watched the episode did so through a wavy curtain of tears, certain that we were seeing the end of one of the very best dramatic series on television. In the oversized episode (it runs a full hour on the DVD), the concerns of the show, both macro (the small town of Dillon, Texas' rival football programs, now consolidated once more into one unstoppable team) and the micro (the relationship between Kyle Chandler's Coach and his wife Tami, played by Connie Britton), were brilliantly seen to their logical, heart-tugging conclusion. There's a lot of stuff in the finale, including one time football star Matt (Zach Gilford) asking young Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) to marry him, plus the swarm of controversy and attention that the new "super team" gets from the local media (much to the chagrin of Michael B. Jordan's wrong-side-of-the-tracks player), but what the finale makes perfectly clear is that none of that matters. What the finale double-underlines is that all the high school sports drama (and occasional misstep, remember season two's weird murder plot?) was merely window dressing for one of the most evocatively drawn portraits of marriage ever committed to television. In the final episode, we see Coach give up his career pursuits, which have steered the direction of his marriage for many years, in order to be a loving and supportive partner for his wife. In the grand scheme of finales, it's kind of tiny. But it's also deeply profound. This was a marriage full of push and pull and the longer it went on the more you felt like you were actually a part of it; the fact that the series didn't just end on a happy note but a note that felt emotionally real might be its greatest accomplishment. Thankfully talk of a follow-up movie (reportedly involving Buddy becoming Dillon's premiere football coach) have fallen by the wayside, leaving only this peerless finale behind. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
"Twin Peaks" ("Episode 29" aka "Beyond Life and Death," original airdate: June 10, 1991)
Rumor has it that David Lynch, who had launched the buzzy and bizarre series the previous year only to see the phenomenon prematurely flame out due to network interference and general audience listlessness, rewrote large chunks of the finale screenplay that was credited in the end to series co-creator Mark Frost, Harley Peyton and Robert Engels. And over the years, this seems to have been verified, with Lynch having the biggest impact on the adventures FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has in the Black Lodge, an interdimensional halfway house with a groovy zigzag carpet. Rewatching the episode, a shocking percentage of the episode takes place in this surreal plateau, which is alternately terrifying and hilarious (the two Agent Coopers, running around the heavily curtained Red Room is too silly not to laugh at). Critics and audiences revolted against "Twin Peaks" once the show's central mystery ("Who killed Laura Palmer?") was resolved halfway through the second season (at the network's insistence; Lynch wanted the mystery to continue forever), but without that premature resolution, the show would have never been able to spiral out of control so beautifully. The "Twin Peaks" series finale is chock full of some of the most terrifying and indelible imagery Lynch has conjured forth, in any medium, and even the non-Black Lodge flourishes Lynch provided are seared into our collective memory (like the jaw-dropping bank explosion, punctuated with an unforgettable shot of a pair of eyeglasses, accompanied by a $100 bill, soaring through the air). The fact that this episode of "Twin Peaks," untitled but given the moniker "Beyond Life and Death" when it aired in Europe, ended in possibly the biggest, greatest cliffhanger in the history of series finales (Agent Cooper, possessed by the demonic murderer Bob!) is only amplified by the fact that the follow-up film "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," didn't even bother answering of the questions. Instead, it was a prequel that was equal parts horror movie and emotionally incisive investigation into the familial and psychological dynamics of child abuse, and it made the series finale seem like an even ballsier act of singularly strange outrageousness. Lynch was wise to throw away the more plot-based beats that the script originally contained; it's his crazy, freeform version that has made such a lasting impression. 'Fire Walk With Me' isn't too shabby either.
"30 Rock" ("Last Lunch," original airdate: January 31, 2013)
Oftentimes "30 Rock," Tina Fey's brilliant send-up of her time working for "Saturday Night Live," was so gleefully bizarre that it lacked any real emotional connection; it might as well have been beamed in from a neighboring galaxy. Thankfully, the absurd and the emotionally resonant sat side-by-side for the finale, which saw the show-within-a-show "TGS" facing its final episode, something that Tracy (Tracy Morgan) wants to ruin in order to exploit a contractual loophole that would award him a sizable payday (he has Al Roker announce a "snowicane"). In its typical ribby, winking fashion, "30 Rock" acknowledges and pokes fun at finales of the past (even making a reference to the "sideways nonsense" of "Lost") and the tropes it had established over the past seven seasons (at one point Jane Krakowski, on the verge of some nutty Mickey Rourke joke, looks into the camera and says, "I can't do this anymore, I've never even met Mickey Rourke"), culminating in a gag that pays tribute to the infamous "St. Elsewhere" ending, while still fortifying a strong emotional base. Liz (Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) are facing a fallout after the previous episode ended in Jack telling Liz, "I called you in for one meeting, seven years ago, and you keep coming up," which leads some to believe that Jack is suicidal. The episode is alternately odd (Jack giving away a bag of his own hair is priceless) and oddly affecting, sometimes at the same time—witness Jenna's performance of a musical number from the "Rural Juror" Broadway show or, in a callback to the pilot, Liz's heartfelt goodbye to Tracy in a sleazy stripclub (bonus points for Tracy's great line, "Give it up for Liz Lemon, the least molested person in here!"). The finale of "30 Rock" made you mist up, in spite of yourself, even during the montage dedicated to Jenna's mirror.
"Enlightened" ("Agent of Change," original airdate: March 3, 2013)
The title of the series finale of Mike White's short-lived, little-watched but much-missed (by the few who did see it, at least) "Enlightened," serves as a nice summing-up of the series. Throughout the show's two seasons, Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe has set out to be the titular agent of change—fresh out of rehab, she wants to be a better person, and to make a better world. That she's, for the most part, a deeply self-centered, terrible human being isn't that much of an obstacle to this, and in the final episode, she finally gets something done. The article by journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) that she turned informant on her company for is published, something that will cause serious legal issues for Cogentiva and CEO Charles Szidon (James Rebhorn). When written and filmed, it wasn't clear that this would be the series finale, and as such, there are some dangling plot threads, not least Szidon's threats of legal action against Amy, which would have provided the kernel for season three. But the writing was on the wall in terms of ratings, so White does provide a deeply satisfying finale that both calls Amy on her bullshit (her mother, played by Dern's real life ma Diane Ladd, finally asks her to move out, pal Tyler hangs up on her), and lets her have the triumph that she deserves, even as she comes so close to fucking it up for herself once again. It's the perfect microcosm of the show as a whole, and while it's a shame that the series didn't go further, it would have had a touch act living up to this ending.
"Freaks & Geeks" ("Discos and Dragons," original airdate: July 8, 2000)
“Paul [Feig] was supposed to direct one of the first episodes, and at the last second I pulled him off it because we weren’t in a groove with the staff writing the show yet, and it was so much Paul’s vision that he couldn’t disappear. Then when I realized the show was probably going to get canceled, I said to Paul, ‘You should write and direct this finale.’ And it’s clearly the best episode of the entire series,” producer Judd Apatow recounted to Vanity Fair earlier this year. And while we’ll leave debate of “best episode” to the fans to hash out, “Discos and Dragons” is a prime example of what happens when real care and vision about the characters is allowed to be fully realized. So much about “Freaks & Geeks” and its all-too-short, gone-too-soon single season was capturing lightning in a bottle, but for the few who watched it during it original run and even more who caught up with it on DVD, they couldn’t have asked for a better, more heartfelt sendoff. So much of what made “Freaks & Geeks” special was its authentic portrait of teenage-hood, and the continual journey of trying to find and define oneself. And thus there is something truly touching about the super-cool Daniel Desario and Sam and his gaggle of geeks finding validation in each other’s presence over a game of “Dungeons & Dragons.” Meanwhile, the ever lost Nick (Jason Segel) tries to find a new purpose in the fading trend of disco, a favorite of his new girlfriend Sara (Lizzy Caplan). But rightfully, it’s Lindsay (Linda Cardellini)—the center of the show—who makes the biggest decision, one that could forever alter the path of her life. Invited to a prestigious academic summit, she instead ditches the pressure and responsibility to join some new friends who are spending the summer following the Grateful Dead. But Feig wisely doesn’t judge her behaviour or any of the characters. “Freaks & Geeks” succeeded because it knew that sometimes we don’t win in life, we make the wrong choices and have to fight to find our place in it all. The finale is truly satisfying because it didn’t attempt to tie everything up in a neat bow. Instead, mistakes, small salvations and questionable choices sign off the series, with the faint but distinct hope that as long as these characters are around each other, they’ll come out alright in the end.