"Futurama" ("Meanwhile," original airdate: September 4, 2013)
Technically, "Futurama" has ended for good twice: first way back in August of 2003 and then, more than a decade later, after being revived for a series of direct-to-video movies and original episodes on cable. Unlike the first time, the "Futurama" crew knew that this would probably be the end, and fashioned it appropriately: the Planet Express gang return to the Moon, the site of their first delivery together ("We're whalers on the moon, we carry a harpoon…") and, thanks to a glitch in the space time continuum caused by one of Professor Farnsworth's crackpot inventions, imagines Fry and Leela's life together until they grow very, very old. The best episodes of "Futurama" mix the bittersweet with the genuinely bananas, and this episode is no different. While the episode culminates in a beautiful, nearly wordless exploration of love and the passage of time, gorgeously animated and wonderfully written, it also includes a looping (almost to the point of repetition) gag involving Fry's attempted suicide (he jumps off the Vampire State Building). There's also a running joke about a ten dollar bill Zoidberg finds and subsequently loses. The genuinely touching and haunting image of Fry and Leela, walking hand in hand across a frozen ocean, is one of the most heartbreaking moments the show had ever committed, and the final idea of Fry and Leela reliving their love one more time (at the cost of remembering their time together) is a testament to the show's inherent romanticism and winky metatextuality, as it suggests that the last ten years has been a kind of cosmic redo following their initial cancellation. If this is the last we ever see of the "Futurama" gang (and, barring some act of the Space Pope, it will be), then what a way to go out on. For realzies this time.
"The Shield" ("Family Meeting," original airdate: November 25, 2008)
Very few shows start out great and get even better. Such is the case for “The Shield,” which featured a moment in the pilot—where corrupt cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) takes out a fellow officer he suspects of being a rat—that set viewers on edge and elevated it to an immediate talking point for anyone who would become a fan of the show. As the years went on, however, Internal Affairs would bear down on Mackey and his crew, investigating every single dollar and drug that went missing under their watch, give or take an Armenian money train or two. But most importantly, “The Shield” never forgot its roots, closing with an episode that wraps up that single shot fired by Mackey into the temple of a fellow officer. The pressure becomes overwhelming for the Strike Team to turn on each other, and with longstanding member Lem (Kenneth Johnson) now dead, the noose is tightening. That last hour is one gut-punch after another: Lem’s murderer, the unhinged Shane (Walton Goggins, excellent), takes his entire family to the grave with him after being haunted by painful guilt, leaving only Vic and unassuming Ronnie (David Rees Snell) left. Except Vic, the baddest bad boy of prime time, has already turned himself in, giving up the rest of the team in order to survive. Poor Ronnie is taken into custody as Vic is later seen like an animal in captivity. Years later, he slaves away in a cubicle, isolated from any more crime scenes or police departments. It’s not heaven or hell, but purgatory that Vic finds himself in, the superstar of the LAPD turned into a suit-and-tie lapdog. He still has his gun and his holster, though, upsetting any straight reading one can give of an isolated Vic miles away from police work. Is the beast dead, or at rest?
"The West Wing" ("Tomorrow," original airdate: May 14, 2006)
The first three seasons of "The West Wing" remain, in our eyes, Aaron Sorkin's finest achievement to date—funny, fast, smart and moving television that wasn't like anything else on the air. But the show had a decidedly imperfect run: an uneven fourth season as Sorkin's work schedule and extracurricular love for certain substances got the better of him, followed by a near-disastrous fifth season after the creator was removed and new staff awkwardly tried to recapture his voice. But things perked up near the end, as new showrunner John Wells essentially rebooted the show, shifting the focus from the Bartlett White House to the campaign to be next commander-in-chief, fought between Democrat Representative Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and liberal Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). It was a different series, but one that at least deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the golden years, and the two sides were united neatly in the finale, which sees President Bartlett's last day in office, and the swearing-in of President-elect Santos. Almost every character gets their moment in the sun, even some of the show's missteps are corrected (the President pardons long-time staffer Toby Ziegler, who'd gone to prison after one of the show's most ridiculous plotlines), and while it presumably wasn't in the original plans, the death of series regular John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry until he passed suddenly a few episodes before the show wrapped up, becomes the emotional lynchpin of the finale, giving added emotional weight to proceedings without feeling exploitative. Is it indulgent and sentimental? Sure. But to be anything else would have been false to the sentimental, indulgent and mostly brilliant show that came before it.
The Great Divider
"The Sopranos" ("Made in America," original airdate: June 10, 2007)
What makes the finale to "The Sopranos" so amazing, particularly as "the great divider" between the good and bad portions of this list, is that the particulars of the actual episode remain fuzzy, even to those who will defend the episode's merits voraciously. The crux of the great "The Sopranos" finale debate boils down to a few precious minutes, towards the end of the episode, when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is gathered with his family in a diner. The familiar chords of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " starts to play, and the tension becomes palpable (it might as well be sitting in the diner alongside the family). Dread builds and builds, as writer/director/creator David Chase cuts around the diner. Are jack-booted thugs going to come in and wipe out the family? Is Tony going to impart some words of wisdom to his family? Maybe Tony himself will pull out a gun and start shooting? But instead, the music just continues to soar until… blackness. It was this cut to black that caused endless debate and countless online essays, as people either saw it as a visionary work of genius or a misguided, hubristic attempt at artistry that ended up just being a huge fucking copout. However you saw the conclusion to "The Sopranos," chances are you felt strongly about it, and shared that opinion with anyone who would listen. It's a testament to Chase's chutzpah that we're still discussing the ending today, and the cut to black has become just as indelible a series finale image as a little autistic kid with a snow globe or Bob Newhart waking up in the bed of a different TV wife.
The Worst Finales
"Lost" ("The End," original airdate: May 23, 2010)
The entire final season of "Lost," which took place largely in a "sideways" timeline where major events and characters were drastically rewritten (Josh Holloway's career criminal Sawyer was now, for some reason, a police detective), was largely a "miss," weighed down by the series' clunky, ever-expanding mythology and, unlike "Breaking Bad," a dogged unwillingness to tie up any loose ends. Both on the island, where the evil Man in Black (Terry O'Quinn) tries to destroy the island which would result in… something happening... and in the sideways timeline, where a beleaguered Jack (Matthew Fox) discovers the truth about what is going on with the characters in this universe, there was a decided lack of dramatic tension and any real thrills. Adding insult to injury was the episode's two-and-a-half-hour airtime (the final episode runs over 100 minutes) and the fact that the ending most predicted for the series in the first season (They're all dead!) was actually a component for the finale. In short: it was something of a boondoggle. It can be argued, in some way, that the episode delivered emotionally, with there being something cathartic about seeing almost all of the characters, back together once more, hugging in a multi-denominational church. But what does that ending mean? Especially in the context of the larger episode and world? With the introduction of a pair of bickering deities a couple of seasons earlier, much of the fun and spark of "Lost" went out the window. Instead of coincidence and fate, the show became about two warring white guys, and much of the mystery was replaced by flimsy plotting and awkward pacing, culminating in this final season, which seemed even more directionless than usual. The finale, especially one that was that unbelievably long, was an opportunity to right some of the wrongs from the past few seasons, to cohesively deliver a send-off that was satisfying on an intellectual and emotional level. Instead, neither worked, and "Lost," what was once thought of as one of the most engaging and entertaining television puzzle-boxes of all time, turned out to be mostly empty inside.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ("Chosen," original airdate: May 3, 2003)
For some reason writer/director/creator Joss Whedon, in his infinite wisdom, chose to close the story of Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in the most annoyingly grandiose fashion imaginable, complete with an army of undead beasties that looked like something out of a deleted scene from "Lord of the Rings." The resulting mayhem had a requisite number of heartbreaking character deaths (so long, Anya), but failed to ever be all that gripping. Some of the drama was diffused by the premature announcement that lovable British vampire Spike (James Marsters) would be hightailing it to spin-off series "Angel" the following year (making his sacrificial death beyond anticlimactic), other moments were clunkily handled, like Angel's brief return. And while it was cool to see the Hellmouth finally open up and unleash its demonic minions, some of the special effects were iffy and the episode was weighed down by the general waywardness of the final season, which saw the creative principles devise a Big Bad that didn't have much meat (literally—it was kind of a ghost) and and overly complicated plot involving an army of "Potentials," girls who could become Slayers, an idea that wasn't even introduced until this season. Also, a number of the characters felt weirdly sidelined (why didn't Dawn finally, you know, show us what a Key is all about?) and the entire episode seemed driven by a need to get to a large-scale battle instead of, in season's past, a fitful mixture of action and theme. It's one of the more disappointing finales, series or otherwise, that Whedon has been responsible for; thankfully this was partially rectified by the brilliant "Season 8" comic book that followed. Still, what we're judging here is the finale itself and 'Buffy' was found wanting. Although it was nice to know there's another Hellmouth in Cleveland.