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The 16 Best And Worst TV Series Finales

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 1, 2013 at 2:49PM

The world is still debating the relative merits and detractions of the final episode of Vince Gilligan's meth-world saga "Breaking Bad," with some quarters feeling that the finale was a little too cleanly told while others were filled with the sense of contentment from knowing that the final hour was a satisfying conclusion to a five-season arc that turned a meek chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) into a ruthless criminal kingpin. There are few, probably, who would take the stance that the last hour of "Breaking Bad" was one of the best series finales ever (or one of the worst). It simply was what it was. An efficiently told, occasionally silly hour of television that tied up a number of loose ends (maybe too many), while still leaving room for small areas of speculation and mystery. But as divisive as the episode might have been, it is nothing compared to the series finales of yore.
seinfeld finale

"Seinfeld" ("The Finale," original airdate: May 14, 1998) 
At its core, the idea behind the final episode of one of the most groundbreaking sitcoms of all time, was a pretty good one. Not only was “Seinfeld” one of the most observant, pop culture trending shows of its day, it also subverted the network notion at the time that characters had be likeable and/or relatable. If anything, Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were neurotic, selfish and mean individuals, and their own self-serving pursuits made for the funniest comedy. But what if, finally, their luck ran out and they existed in a world of real moral consequence? A great concept, but one that is executed with zero of the wit, verve and inventiveness that the show displayed across nine seasons. It’s almost mind-boggling how far the mark is missed with “The Finale,” but the problems with it aren’t hard to point out. With Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer put on trial for failing to intervene in a crime in progress (they videotape it instead, laughing as a fat man gets held-up at gunpoint), the episode is already off to bad start by overpitching the group’s insensitivity to the world around them. And getting them into court is simply an excuse for a fairly tired cameo fest, where every secondary character you can think of across nine seasons is trotted back in front of the camera for greatly diminished returns. For a show that captured life’s little absurdities in hilarious, memorable detail, the final episode of “Seinfeld” almost feels like it’s from a bizarro world version of the show written by Kenny Bania. And then it takes one step worse with a couple “confessions” that retroactively ruin one of the show’s best episodes (“The Contest”) and paints a rather sentimental sheen over the testy relationship between Jerry and Elaine. In many ways, it almost feels like “The Finale” was Jerry Seinfeld and co. lighting a match and going out in a blaze in glory, but it seems they were the only ones in on the joke. 

Alias finale

"Alias" ("All the Time in the World," original airdate: May 22, 2006)
This might have been the first indication that J.J. Abrams was very talented when it came to setting up a mystery but maybe lacked the necessary skills to conclude said mystery in a satisfying manner. For years on "Alias," his ahead-of-its-time spy series, our heroes had been searching for artifacts from Milo Rambaldi, an ancient mystic who was equal parts Leonardo Da Vinci and Nostradamus. In the final episode, it was revealed that the villainous Sloane (Ron Rifkin) was after the ultimate Rambaldi artifact, one that would allow him to live forever. To which everyone watching since season one would probably snort: duh. Immortality was seemingly always Rambaldi's endgame, and even after the subplot was mostly removed during the show's turgid fourth season, it was clear that this was how things would circle back. But what was worse than the totally anti-climactic reveal was that, following all the running around and shouting and people furiously typing into keyboards (commonplace occurrences on the show), the episode ended with a cloying epilogue that recalled the ending of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, a moment so heavy-handed that it almost ruined great chunks of what came before it. Seeing super spy Sidney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a woman possessing great strength and core feminist ideals, sitting with her husband on the beach while her two children play, is not exactly the way you want to leave this character. It was her humility, mixed with her nearly superhuman abilities, that made her such a compelling character. Turning her into a housewife in the series' final moments seemed like something worse than an affront; it was a flippant fuck-you to all the fans who stayed with the series through its initial creative peaks in the first two seasons, to its dismal lows in the following years. In some ways, a series finale should serve as a reward. This felt more like a punishment.

Other noteworthy finales, for good or bad, include the "Dexter" finale that just aired a couple of weeks ago (and was universally trashed) and the "Battlestar Galactica" finale from a few years ago (which managed to be both wildly entertaining and deeply disappointing). At one point the "M*A*S*H" finale was one of the most-watched broadcasts in the history of television. On the HBO side of things, some were really impressed with the way groundbreaking comedy "The Larry Sanders Show" concluded, while the network's foul-mouthed western "Deadwood" was prematurely axed, ending with a finale that was never intended as the series' capper. (There has been talk, off and on, in the years since, of properly concluding it with a movie or series of HBO movies.) Likewise, lovable alien "ALF" ended in an episode that was never meant as the series finale, which scarred an entire generation of children who thought the end of Alf was him getting taken by evil government agents (this was later resolved in a super horrible TV movie). By the time "The X-Files" was over, it was hard to find anyone who could muster up the energy to care about the series' complex web of interlocking conspiracies and many have pointed out the parallels between the finale of "Cheers" and "Breaking Bad." In "Cheers," Ted Danson is left with the realization that the bar, not the two women in his life (Shelley Long and Kirstie Alley), will be his constant companion, which mirrors Walt's love of the meth lab. And we could have probably done a whole feature on the finale of influential medical drama "St. Elsewhere," where it's revealed that the entire series is the product of the overactive imagination of Tommy Westphall, a relatively minor autistic character on the show. The "Westphall Universe," a theory popularized online, suggests that a number of hugely influential shows actually exist within Westphall's imagination, due to tangential crossover elements from the series (look it up, it's pretty weird). Maybe this entire feature exists within an autistic kid's snow globe. If only...

- Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, Freaks & Geeks, The Wire, Enlightened

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