Fade to Black: Revisiting Eight Monumental TV Series Finales

Retro TV

WARNING: May contain Spoilers!

Few TV shows go out on their own terms. Fewer go out well. And even fewer go out and become cultural touchstones. We look in on the legacies of the most watched, the most hyped and the most memorable codas in TV history.


NEWHART. Mary Frann, Bob Newhart, Tom Poston, Julia Duffy, Peter Scolari, John Voldstad, Tony Papenfuss, William Sanderson. Season 8, Final Episode, Ep. 184, 'The Last Newhart', 05-21-1990.

CBS/ Courtesy Everett Collection.

“The Last Newhart,” CBS (May 21, 1990)

Viewers: 29.5 million

How It Ended: “Honey, wake up. You won’t believe the dream I just had,” Bob Newhart tells Suzanne Pleshette, his TV wife from The Bob Newhart Show, revealing that Larry, Darryl and Darryl were just indigestion.

How It Holds Up: Still brilliant, if not the best ever. We blame it for giving us “all a dream” anxiety for every series finale since.

Six Feet Under

SIX FEET UNDER, Freddy Rodriguez, Rachel Griffiths, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Krause, Frances Conroy, Michael C. Hall, Mathew St. Patrick, (Season 3), 2001-2005,

HBO/ Courtesy Everett Collection

“Everyone’s Waiting,” HBO (Aug. 21, 2005)

Viewers: 3.89 million

How It Ended: Claire (Lauren Ambrose) drives off into her future, and a beautiful flash-forward montage reveals characters’ life milestones — and their eventual deaths.

How It Holds Up: Alan Ball’s darkly funny funeral drama will live a long, full life. We should all shuffle off this mortal coil to Sia’s “Breathe Me.”


SEINFELD, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Seinfeld, 1990-1998, Season 8

Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Finale,” NBC (May 14, 1998)

Viewers: 76.3 million

How It Ended: Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards) are sent up the river for doing nothing.

How It Holds Up: Not well, and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s 2009 Seinfeld reunion episode admitted as much. Still, will a broadcast show’s finale be that big of an event again?


FRIENDS, cast photo, from left: Lisa Kudrow, Matt Leblanc, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry

Andrew Eccles/TV Guide/NBC/Everett Collection

“The Last One,” NBC (May 6, 2004)

Viewers: 52.5 million

How It Ended: Ross (David Schwimmer) gets Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) — for real this time! The friends leave the keys to the empty apartment and head out for coffee.

How It Holds Up: The stars outgrew the series and the series outlived its relevance, but “The Last One” gave devoted fans the satisfying, feel-good finale they wanted.


CHEERS, Nicholas Colasanto, Rhea Perlman, Shelley Long, Ted Danson, 1982-93

“One for the Road,” NBC (May 20, 1993)

Viewers: 80.4 million

How It Ended: Diane (Shelley Long) returns after six years, and she and Sam (Ted Danson) have one last fling before calling it off.

How It Holds Up: It’s as fitting a finale as the show could have. Sam doesn’t get the girl, but he comes back to what Norm (George Wendt) calls his “one true love.” It’s the bar, right? It’s gotta be the bar.

St. Elsewhere

ST. ELSEWHERE, (top row, from left): Ed Begley Jr., David Morse, Howie Mandel, (middle): Denzel Washington, Stephen Furst, Mark Harmon, (bottom): Sagan Lewis, (1985), 1982-88.

NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Last One,” NBC (May 25, 1988)

Viewers: 22.5 million

How It Ended: The events at St. Eligius Hospital were all in the mind of autistic Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen) gazing into a snow globe. ROSEBUD!

How It Holds Up: Both hailed and derided (even the cast is split on this), the provocative medical drama’s finale was far ahead of its time. Twenty-seven years later, few series have been as daring.

The Sopranos

THE SOPRANOS Series Finale: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler. photo: Craig BlankenhornThe Sopranos (P621) "Made In America" 03-22-2007 Director: David Chase DP: Alik Sakharov Scene 61-63-65-67 (int) Holsten's Diner "The gang shows up for family dinner" James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) Edie Falco (Carmela) Robert Iler (Anthony Jr.)

Will Hart/HBO

“Made in America,” HBO (June 10, 2007)

Viewers: 11.9 million

How It Ended: Tony (James Gandolfini) meets his family at a diner, puts a little Journey on the jukebox and then … hey, is the TV broken?

How It Holds Up: Still divisive, still unresolved and still one of the best. Is Tony whacked or ain’t he? Doesn’t matter. Don’t stop believin’.

MASH, Larry Linville, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, Alan Alda, Harry Morgan, William Christopher, Mike Farrell, Gary Burghoff, Season 4. 1972-1983.

©20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection.


“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” CBS (Feb. 28, 1983)

Viewers: 105.9 million

How It Ended: The Korean War-weary staff of the 4077th get their tickets home when a ceasefire is declared. B.J. (Mike Farrell) texts GOODBYE to Hawkeye (Alan Alda) in stones on the helipad.

How It Holds Up: More of a TV movie, a lot would hit the cutting-room floor by today’s standards. Henry Blake’s (McLean Stevenson) death in “Abyssinia, Henry” packed more punch. But no TV series will ever budge the ratings behemoth.


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