The 25 Best TV Series Finales of All Time
FROM M*A*S*H TO BREAKING BAD, THESE ARE THE ALL-TIME GREATEST SERIES FINALES.
All good things must come to an end, and that applies to the TV shows we love, too. It's often underestimated how hard it is to satisfyingly end a long-running series—or even a short-lived one—and the landscape of television is littered with great shows whose finales were divisive or panned (hello, Lost and Game of Thrones). The following 25 shows wrapped things up with finales that were emotionally satisfying, shocking, clever, and creative. With the best series finales of all time, they all went out on a high note. Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
Six Feet Under
Warner Bros. Television
Throughout its five-season run, the sometimes twisted, often darkly funny Six Feet Under went through its ups and downs. Creator Alan Ball kicked off his series with the death of the Fisher family patriarch (Richard Jenkins) and things only got more death-obsessed from there. For its series finale, "Everybody's Waiting," Ball took the show's theme that death is the one common thing that unifies us and brought it to its logical conclusion in breathtaking fashion. In a series of flash-forwards, set to Sia's ethereal "Breathe Me," every regular character meets their death. Some are sudden, some serene, but they all mark the Fishers' journey forward. It was a deeply emotional and satisfying send-off.
The series finale that made everybody think their cable had suddenly gone out! There is so much that is both famous and infamous about the Sopranos series finale, "Made in America," that some of the great stuff that happens before that controversial diner scene gets sadly forgotten. Like Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) getting whacked and then his SUV backing over his head. Or Janice (Aida Turturro) deciding to take on Bobby's kids as their widowed stepmother. But it was the diner scene that ended the series on all the right notes: family (as James Gandolfini's Tony and his improbably intact nuclear family sat down for a meal in the most American of locales) and the ever-present threat of violence that Tony's life of crime has led to. Bonus points for helping bring Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" roaring back into pop-culture consciousness.
Over 106 million people watched the series finale of M*A*S*H the night it aired in 1983. The legend of that massive number of live-television viewers—a number that stood unchallenged until the Super Bowl in 2010—has helped enshrine M*A*S*H in the television hall of fame. The episode itself, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," sees the members of the 4077th as they near the final days of the Korean War. This is the episode that has Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) reach a harrowing psychological breakthrough as he remembers a horrifying incident on a bus where a refugee woman had to smother her baby to avoid detection by the enemy. Those kinds of swings between comedy and drama were common on a show like M*A*S*H, which tried to balance out the sobering realities of war with the wry comedic sensibility established in the original Robert Altman movie.
CBS Television Distribution
After 11 seasons anchoring NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup, plus countless Emmy Awards, Cheers shut the lights off on the Boston bar we had all come to know and love. The much-anticipated episode, "One for the Road," was not short on major plot developments, including the return of Shelley Long as Diane Chambers for the first time since she had left the series in 1987. But while other series finales have opted for dramatic changes when their shows say goodbye, Cheers ended on a refreshing note of normalcy, as Sam Malone (Ted Danson) left Diane behind for good and returned to his true lifetime companion, his beloved bar. The final words of the series, "Sorry, we're closed," marked the end of the TV show, but in viewers' minds, that bar can stay open forever.
Freaks and Geeks
One of the things that makes the Freaks and Geeks series finale so great is that nobody was sure if it was going to be a series finale or not. The myriad ways that NBC tinkered and futzed with this low-rated but critically acclaimed series—about a group of high schoolers navigating adolescence in 1980s Michigan—included airing the episodes out of order, with several episodes never making it to television at all. By the time "Discos and Dragons" aired in July 2000, the show had been canceled for four months. Nevertheless, the episode provided a poignant, bittersweet note to end the series on, with Daniel (James Franco) crossing paths with the Geeks in the A.V. club, Nick (Jason Segel) broadening his horizons with his new girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) at a disco competition, and Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) setting aside her summer at the University of Michigan to follow the Grateful Dead with her friend Kim (Busy Philipps). Few shows were as unglamorous about the lives of teens as this Judd Apatow–Paul Feig series was, and closing on a finale so open-ended seemed exactly right.
20th Century Fox
One of the most famous series finales of all time, Newhart threw its viewers for a loop in the final moments of its last episode, titled (appropriately) "The Last Newhart." The CBS sitcom, which aired from 1982 to 1990, was the second major TV hit for comedian Bob Newhart. On his original series, The Bob Newhart Show, he played a psychologist living with his wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette). In Newhart, he played an author who owned and operated a charming little inn in rural Vermont. In the finale, after some business with a Japanese contingent looking to purchase the Stratford Inn, Newhart's character gets struck in the head with a golf ball and wakes up as his character from The Bob Newhart Show, complete with Pleshette as Emily in bed next to him. All the business with the Vermont inn was only an elaborate dream that Dr. Bob Hartley had. The studio audience's raucous reaction to Emily's appearance sent Newhart out on the highest of notes.
20th Century Fox
Of all the series finales that ended in major, mind-blowing twists, St. Elsewhere is the only one with an entire television universe named after it. St. Elsewhere ended its sixth and final season on NBC with an episode titled "The Last One," in which the titular hospital was sold to the Boston archdiocese, and several characters left to take on new challenges in their lives. All of that is far less memorable than what happened in the closing moments, as we see that the goings-on at St. Eligius Hospital were all happening in the mind of a young autistic boy named Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen). That the entirety of St. Elsewhere was a story that a boy was dreaming up in his head was a fanciful enough notion that it inspired some people to tie in other television universes that had crossed paths with St. Elsewhere to prove that many, many other shows existed within the "Tommy Westphall Universe."
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
20th Century Fox
Before Sam Malone shut the lights off at Cheers, Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) shut the lights off at the WJM-TV newsroom, after she and the entire staff were fired (except for Ted Knight's Ted Baxter, who inexplicably and hilariously kept his job). The news team, including Mary, Lou (Ed Asner), Sue Ann (Betty White), and Murray (Gavin MacLeod) all have to leave their jobs, and each other. The episode isn't all sniffles, of course. The show's irrepressible comedic energy is ever-present, and return appearances by Rhoda (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) gave the episode an added comedic boost. But Mary breaking down as she thanks Lou and the others for being her family will get you every time.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The series finale of Breaking Bad came on the heels of several other series finales—Lost, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, and Mad Men—that had alternately frustrated or confused their fans. Breaking Bad's "Felina" came the closest to firing off a pitch right down the middle: tying off the show's loose ends and giving Walter White (Bryan Cranston) some big moments to chew on, while still affirming that he was the villain all along. Nothing ambiguous, nothing for fans to fight over. The 2019 continuation movie El Camino felt largely unnecessary since "Felina" did all the work of ending the Breaking Bad story the right way.
Finding a series finale that nobody has any complaints about is incredibly difficult in this modern age. Which is why The Americans stands out so strongly. The final episode, titled "START," sees Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) in a race to stay ahead of being discovered as Soviet spies—and then once they are, in a race to get out of the country with their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), only for her to opt to stay in America at the last second. The open-ended fates for Paige and every character on the show, from dogged FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich)—whose parking-garage confrontation with the Jennings is an all-time classic scene—to forgotten son Henry (Keidrich Sellati), were the perfect way to end a series where the main characters were never fully certain what their paths would be.
Warner Bros. Television Distribution
HBO's little post-apocalyptic series that could gave Lost's Damon Lindelof a chance at redemption: a series finale that large scores of people didn't hate! He truly nailed it with The Leftovers, which was not exactly an easy thing to do on a show where so many questions about the nature of the series—set some time after a worldwide cataclysm where 2 percent of the world's population vanished—remained resolutely unanswered. The solution to that was twofold: Center the finale on your strongest character (Carrie Coon's Nora Durst) and have her experience in attaining those answers be an open-ended question. Did Nora really travel through a dimensional gate, or is this all just a comforting story to tell? Leftovers fans will be batting that one back and forth forever, but whatever side you land on, Nora and Kevin's (Justin Theroux) reunion was a massive emotional crescendo to go out on.
The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson
Carson Entertainment Group
This one is a slight cheat, since the actual final episode of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show was a clip show of his greatest moments over the years. But clip shows don't count! Carson's real final episode before retiring and ceding the show to Jay Leno featured guests Robin Williams and Bette Midler. Williams was his usual live-wire self, cracking hyperspeed jokes about everything from Dan Quayle to his newborn baby son. Midler, who owed a good bit of her start in Hollywood to early appearances on Carson, serenaded Johnny no fewer than three times: once with a comedic parody of "You Made Me Love You," once on a gorgeous duet of "Here's That Rainy Day," and finally, across the stage, crooning "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" while Carson stared with tearful eyes, in one of the greatest single shots in TV history.
Angel, the Los Angeles-set spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went to some weird and wild places in its fifth and final season. Titular vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) and his demon-fighting crew went to work for evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, in the belly of the beast. After a season of bizarre experiments (a puppet episode!) and tragic loss (Fred!), the series ended with its heroes backed into a corner but determined to go out fighting. The hard cut to credits just as Angel and crew charged into what seemed likely to be heroic deaths was frustrating on one level but also deeply appropriate for a show whose themes so often focused on fighting the good fight no matter how long it takes. On some level, Angel going out mid-battle means its fight will never end.
Halt and Catch Fire
AMC's under-heralded drama about computing pioneers in the earliest days of the internet started off as a very different show than it ended, primarily because it took them a season or so to realize that its two most potent characters were the women who'd initially been made secondary. The series finale almost explicitly acknowledges this by building its strongest emotional arc around Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), and the professional partnership that had imploded and could never quite be rebuilt again. In one phenomenal scene, Donna and Cameron imagine what a future co-venture between them could be, and just when you think it's all a bittersweet fantasy that can never come to fruition, Donna approaches Cam one last time with one of the all-time greatest finale lines: "I have an idea."
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
For a show as consistently absurd as Tina Fey's 30 Rock was, its two-part series finale—titled "Hogcock!" and "Last Lunch"—was a surprisingly emotional, familial affair. With Liz Lemon (Fey) facing the cancellation of her TV show, right at the time she and hubby James Marsden are adopting kids, she's at a crossroads. As is Jack (Alec Baldwin), who sets out to sail around the world to think up the next great idea… until he lands on one (dishwashers with see-through doors!) before he's even out of the harbor. Jack and Liz's relationship gets a tender send-off, and even Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) gets teary-eyed as she sings the song "Rural Juror," whose lyrics are surprisingly applicable to the situation. Of course, that delightful absurdity returns in the closing moments, a flash-forward to the future where an immortal Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is running NBC amid Jetsons-like flying cars.
Mad About You
Sony Pictures Television
You wouldn't have expected such a simple married-life-in-NYC sitcom like Mad About You to inspire a finale as daring as the one it delivers. At the close of its seventh season, in an episode called "The Final Frontier" (named after the show's theme song), we see Paul and Jamie Buchman (Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt) through the eyes of their daughter, Mabel. And not the baby version of Mabel we'd seen on the show, but a flash-forward grown-up Mabel, played by Janeane Garofalo as a budding documentarian making a film about her neurotic parents. As we hopscotch through the future, Paul and Jamie actually end up separating, only to get back together in the end. This finale retroactively became an un-finale after Mad About You returned for a revival season in 2019, but this is still the show's finale of record.
United States of Tara
Showtime's series about a Kansas woman (Toni Collette) with multiple personalities lasted for three seasons of turbulence for the Gregson family. And while the series itself sometimes didn't know how to balance all the good things on its plate—including an early standout performance from future Oscar winner Brie Larson—its finale, with Tara leaving home to get intensive treatment in Boston, ended on a note of warmth and grace. It was one final indication that while the antics of Tara's alters gave the series its combustible spark, its foundation of family is what held it together. Young Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) saying to not let the doctors in Boston "pull out all the good parts"—and Tara's response, "You guys are my good parts"—ensured that the episode would fall into the column of tearful TV finales.
Friday Night Lights
NBCUniversal Television Distribution
In "Always," the series finale to the Texas high school football drama Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), reach a crossroads, as the East Dillon Lions play out their final game. While there is, once again, a football championship is to be considered, the human drama of these characters we loved was always at the center of the show. So the major stakes in the episode aren't just who wins the game, but whether Coach and Mrs. Coach can figure out their next step as the team we need them to be. In a final gesture that speaks volumes about the sensibility of the series, Coach sets his own ambitions aside to follow Tami's opportunity for once. It's fantastic note to go out on, acknowledging just how central to the show's emotional core Tami had become.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Hellmouth—the open pit of evil that had forever drawn vampires, monsters, and ghoulies to Sunnydale—was finally destroyed in "Chosen," the final episode of Buffy, though not without great effort, personal sacrifice, and loss. The effort: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sprinting ahead of a cratering Sunnydale to escape with her friends. The sacrifice: Spike (James Marsters) using his cool little medallion thingie to scorch all the vampires, and killing himself in the process. The loss: Anya (Emma Caulfield) meeting her beyond-tragic end before the Scooby gang could know ultimate triumph. Oh, and Willow's (Alyson Hannigan) hair goes goddess-white as she finally manages to harness all her witch powers for good.
Orange Is the New Black
While House of Cards was the first Netflix foray into original programming, Orange Is the New Black was, somewhat improbably, the one that most satisfyingly saw itself through to the end. "Improbably" because series creator Jenji Kohan's reputation, after Weeds, was in creating tantalizing concepts that spiral into messiness after a season or two. And while OITNB definitely had its critics over the years, it ended on perhaps its strongest season ever, where it handled issues like ICE and the prison-industrial complex most directly. It also featured some real tragedy, which is where the finale episode picks up, with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) trying to make sense of the loss she's experienced around her. Most of the major storylines get tied off, like Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) reuniting, though some, like Red's (Kate Mulgrew) descent into dementia, are crushingly sad. Still, OITNB gave its fans the send-off they wanted and needed, especially with characters like Taystee making the decision to carry on.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
CBS Television Distribution
After seven seasons, Star Trek: The Next Generation ended its run with the two-part episode "All Good Things…" In it, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) jumps through time at random, needing to find a solution to a space anomaly that could one day swallow all of existence. But none of that is as interesting as watching Picard square off with Q (John de Lancie). Picard always presented such a fierce intelligence that it was only natural that his greatest rival would be an omnipotent extra-dimensional being. The interesting thing about the Next Generation finale is that it starts out like it's going to be an everything-changes, everything-ends style of finale, but by the end, with Picard playing poker among his crew and friends, it's a classic everything-carries-on finale. All the better for the movies and spin-off series.
The Golden Girls
Buena Vista Television
The funny thing about the Golden Girls finale is that three of the four main stars—Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty—immediately went on to the spin-off series Golden Palace. So in terms of the TV audience, we were only really saying goodbye to Bea Arthur as Dorothy. But that was enough! Losing Dorothy was like losing the power center of the show. In the final episode, Dorothy leaves to be with her new husband, Lucas (Leslie Nielsen). The final goodbyes between all four women are both genuinely funny—as Dorothy keeps running back for one more goodbye—and devastatingly sad. You can tell the tears are real when Dorothy tells the women, "You will always be my sisters."
The Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman was never a cheery place to be, despite its gift for loony sight gags and absurd comedic flourishes. It was, at its center, a show about a very depressed horse who's also an addict with a sense of guilt and self-destruction largely unparalleled on TV. Talking horse or not, BoJack could cut close to the bone and feel quite real, with stabbing insights into the human condition. Again, accomplishing this via a horse is remarkable. In the finale, a sober and out of prison BoJack attends Princess Carolyn's wedding and is reflective with all the people in his life, most of whom he's hurt. It is, as any BoJack finale would have to be, deeply melancholy–with a hint of sweetness and even some optimism at its fringes.
Trifecta Entertainment & Media
While The Hills managed to limp along for a couple seasons after its star, Lauren Conrad, departed to start her own fashion line and not have to interact with Spencer Pratt anymore, the series finale threw out one last headline-grabber, as star Kristin Cavallari seemed to be driving off into the sunset, away from her friend Brody Jenner, only to reveal that the whole scene was filmed on a Hollywood backlot. This was seen as a clear nod to the longtime rumors that the series was scripted. To further fan the flames of controversy, an alternate ending was produced, with Brody returning home to find his pal Lauren Conrad there, no doubt toasting to the exit of her longtime rival Kristin.
Viacom Media Networks
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer ended their run as Brooklyn BFFs by engaging in an emotional, painful, and ultimately uplifting finale, where Abbi makes arrangements to leave New York and move to Colorado for her next big opportunity. Ilana handles it in a most Ilana way, in an episode that includes her trying to lug a toilet clear across town, just so the show wouldn't go out without being the most Broad City it could be. And in the series' final moments, with confidence in Abbi and Ilana's enduring friendship at an all-time high, the camera pulls out over Union Square to see several other Abbi-and-Ilana-style female friendships existing all around us. Leave it to Broad City to go all Love Actually in the end.