1. In Treatment, “Adele: Week 7” (December 7, 2010)
Nothing frustrates TV fans more than an accidental finale. When a show is canceled, the producers often don’t have enough warning to wrap up the story; it’s hard to watch a final episode that closes on an ambiguous note, doesn’t show off the series’ strengths, or ends on a weak cliffhanger, clearly setting up a season première that will never come. But sometimes, producers can read the writing on the wall. They come up with final episodes that leave things just open enough to let a show continue, should a renewal be forthcoming, but just closed-off enough to feel like a satisfying ending nonetheless. Take the recent unplanned series finale of In Treatment. Gabriel Byrne’s therapist character has spent much of the series wrestling with the effectiveness of talk therapy, and in the finale, after a session with his own therapist, played by Amy Ryan, he reaches a conclusion about the question. That answer may not be to all viewers’ liking, but like many accidental finales, the answer provides an ending (and a mostly satisfying one), even if it isn’t the ending.
Note: Spoilers from here forward.
2. United States Of Tara, “The Good Parts” (June 20, 2011)
The central question of United States Of Tara was whether its central character, played by Toni Collette, could ever get better, overcoming the dissociative identity disorder that tore her brain apart and tormented her family. When Showtime canceled the dark dramedy in the middle of its third season, fans worried the show wouldn’t have time to adequately provide a response. They shouldn’t have. Over the course of the final season, Tara argued fairly persuasively that even when Tara’s DID was just a series of quirkily comic manifestations (as it was in the show’s earlier, lesser episodes), it could never be overcome. The final moments of the finale—showing Tara’s family and Tara herself finding a measure of peace as she heads off to work with a therapist in Boston—froze everyone in one last good moment before the inevitable plunge back into the dark.
3. WKRP In Cincinnati, “Up And Down The Dial” (April 21, 1982)
For four seasons, CBS seemed inclined to act out the lyrics to the WKRP In Cincinnati theme song, bouncing the sitcom from timeslot to timeslot until viewers began to wonder whatever became of it. While creator Hugh Wilson and company didn’t officially know they were done for when they wrote and shot “Up And Down The Dial,” they weren’t rubes, either, so they made the last WKRP one that could serve as a goodbye. At the start of the episode, the AM radio station’s crusty owner declares that the switch to a rock ’n’ roll format back at the beginning of the series was a failure, and she announces another switch, to all-news. It takes program director Andy Travis and top DJ Johnny Fever to shame Mrs. Carlson into admitting that she’s really always wanted the station to lose money for tax purposes. In the end, Mrs. Carlson relents, and fans are left to imagine WKRP’s cast of zanies still living on the air.
4. NewsRadio, “New Hampshire” (May 4, 1999)
Like WKRP, the NBC sitcom NewsRadio hung around year after year, even though the network kept shuffling it around the schedule. Prior to the fifth and final season, actor Phil Hartman—who played pompous news-jockey Bill McNeal—was murdered by his wife. NewsRadio acknowledged the loss by opening season five with an episode in which the staff at WNYX mourned Bill’s death, though the real tears in the eyes of many cast members showed that it was really a salute to Hartman. Series lead Dave Foley tears up in the final episode of the season, too. After a fitful year with poor ratings, the show’s creators considered a revamp for a potential season six, with the whole WNYX operation moving from the heart of Manhattan to rural New Hampshire. Cancellation prevented that from happening, so NewsRadio wraps with an episode in which Foley’s news director Dave Nelson watches his friends pack up and leave, while he’s left behind with station imp Matthew (Andy Dick). As the rest of WNYX bids farewell to Dave in the lobby, he chokes up a little and says, “We all knew this day would come eventually. I suppose it’s nice that so many of you will be staying together.” But then Dave turns on a dime and calls them “Stupid! Stupid!” as the doors close. He could just as easily be yelling at the NBC higher-ups who failed to support one of the best sitcoms of the ’90s.
5. Now And Again, “The Eggman Cometh” (May 5, 2000)
Sometimes, the best ending is the one that leaves you salivating for more. This offbeat series starred Eric Close as a superior being created in a government lab by Dennis Haysbert. Haysbert means to keep his new toy emotionally detached between crime-fighting assignments; the problem is that Close’s brain, filched from an insurance agent, still retains memories and feelings for his onetime wife and daughter, whom Haysbert promises to have killed if Close ever tries to contact them. At the end of the series’ only season, all hell breaks loose, with Close revealing his identity to his family and pulling them out of their house just before the door is smashed in by a strike force led by Haysbert. Meanwhile, the mass-murdering scientific genius the hero put away in the series’ first story arc has just laid waste to the maximum-security prison where he’s been cooling his heels, walking out the front door with his muscle, played by Mick “Mankind” Foley, at his side. And that, 11 years later, is where the series hangs, and unforgettably for it.
6. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “Born To Run” (April 10, 2009)
Sometimes, it’s good for a show to end on a cliffhanger because there’s no way the show’s producers could have lived up to the imaginations of their viewers. The second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles featured increasingly assured storytelling, a psychosexy (or just plain psycho, in the case of Garret Dillahunt’s John Henry) series of artificial intelligences, and above all, a John Connor that could potentially lead the human race in the future. Imagine the shock when the show simply sent him there, apparently way ahead of schedule, in the show’s closing moments. It was shocking, it was probably desperate, but it all made a sort of mad sense. That moment leaves us to think about just how fast young John had to grow up. Had John instantly teleported back to present day, it would have been cheap; had he stayed, the show’s shoestring budget might have cheapened the future drama. As it stands, the action can always play out in the unlimited budget of our mind’s eye.
7. Freaks And Geeks, “Discos And Dragons” (July 8, 2000)
The textbook mishandling of Freaks And Geeks by NBC continues to rankle more than a decade after the series went off the air. The series started out on Saturday, then moved to Monday, before getting canceled unceremoniously. The finale finds each character at a hopeful turning point. Jason Segel’s Nick has found love with a young Lizzy Caplan, as well as an unlikely passion for disco. Meanwhile, James Franco’s Daniel, forced to volunteer with the A.V. club, discovers a hidden talent for Dungeons & Dragons. He’s happy to have found something he’s good at, while the geeks are thrilled to have a cool new friend. Then there’s Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay, who ditches an academic summit at the University Of Michigan to follow The Grateful Dead. In the episode’s final sequence, Cardellini drives off in a Volkswagen bus with her new Deadhead friends, as the bittersweet “Ripple” plays in the background. Though no one quite transcends his or her status as a “freak” or a “geek,” they’ve all evolved—ever so slightly.
8. Gilmore Girls, “Bon Voyage” (May 15, 2007)
Many fans of Gilmore Girls wish the show’s seventh and final season never happened. It was the year following the abrupt departure of the show’s creator and voice, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The usually snappy dialogue had slowed, the storylines seemed soapier, and the overall pace fell to a crawl. But the greatest loss was Sherman-Palladino’s long-planned finale. Sherman-Palladino had even told the press that she knew what the final four words uttered on the show would be. It never came to pass. Because The CW nearly picked up the show for an eighth season, the seventh season finale was purposely written with loose threads showing. But it still felt satisfying, if only because it felt like life; Luke and Lorelai will likely get back together but off-screen. Rory won’t get to work for the New York Times, but she’s following that upstart Obama’s presidential campaign for an online magazine. Overall, it felt like we were simply leaving Stars Hollow, with everyone’s lives continuing on. It was more honest than a big wedding or teary farewell scene, a lesson that many long-running shows could stand to learn.
9. Lou Grant, “Charlie” (September 13, 1982)
Lou Grant was a top-rated show in its fifth and final season, and there was a widespread feeling that CBS cancelled it when it did because the network feared repercussions from the star’s newly heightened political profile. Edward Asner had become president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1981 and was not shy about speaking out against the Reagan administration’s policies regarding Central America. Given how much time the characters on Lou Grant spent talking about the burning issues of the day, the network may have worried some viewers might have had trouble telling just where “Ed Asner” ended and “Lou Grant” began. Thus, it was kind of nice that the last episode of the series turned out to be an atypical showcase for Mason Adams as Lou’s old buddy and workplace sidekick. Adams’ performance as Charlie was the marriage of a quiet, self-effacing actor to a quiet, self-effacing character, and by putting his hand on the tiller for the show’s last bow, Lou Grant was able to go out as what it had always been at its most likable: a low-key ensemble show about people who worked together.
10. The Critic, “I Can’t Believe It’s A Clip Show” (May 21, 1995)
The animated sitcom The Critic survived its first cancellation by ABC when Fox picked it up for a second season, but the show wasn’t so lucky the second time around. Though there were rumors of a third pick-up—by UPN this time—the original adventures of film critic Jay Sherman did come to an end on Fox, with an episode in which Sherman is held hostage by terrorists while hosting an anniversary salute to his TV show Coming Attractions. There’s barely any plot to “I Can’t Believe It’s A Clip Show.” The episode is more a clearinghouse for every movie parody idea that The Critic’s writers had been unable to squeeze into the previous 22 episodes. As such, it’s a fitting send-off for the series, leaving nothing on the shelf.
11. Everwood, “Foreverwood Parts 1 & 2” (June 5, 2006)
Everwood was the most unfortunate casualty of the WB/UPN merger of 2006. In its fourth season at the time of the announced merger, the thoughtful family drama had returned to telling complicated, touching stories about its characters after a bit of a shaky run in previous years. Though the show could have run several more seasons, the emotional finale served as a wonderful way to end the series, with every major storyline given a note of closure. As much as Everwood was a story about a family searching for itself following a devastating tragedy, it was also the story of the men in that family learning how to love again, and the reunions of Andy and Nina (Treat Williams and Stephanie Niznik) and Ephram and Amy (Gregory Smith and Emily VanCamp)—who shows up at Ephram’s door with a Ferris wheel, inspiring one of the more creative fan campaigns in television history—were perfect emotional touchstones upon which to wrap up the stories of the denizens of Everwood, Colorado. When the camera pans up from the Ferris wheel to reveal the entire town of Everwood in the background, it feels like everyone there is going to be just fine.
12. Deadwood, “Tell Him Something Pretty” (August 27, 2006)
Deadwood was canceled in the midst of squabbling between its network, HBO, and the studio producing it, Paramount, meaning the finale was shot long before anyone involved would know the show wasn’t returning. Nonetheless, the final moments of the profane Western neatly encapsulate the series as a whole. On a show obsessed with ideas of how civilization is founded by the twin devils of blood and gold, the finale concludes with capitalist-run-amok George Hearst leaving town, having lost a moral victory but bought most of the town’s gold plots. To preserve what little Deadwood has left, former bad guy and current town pillar Al Swearengen has an innocent woman killed, protecting the beloved Trixie. He ends the series on his knees, scrubbing at the bloodstain on the floor, telling his men to lie about what really transpired, and the series concludes on the idea that the building of anything requires horrible sacrifice.
13. Firefly, “Objects In Space” (December 13, 2002)
In spite of producing many series that would best be described as cult hits, TV super-producer Joss Whedon has produced only one that was canceled unceremoniously, before he could come up with a finale designed to close off the story: Firefly. (Vampire detective series Angel was canceled with plenty of time for Whedon to craft a finale. He just chose to end on a seeming cliffhanger.) The never-ending outcry over the series’ cancellation drowns out the fact that “Objects In Space” was a pretty great way for the show to go out. Bounty hunter Jubal Early’s (Richard Brooks) invasion of the spaceship Serenity, his specific methods for dealing with each member of the crew, and the crew’s eventual fight back and victory give every cast member a moment in the sun, and the episode is audacious enough (among other things, it’s Joss Whedon giving a treatise on existentialism) that it’s easy to wish there could have been a future for the increasingly ambitious show. It’s still great to see it go out on top.
14. Reaper, “The Devil And Sam Oliver” (May 26, 2009)
A game of Quarters to win Sam’s (Bret Harrison) soul back from the Devil (Ray Wise)? The show really came down to this? On one level, it doesn’t appear that much changes in Reaper’s final hour. But by having the Devil not only owning Sam’s soul, but Andi’s (Missy Peregrym) as well, quite a bit reset for the future we never got to see. With this twist, the pair ended the show on a greater level of understanding than ever before. That’s a major improvement over the way Reaper had used Sam’s status as a constant barrier to keep the two leads apart. And far from being shunned by God through the demon-turned-angel Steve’s (Michael Ian Black) actions during the aforementioned game of Quarters, Sam is actually empowered by God’s intervention at this point in time. Reaper’s final moments suggest that even if the Devil cannot be defeated, that doesn’t mean he can’t be fought. And it’s fun to think about how that fight could have played out.
15. Terriers, “Hail Mary” (December 1, 2010)
The advent of cable television has changed the way TV is produced, and in some ways has facilitated the phenomenon of the unplanned series finale. Since most cable shows shoot an entire season before their first episode airs, savvy writers can build to a big “just in case” finish. That’s what happened with FX’s Terriers, a beloved, woefully under-watched P.I. series that ends on an ambiguous final image, with the show’s two heroes waiting at a stoplight, trying to decide whether one of them is going to serve time in prison or if they’ll both lam it to Mexico. For the few folks who watched the entire first season, that ending was satisfying. The final scene comes after the detectives have solved their season-long case, and it wraps up Terriers the way it began: with two best friends sitting in a vehicle, chewing over their options. It only hurts as a what-might’ve-been for a show too good to die so young.
16. Veronica Mars, “The Bitch Is Back” (May 22, 2007)
In spite of dismal ratings, Veronica Mars managed to survive three seasons and two different networks through critical acclaim and sheer force of will before its untimely end. After a year of fitfully involving mini-arcs, the series finale delved into Hearst University’s version of a Skull And Bones secret society in one of the best, darkest, most unsettling episodes of the season. Veronica’s decision to commit a major crime during the course of her investigation, and her father’s actions to cover up her misdeeds—in spite of the potentially fatal blow it could deliver to his campaign for sheriff—put the perfect emotional capper on the most important relationship in the series. As Veronica casts a futile vote for her father in the sheriff’s election and walks away through the rainy streets of Neptune, Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains In Southern California” plays, and it almost feels as if the show couldn’t have ended any other way.
17. Kings, “The New King, Part 2” (July 25, 2009)
A key factor in the success of the unplanned finale is whether it leaves the audience with an idea of what happens next. A satisfying finale provides closure either by resolving a major story arc or by leaving things open in a fashion that feels appropriate to the show’s world. The final episode of Kings, NBC’s low-rated re-imagining of the Biblical story of King David, manages both these tricks, in a way that manages to make the series’ first and only season play more like a miniseries than a show cancelled before its time. Over the course of 13 episodes, Christopher Egan’s David matched wits with the mercurial, brilliant King Silas (Ian McShane). Anyone who knew the story of David knew roughly where this plot was headed after Egan defeated his Goliath. And by the end of “The New King,” that’s exactly what’s happened: After struggling to maintain a friendship with the inadvertent usurper at the cost of his pride, Silas finally snaps, declaring himself God’s enemy as David flees the city. Anyone curious as to whether or not Silas’ stand against the omnipotent would provide successful need only consult the Bible.
18. Tanner ’88, “The Reality Check.” (August 22, 1988)
This landmark HBO series, directed by Robert Altman and scripted by Garry “Doonesbury” Trudeau, starred Michael Murphy as a liberal U.S. Congressman on a quixotic presidential run and was filmed against the backdrop of the actual 1988 presidential campaign. By weaving the characters and storyline into the real-life narrative as it was developing, Altman and Trudeau achieved political satire that had both the complexity of good drama and the immediacy of a CNN headline crawl. The series came to a head at the Democratic National Convention, where Tanner gets screwed by fellow outsider Jesse Jackson and winds up standing on the sidelines as Michael Dukakis is anointed his party’s presidential nominee. But having come so far, the once-obscure candidate is unable to tuck his ego back in and go home; Tanner is last seen tranced out in his hotel room, dreaming of a third-party candidacy. It’s an ending that perfectly captures the moment when a politician’s narcissism blinds him to reality and the perfect ending to the series, but Altman and Trudeau hoped that it would be a cliffhanger so irresistible that HBO would have no choice but to pony up the money to keep the series going.
19. Twin Peaks, “Episode 29” (June 10, 1991)
When Twin Peaks premièred in the spring of 1990, it became an unlikely sensation, drawing nearly 35 million viewers to its pilot episode. But once the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer was finally revealed, the series struggled to find a new narrative hook, and viewership declined precipitously. The season—and, as it turned out, series—ended in June of 1991, with a doozy of a cliffhanger in which Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) heads into the Black Lodge. A harrowing 20-minute sequence ensues, as Cooper squares off with Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), the Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), his own doppelganger, and, of course, Bob (Frank Silva). The next morning, Cooper wakes up in his room at the Great Northern Hotel and heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He looks into the mirror, bashes it with his forehead, and sees—gasp!—Bob reflected in the cracked glass: Cooper, the very embodiment of kindness and moral rectitude, has been possessed by evil. Directed by David Lynch, the finale also encapsulates what made Twin Peaks such a twisted delight: It’s menacing, to be sure, but it’s also full of Lynch’s one-of-a-kind, oddball humor. Twin Peaks ended too soon, but it still feels complete.
20. The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, “Saturday” (December 28, 1996)
The producers of the surreal kids’ sitcom The Adventures Of Pete & Pete didn’t know heading into their third season that the series wasn’t long for this world, but they must have had some sense. The third season, in many ways, is weaker than the first two, with fewer of the recurring characters that made the show so fun and a creeping sense that there were only so many stories left in the world of Wellsville. Still, the show closed out with one of its best episodes and one that perfectly encapsulated the series’ sense that suburbia was the weirdest possible place to grow up. Set on a sleepy weekend afternoon, “Saturday” follows a variety of characters trying to overcome unusual obstacles, from a stuck traffic light to an attempt to talk to a normally silent barber. The many vignettes coalesce in unlikely fashion at episode’s end, in unexpectedly poignant fashion, as we see the ensemble having one last moment together before the camera slowly pulls back from them pushing a school bus up a long, sleepy, suburban road.
21. Crime Story, “Going Home” (May 10, 1988)
This retro action epic wasn’t everything it aspired to be, partly because nothing could have been. But it was dependably big and bold, as befits the most ambitious small screen work of executive producer Michael Mann. The series opened in 1960s Chicago, where lawless supercop Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) vowed to make it his mission in life to personally rearrange the pompadour of ambitious thug Ray Luca (Anthony Denison). Over the course of two seasons, they bounced from Chicago to Vegas and finally to a South American banana republic. In the final episode, Luca and a couple of his men are fleeing the country aboard a private plane when Torello and a couple of his men manage to scramble aboard. The plane takes off, and while Torello and Luca are slugging it out, Luca’s number-one man decides that it would be a good idea to shoot the pilot. The plane hurtles into the ocean below, and Torello and Luca presumably die as they lived, in each other’s arms. This ending elevates Torello’s self-destroying quest to bring down Luca to an Ahab-like obsession, which is the scale that Crime Story was aiming for all along.
22. The Rockford Files, “Deadlock In Parma” (January 10, 1980)
It’s not often that a classic hit series dies as quietly as The Rockford Files. The series reinvented the private-eye genre for TV and gave James Garner a realistic, California-white-trash version of the conflict-averse grifter-hero role he’d minted years earlier in the Western Maverick. But while working on its sixth season, Garner was advised by his doctors to take a break. After the 12 new episodes that had been completed were broadcast, production simply never resumed. In the last episode to air, Rockford himself is taking a break, on a fishing trip to a little town called Parma, when he agrees to do a favor for an ailing stranger that lands him in the middle of a mob war. Stuck in a remote locale he doesn’t know and forced to improvise his way out of trouble without his usual support network, Rockford’s even stripped of his beloved Firebird, which disappears and then turns up at the mercy of the local mechanic. Everything turns out all right, and in the last shot he’s back in his car, but as the image fades to black, the car is making ominous noises. As always, Rockford is dancing one step ahead of utterly falling apart.
23. Wonderfalls, “Caged Bird” (December 15, 2004)
Can it be an unintentional finale if it never actually aired? Of course! And it did air. Just not on original network Fox. Cancelled after four episodes with 13 episodes already in the can, Wonderfalls aired its complete run on Logo and the British network Sky1 before finally landing on DVD with all 13 episodes intact. Later seasons were meant to explore heroine Jaye’s curious condition further, and the effects that it had on her friends and loved ones. But “Caged Bird” essentially puts a (potential) stop on Jaye’s status as the universe’s bitch. There’s no indication that those tourist trap tchotchkes stopped talking to Jaye once the show’s final curtain drew. But by allowing her finally to connect with her season-long love interest Eric by following the cryptic messages sent by the show’s mysterious muses, Wonderfalls brought Jaye to a new level of peace through their oblique orders. Nothing was solved, per se, but almost everything surrounding our sarcastic, abrasive heroine changed. And often, that’s more than enough for a series finale, intentional or not.
24. Once And Again, “Chance Of A Lifetime” (April 15, 2002)
Occasionally, TV producers don’t know they’ve been canceled, but they’ve been in the game long enough to read the writing on the wall. That’s what happened with Mitchell Hurwitz on Arrested Development, for instance, and it’s what kept happening to Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, purveyors of quiet, true-to-life family dramas. Their Thirtysomething ended surprisingly after four fairly successful seasons, and then both the production duo’s My So-Called Life and Relativity ended on cliffhangers that, nonetheless, made strong-enough thematic statements to stand as endings. But it was their Once And Again that best exemplified the idea of an accidental finale that is clearly intended as a series finale. In it, the various actors on the show use the occasional “interview” segments (where the characters discuss their feelings and thoughts on the action around them) to discuss just how much the show has meant to them. The story around them is the usual “Will the family go its separate ways?” stuff of season finales, but the interview segments allow an underwatched show to reach a sweet and dignified end.