We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,321,634-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: Series Finale
What it’s about: The end of the road. Whether tear-jerking, anticlimactic, or so disappointing it makes fans retroactively question their love of a series, most long-running television shows conclude with a much-hyped final episode in which storylines are resolved and the writers and cast say farewell to viewers and try and build a satisfying ending. An appropriate topic for what, after eight years and 6,321,634 entries, is the final installment of Wiki Wormhole.
Biggest controversy: While final episodes can be a victory lap for a beloved show, they often leave viewers angry. Wikipedia cites Roseanne (the first iteration, in which it’s revealed the entire previous season was a story Roseanne Conner made up to deal with the death of her husband Dan; a development that was quickly retconned when the show was rebooted in 2018), Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Game Of Thrones, Dexter, and the brilliantly ambiguous Sopranos, whose abrupt cut to black “caused millions of viewers to temporarily believe they had lost cable service.”
Wikipedia also gives credit to series that went out on a high note, including Newhart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Breaking Bad, Community, Gravity Falls, and Six Feet Under, and controversially puts Lost’s divisive finale in the good column.
Strangest fact: Series finales weren’t always a thing. As virtually all television was episodic before shows could be recorded, there were no ongoing storylines that needed to be wrapped up, and many series just ended with a run-of-the-mill episode. That all changed in 1967, with the final episode of The Fugitive. The show’s premise—Dr. Richard Kimble goes on the run after being framed for the murder of his wife—allowed for an episodic series where Kimble’s flight from the law took him to a different town every week. But it also set up the show for a thrilling conclusion in which he confronts the real killer, the famed one-armed man—an episode watched by an astonishing 72% of households, which convinced networks that series finales were the way to go.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Finales aren’t always the end. Several series—from Here’s Lucy to Charmed to Arrested Development—wrapped up with a finale, only to be brought back on the air. Futurama came and went so many times the show actually had four series finales by Wikipedia’s count. Magnum, P.I. was even brought back after a series finale in which Tom Selleck’s Magnum was killed, spent the episode as a ghost, and ascended into heaven! But fans were so outraged that the show returned for an eighth season with an alive-and-well Magnum.
Some series have also ended only to pass the baton to a spin-off. In many cases, the “spinoff” was simply the same show minus a few key cast members, as when Andy Griffith left The Andy Griffith Show, but the supporting ensemble continued on for another three seasons as Mayberry RFD; or when Bea Arthur had had her fill of The Golden Girls, and her costars inexplicably un-retired and ran a hotel for one season on The Golden Palace. But there are also more traditional spinoffs, in which beloved supporting characters get to take center stage, as when The Practice’s finale set up James Spader and William Shatner’s characters to star in Boston Legal.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There isn’t a category for inadvertent season finales. Many series are cancelled in the off-season, so the writers and cast don’t get the chance to say good-bye. But a few shows that have suffered this fate serendipitously ended on a meaningful final episode anyway. WKRP In Cincinnati’s writers didn’t know “Up And Down The Dial” was to be the final episode of the show, but the storyline—in which the struggling station is finally successful, only to be threatened with a format change to 24-hour news—ends the series on an emotionally satisfying note, in which the station is saved and would keep on playing rock and roll and getting into wacky misadventures, even if the show itself wouldn’t.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: There’s no talking about series finales without talking about the granddaddy of them all. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the two-and-a-half-hour episode which wrapped up wartime comedy M*A*S*H after 11 seasons, was the most-watched episode of television in American history, and remained so for 27 years, until it was knocked off its perch by Super Bowl XLIV.
The end of the Wormhole: Alas, our 6,321,634-week series has also come to an end. Thanks to everyone who’s followed along through the years; thanks to Josh Modell for deciding a one-off Great Job, Internet! I wrote eight years ago had the makings of a recurring feature; and thanks to reader Unexpected Dave for his long-running feature-within-a-feature Talk Page Highlights. I’ll continue writing for the site here and there, my podcast Why Is This Not A Movie? releases a new episode every Tuesday, and my sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away, comes out this November, barring any more COVID-related delays.
One final note. The internet was created by the U.S. Department Of Defense, but it didn’t really come into its own until a young Senator named Al Gore passed the High Performance Computing Act Of 1991, which expanded the DoD’s network to major universities and funded the development of the first web browser. This led to the creation of the modern internet, and the thinking at the time was that it would let researchers and great academic minds share information. Naturally, this lofty goal was very quickly outpaced by video games and pornography, which became the internet’s mainstay until 2001, when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded Wikipedia. And in the 20 years since, Wikipedia has truly fulfilled the promise of the internet—a repository of the sum total of human knowledge, whether obscure problems in quantum physics, or minor characters from Spongebob SquarePants. I can say without irony it’s one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and it’s been a joy to investigate its weirder corners for the last eight years.