Once upon a time, in a TV world long ago, there was no such thing as a series finale. How can that be? In the beginning, most series were episodic, and although viewers came to love many characters, there weren’t story arcs to be resolved, or even futures to be determined. Somewhere out there, it seems, Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel will always be up to their shenanigans, because it quite simply never really ended.
That all changed in 1963 when Americans got hooked on “The Fugitive.” Week to week, viewers tuned in to watch wrongly-convicted Dr. Kimble relentlessly search for his wife’s true killer while running from the law. TV history was made in 1967 when this series provided an actual conclusion to its story, which went on to become the most-watched television episode up to that time, proving that audiences yearned for closure with their favorite characters. A decade later, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” would provide a finale that became the gold standard for the industry. Today, it would be unthinkable for a successful, long-running TV series to not provide a finale, and it is quite a task for writers to come up with an ending that stays true to the show and satisfies faithful viewers, while also being “unforgettable.”
In the over half a century since “The Fugitive” set viewership records, creative teams have come up with memorable ways to end a series. This article covers many finales from the past six decades, from the first to a recent one that set records of its own. There are finales that provide happy endings, eliciting satisfied sighs from their fans. Many have moments that circle back to the pilot or earlier episodes, giving faithful viewers Easter eggs and a gratifying loop connecting beginnings and endings. There are finales that make fans go “what the heck just happened?” and spark years of debate over the true meaning of what did happen. There are some that ignite a “loved it!/hated it!” war that will cement their places in pop culture history. There are a few great ones, such as “Downton Abbey” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that we’ve left off the list, simply because their stories have successfully continued in movies and/or future series. Whether you love them or hate them, here are 30 of the most unforgettable finales in TV history.
Tour our photo gallery, which includes fantastic finishes from “M*A*S*H,” “Newhart,” “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Six Feet Under,” “Friends” and more. Where does your favorite rank in the top 30 of the best of the best?