Many series rode off into that big series-finale sunset in 2013, but some did it with far more imagination, better storytelling, and viewer-friendly surprises than others.
Here, we grade 10 of them, and we’re pretty generous with our A's. But there was one show that ended its run with a finale so disappointing, we couldn’t even justify a D-minus...
(Oh, and of course, since we’re discussing series endings, there are many, many spoilers ahead.)
“Breaking Bad” — Grade: A
Would Walter White live/die/get his comeuppance? Would his tortured cohort, Jesse? And what about Walt’s family, his wife, his kids, and his DEA agent brother-in-law, who’d finally discovered Walt was the ruthless drug lord known as Heisenberg? There were so many unanswered questions going into the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad,” and even more expectations that creator Vince Gilligan and his writing staff would end Walt’s transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” as brilliantly as they’d unfolded it for five seasons.
Add to that viewers’ obsession with imagining every potential ending, and the series finale couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, right? Except, it did. Surprising (Walt’s gun-in-the-trunk contraption and the return of Gretchen and Elliott), hopeful (Jesse escapes!), redemptive (because Walt saves him), and satisfying (bye, Uncle Jack and creepy Todd), the finale was everything we hoped it would be: a perfect ending.
“Eastbound & Down” — Grade: A
“Eastbound’s” creators have always said they thought the show worked as well as a drama as it did a comedy, and the sentimental finale was as much an example of that as it was Kenny Powers’ emotional growth. Seriously. Who ever would have imagined a family man version of KP, at an elementary school play bragging about his son’s acting chops as he portrayed Johnny Appleseed? Kenny decided, just in the nick of time, that April and the kids were what made him happy, and their reunion and move to Santa Fe (and into couples therapy) was the happy ending they deserved.
The one we, fans of the more outrageously comedic aspects of the show, deserved? The epilogue, in which we learn Kenny’s kids grow up and are played by Lindsey Lohan and Alexander Skarsgard, April gets murdered, and Kenny moves to Africa, where he rides a hovercraft and remarries. That all turns out to happen only in Kenny’s movie screenplay... but close enough.
“The Big C” — Grade: A
Just thinking about the series finale gets us all teary again. Cathy’s insurance has run out just as she’s nearing the end of her battle with cancer, which means she has to go home to die. She also reunites with her father, asks her endearingly wacky brother to kill her so her son won’t see her die in their house, and gets the happiest surprise of her motherhood when a secretive Adam turns out to have been accelerating his studies so he can graduate a year early, before his teacher mom passes away.
The finale, and probably even the whole series, broke no new ground when it came to matters of life and death; it showed a woman’s battle with cancer as crushing, messy, frustrating, angry, expensive, hopeful, hopeless, and, with a healthy frequency, even funny. Cathy does die, at home, just before her husband brings home a bouquet of her favorite flowers. It’s OK, though; she’s off in a happier, less painful afterlife, floating in a swimming pool with her friend Marlene and Thomas the dog.
“30 Rock” — Grade: A-
It had it all: Liz and Tracy back at the strip club; Jenna and her “Rural Juror” song; Jack and Liz repairing their odd but endearing friendship; Pete’s temporarily successful attempt at faking his death and starting a new life; Jack’s idea for the see-through dishwasher (which made us want one); and, of course, Kenneth’s reign as network president, and his futuristic interaction with Liz’s granddaughter. The apparent confirmation that Kenneth is immortal was a fan-pleasing touch, as was the nod to the “St. Elsewhere” series finale with Kenneth’s snow globe. The character who just loved “everybody and television” so much was a fitting focus for a series that was always a reminder of what we love about TV.
“Fringe” — Grade: A-
Confusing? Well, yeah, a bit, but wasn’t that always true of “Fringe”? There are time travel puzzlers we could still be trying to unravel, but the bottom line is this: After five seasons of loyalty to a show that didn’t seem destined to last that long, “Fringe” viewers were rewarded with big payoffs in the finale. Walter and Astrid (he remembered her name!), Walter and Peter (the “I love you, Dad”… sniffle), the Peter/Olivia/Etta happily-ever-after in the park, and the white tulip, which so perfectly and beautifully tied the whole series together and circled back to one of the show’s best episodes ever. We’ll also forever be grateful to the show for bringing Joshua Jackson, the perpetual “Dawson’s Creek” scene stealer, back to primetime.
“Futurama” — Grade: A-
Which of the four series finales are we grading, you ask? Yes, four eps during the show’s run were written to be series enders, but it’s this year's “Meanwhile” we’re talking about here. And though it may not have been the best of all those series finale eps (we’re pretty partial to the original one, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”), it was a very satisfying, clever, fun installment, with time travel, Fry’s death, a Fry and Leela wedding, and a Professor Farnsworth invention (and re-invention) that results in a do-over on the whole story. Sadly, “Futurama” doesn’t seem to have another do-over left in its run, but at least we now know what a happy Fry and Leela marriage would have been like. If it had ever really happened...
“Burn Notice” — Grade: B+
The entire seventh season revolved around Michael Westen and his pals running a CIA operation to bring down another CIA alum who’s running a dangerous freelance terrorist business. That a previously burned Michael was still involved with such shenanigans was a big sign he probably needed to step away from the spy game altogether, but the fact that his family and friends continued to be dragged into it as well was definitely a reason for him to extract himself from CIA-related activities.
Of course, given what Michael was capable of, and the ongoing need for such skills, that was easier said than done. And in the end, only his mom Maddie sacrificing herself, and Michael and girlfriend Fiona faking their deaths, allowed them to go far, far away and start life anew, with Michael’s orphaned nephew Charlie now in his care. It’s a tidy ending, and, happily, leaves open the possibility of future “Burn Notice” reunions.
“The Office” — Grade: B
After a couple of seasons — OK, essentially everything post-Steve Carell — that were as bad as the first few seasons were classic, the series finale reminded us of all the reasons we once loved the show. Dwight and Angela finally getting married, Michael’s surprise return (and the news that he’s a happy dad who’s so proud of his kids, he needs two phones to carry all the pics he has of them), and Pam’s Jim-like secret plan to allow her hubby to follow his dream career were all throwbacks to some of the show’s most beloved moments and characters.
The only reason we’re knocking off a whole letter grade: that Kelly/Ryan subplot in which they ran off together, leaving his baby to be snapped up like a forgotten jacket by Nellie. Worst story since Michael lied to all those students about paying for their college educations, and, as we said earlier, pretty much everything after Michael left the show, er, office.
“Private Practice” — Grade: C
There was plenty of closure, so you gotta give ‘em that, but there were no surprises. Well, no good surprises, in a finale which included two marriages (Addison and Jake, and Naomi and Sam, take two), lots of babies (Charlotte and Cooper’s triplets and an unexpected pregnancy for Naomi), an impending death (Miranda, whose cancer sparks Sheldon to quit his job to take care of her), and a book. It’s a book called — wait for it — “Private Practice,” and it’s all about — wait for it — the show that we just spent six seasons watching. Yes, Violet wrote a book about her friends and titled it “Private Practice,” ensuring that this was a perfectly serviceable, and perfectly average, series ender.
“Dexter” — Grade: F
One word: lumberjack. OK, we have other words, but the fact that Dexter ended up in Alaska, alone and miserable and working as a lumberjack, after absolutely no prior hint of this outcome anywhere in the series’ preceding 95 episodes, felt like a big, out-of-the-blue cheat.
[Photos: 15 TV Twists We Hated This Year]
Despite revolving around the complicated life of a serial killer, "Dexter" was not always such a dark, cynical tale. Really. We’d willingly gone along with the final season's origin story, in which Dex met “The Psychopath Whisperer” and found out how his “Code” philosophy was developed, with the rational expectation that this could lead him to decide maybe he hadn’t been destined to become a serial killer, and that he could choose not to continue the kind of life he’d been steered into.
Instead, this new info sparked him to make stupid decisions that led to, ultimately, the death of his sister, his decision to abandon his child into the care of another serial killer, and to reject any semblance of his life to… run away and become a lumberjack. Dexter deserved better, and fans who’d been devoted to the often truly fantastic series for eight seasons absolutely did, too. In fact, we propose going forward that TV series no longer “jump the shark.” Instead, they “go lumberjacking in Alaska.”