Last night, NBC brought down the curtain on The Office in rather a lovely fashion, with a series finale that was warm, nostalgic, and plenty funny. Bringing a long-running sitcom to a close is a tricky bit of business (how ya doin’, Roseanne), but The Office joins a handful of shows that have done it very, very well. Here are some other examples.
“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” the 1983 final episode of the long-running Korean War series (11 years — eight more than the war itself) set the bar for epic sitcom finales: It ran 135 minutes, considerably longer than not only an average episode (30 minutes) but most feature films. It was appropriate, though, as “Goodbye” had the depth, nuance, and pathos of a very good movie; it dealt, as the show’s best episodes had, with the genuine psychological horrors of war, but with grace, wit, and emotion. And viewership was astonishing: the show was watched by 125 million viewers, with 77% of all sets tuned to CBS that night. It remains the highest-rated series finale ever, and was the highest-rated television program of any kind until the 2010 Super Bowl.
James Burrows, Glen Charles, and Les Charles’ Boston-based barroom sitcom was a remarkable success story for NBC: though it dwelled in the ratings basement in its early seasons, networks execs believed in the show and waited for it to find an audience. (Imagine such a thing these days.) When it finally did, it became the Peacock’s top-rated series — even surpassing the juggernaut that was its Thursday night companion, The Cosby Show — going out at the close of Season 11 as TV’s top show. So the finale was a big event, with a Bob Costas-hosted retrospective leading into the 98-minute final episode, “One for the Road.” As expected, loose ends were tied up and old friends returned — specifically Shelly Long, who had left at the end of Season 5. But the conclusion dodged the easy win of Sam and Diane living happily ever after, closing instead with a jovial scene of bar byplay (what the show had always done best) and a bittersweet, Eugene O’Neill-esque coda of Sam, almost at one with the bar, locking up, shutting off the lights, and turning away one last patron with a firm, “Sorry, we’re closed.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Moore’s eponymous workplace comedy was a groundbreaking popular and critical success, ranking among TV’s highest-rated shows in its first six seasons. By year seven, ratings had declined — not to an embarrassing degree, but enough that Moore and company decided to call it a day. Like the M*A*S*H closer (which sported eight writing credits), the MTM finale was an all-hands-on-deck affair, penned by six of the show’s most venerable writers and creators (including future Oscar winner James L. Brooks) and featuring the return of such departed, spun-off cast members as Rhoda and Phyllis. The results were television magic: a heartfelt conclusion, anchored by the now-classic image of the tearful WJM news team moving as one to the tissues on Mary’s desk.
The Larry Sanders Show
The talk of television in spring of 1998 was the conclusion of the long-running and wildly successful Seinfeld, but another observational comic’s groundbreaking sitcom was also singing off: Garry Shandling’s innovative and influential HBO series The Larry Sanders Show concluded with a terrific, hour-long final episode entitled “Flip,” penned by Shandling and Peter Tolan. The show, which had always provided razor-sharp show-biz satire by using real names and real entertainment figures, had spent its sixth and final season with Shandling’s titular talk show host preparing to exit his program (his successor: a hot young comic named Jon Stewart), and the show managed to parody the over-abundance of good “gets” typical of these affairs. (The green room is so crowded that a brawl breaks out over who gets to sing Larry his goodbye song.) But, as usual, the show’s sense of acid-tongued satire could only keep real emotion at bay for so long; few images in modern TV comedy are as indelible as tough as nails producer Artie (the great Rip Torn) slipping away from the taping to go cry like a baby.
Tough as they might be, sitcoms will often turn into wildly emotional affairs when it’s time for a curtain call. It’s understandable, and allows an audience the opportunity to say goodbye to characters that have become a part of their lives. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about 30 Rock’s final episode was how intensely dedicated it seemed to staying irreverent right to the end — from Jack’s quick return to the dock to Jenna’s performance of the Rural Juror theme to Kenneth’s riff on the famed St. Elsewhere conclusion, 30 Rock was bound and determined to stay weird until the bitter end. And that ultimately choked up its fans even more; this was what we loved about Tina Fey and her merry band of freaks, so Jenna’s self-promotional grandiosity was sweet and poignant, even in spite of itself.
Newhart, on the other hand, was a show whose gloriously weird conclusion seemed to come out of left field, so gentle and unassuming had the series been until then. It was very good, of course — an affable and funny stew of character comedy and the deft underplaying of star Bob Newhart — but a fairly typical ‘80s sitcom. That all changed in the final episode, which found Newhart’s Vermont innkeeper conked on the head with a golf ball, and waking up in the bedroom of his ‘70s classic The Bob Newhart Show, next to previous TV wife Suzanne Pleshette. All eight seasons of Newhart were, it seems, a dream of Dr. Robert Hartley. Yet it didn’t seem like a cheat — it seemed like an utterly ingenious, shoot-the-works conclusion to a consistently lovable sitcom.
The Cosby Show
Bill Cosby’s return to series television had basically saved the all-but-comatose sitcom form back in 1984. By the time he was ready to call the Huxtable family quits in Season 8, the show’s quality had declined — most notably in the addition of obnoxiously too-cute Raven-Symone — and the ratings were finally starting to slow, with the show landing outside of the top ten for the first time in its run. Cosby could have certainly kept it going a while longer (the show was still in the top 20), but wisely brought the show to an end with the hour-long Season 8 closer “And So We Commence.” It was, above all, a classy ending — particularly the show’s wonderful closing moments, in which Dr. Huxtable and his elegant wife Clair (the always wonderful Phylicia Rashad), finally enjoying a moment alone, share a loving, romantic dance. And when they’re done, they walk, arm in arm, right off the set and past the cheering studio audience.
Everybody Loves Raymond
Whatever, so it’s not cool to like Everybody Loves Raymond. But for nine seasons, Ray Romano’s autobiographical sitcom delved into the oft-mined but still fertile ground of familial discomfort and marital compromise, and if it did so broadly, it also landed big laughs and proved consistently relatable. For the one-hour 2005 finale (again, credited to ten scribes, including Romano and co-creator Phil Rosenthal), the show found an easy emotional beat, and then turned it on its head: Ray goes in to the hospital for a routine medical procedure, but a quick scare makes the family think they might lose him, and they react accordingly. He’s fine, and everyone goes home, but what’s so clever about the episode is not how everyone responds to that scare — it’s how everyone tries to keep it from him, and how badly he wants to know how they reacted. The resulting scene is both uproarious and touching, lending an admirable bit of depth to what is too commonly regarded as an average, vanilla sitcom.
Every other show on this list went out on top, with a final episode that came basically when its creators and cast wanted it to. Not so with Aaron Sorkin’s great and lamentably late ABC series, a nuanced, single-camera dramedy that never found an audience sufficient enough for the folks at the network. Its cancellation had not been officially announced when its second and final season came to a close in 2000, but the writing was on the wall, and Sorkin wasn’t going quietly. Low ratings and network interference, presumably an issue behind the scenes of the show, became more and more present in story lines relating to the show within the show, as Season 2 found the sports network on the block and talk of cancellation in the air. But in a pitch-perfect conclusion, exec producer Dana Whitaker (Felicty Huffman) discovers that the business-savvy friend she’s made at the neighborhood watering hole is, in fact, the man who has just bought her network and is keeping her show on the air. His statement to her served the dual purpose as a not-so-veiled shot at Sorkin’s ABC bosses: “It’s a good show, Dana. Anybody who can’t make money off Sports Night should get out of the moneymaking business.”
It’s a controversial choice, yes — Seinfeld’s 1998 sign-off has become synonymous with Disappointing Finales, culminating in the Season 7 Seinfeld reunion on co-creator Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Seinfeld worried that “we already screwed up one finale.” David objects: “We didn’t screw up a finale, it was a good finale!” And here’s the thing: David is right. If spoilsports have complained that finales of the Office ilk are too soft and sentimental, it must be noted that the final Seinfeld was having none of that — for nine seasons, the proud credo of the show was “No hugs, no lessons,” and there was certainly none of that when Seinfeld ended, as a trial for violating a good Samaritan law brings out pretty much everyone the Seinfeld quartet has ever wronged. It was a sometimes mean, sometimes nasty, often funny, and rather insightful examination of the program’s me-first ethos. But since it closed with the show’s cast in jail (reciting dialogue from the pilot, a nice bit of circularity) rather than weeping in each other’s arms, it was viewed, paradoxically enough, as some kind of a betrayal — when in fact the opposite would have been true.