What two words fill TV fans with more dread -- or more joy perhaps -- than that final period placed on a show they've loved and lived with for years. It's as though a friend is gone, a neighbor moved on, a lover vanished.
Or, umm, there's also the "joy" part, too, as in: "Enough! You've overstayed your welcome."
Regardless of "too soon" or "not soon enough," the finale of the great American TV series remains one of those cherished rites of passages for most viewers, and as "House" and "Desperate Housewives" get set to bid adieu, we throw the question to you: Did the show end well?
Here's a list of 25, in no particular order of big shows that ended with a big bang. There's little doubt some of these bangs were creative whimpers, too, but that's up to you to decide.
"Family Ties" (ended 1989)
Alex moves out of the house, finally, for that glorious career on Wall Street (where he will no doubt fund GOP candidates for years to come.) It's tough for mom and dad, because with Alex (Michael J. Fox) gone, the family ties are broken. This two-parter, "Alex Doesn't Live Here Anymore" was seen by just over 36 million.
"All in the Family" (1979)
The comedy that dominated the entire decade from start to finish didn't completely finish here. Its spinoff "Archie Bunker's Place" would continue for a few more seasons. Nevertheless, this was the end, and, to prompt memories, Archie was finally nice to everyone.
"The Cosby Show" (1992)
Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) is getting ready to graduate college and, of course, father Cliff wants to invite the world, but there are only two tickets to the commencement. Cliff memorably talks about Theo's high school troubles. Let's see, what else ... oh, Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe) and Dabnis (William Thomas Jr.) talk about getting back together. Let see, what else ... oh, of course: Cliff and Clair share a final dance, and waltz past the studio audience. Cue the tears.
"Magnum, P.I." (1988)
This finale was a doozy in that there were actually two series finales -- some kind of record, I imagine. In the 1987 finale, poor Magnum was killed because CBS had canceled the series. That was that, right? Wrong! There was a fan revolution and CBS was forced to uncancel and give the series another season. Magnum (Tom Selleck) was reincarnated, too, and, in the loopy logic of TV, fans were told that he really did not die and go to heaven, but, in fact, dreamed he had (dream -- you'll be reading that word again). The May 1988 finale -- one of the most viewed in history -- sort of wrapped things up with Magnum getting together with his long-lost daughter. Both ended the series very much alive (hey, just in case).
"The Last One" I suppose referred to the last cup of coffee at Central Perk, and like all beloved long-running series, "love" had to triumph. Ross tells Rachel he loves her; Monica and Chandler adopt twins; Joey had to save some duckling or chick (both?) and the suburbs beckon for the new parents. But the big scene was the Ross/Rachel lip-lock ... who could forget?
Certainly one of the oddest finales in history, this one focused on the gang's departure to California where Jerry is to shoot a pilot for NBC called "Jerry," but the plane they fly out on is forced into an emergency landing after Kramer -- desperately trying to clear his ears -- lands in the cockpit. On the ground, they witness some poor schlub whose car is hijacked; but, rather than help, they scoff. They're arrested for not helping, and eventually sentenced to a year in state prison. Weird man, weird. But 76 million viewers!
Did you know that this was the second-highest rated finale ever, after "M*A*S*H"? It had 92.3 million viewers. Amazing ... though the plot was not all that big a deal. Sam and Diane agree -- which seems the right word -- to get married and move to California. Bad! Sam's pals at Cheers are distraught, and then ... surprise! Sam returns, and he remains. As the lights dim, Norm tells Sam he knew he'd never leave. Someone knocks on the door. "Sorry, we're closed." One of the most famous closing lines, pun obviously intended, in TV history.
The champ (106 million), but go ahead and admit it -- how many of you really remember how this wrapped? Some hints ... Hawkeye sees a mother smother her baby and he completely loses it ... recovers, goes back to the 4077th just as the war ends. Tears, hugs, and a pile of rocks that spell out "goodbye."
"Hill Street Blues" (1987)
Buntz (Dennis Franz) ends his career and this classic by punching Chief Daniels. Buntz walks out of the station house as the phone rings ... the night shift desk sergeant answers ... "Hill Street." Fade to you-know-what.
"St. Elsewhere" (1988)
Not the hugest series on TV by any means, but the wrap was so outlandish as to suggest all these years later that "Elsewhere" must've been a giant. Recall that last scene, boy sitting on floor with snow-globe in hand. He's Westphall's (Ed Flanders) son who has severe autism. Turns out Westphall was a construction worker, not a doc, and that the boy had dreamed up the whole six seasons in his head. Controversial ending, but we sure haven't forgotten it.
'Nother classic ending by 'nother classic TV character. Innkeeper Bob goes to sleep and wakes up as Chicago therapist Bob Newhart with his wife (Suzanne Pleshette) from the earlier "Bob Newhart Show" right next to him, but you knew that. In other words: "Newhart" had been dreamed by Bob Newhart of "The Bob Newhart Show." Clever funny end and an ironic commentary on TV's sudden love affair with "the-whole-season-was-but-a-dream" closer.
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1977)
The entire staff of the "6 O'Clock News" is fired due to lousy ratings -- the whole staff with the exception of Ted. And, in one of the most famous scenes in TV history, our small beloved group is so distraught that, in their group hug, they can't let go of one another and sidle over to the box of tissues as one. They sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" as the final seconds tick off.
"The Fugitive" (1967)
In the final scene, Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) leaves the courthouse after he finally catches the one-armed man. Who's standing there? None other than Lt. Gerard, who spent pretty much most of the '60s hunting down the poor guy. Kimble looks at Gerard. Gerard looks at Kimball. Gerard holds out his hand and Kimball shakes it (get it? One-Armed man; final scene, two guys shaking hands? Oh forget it.) "Tuesday, Sept. 5, the day the running stopped," said the voice-over. Violins soar. A huge series closes.
"The Wire" (2008)
Far, far too much to wrap up in this little graph, but a final image will do, I suppose, of Marlo Standfield (Jamie Hector) in a very nice suit, having gone legit (sort of) then leaving some fat cat party to return to the street corner. There he finds a couple of street toughs talking about Omar; they don't recognize the man in the suit who is 10 times, no, a thousand times, tougher than these punks. He disarms both, chases 'em off, and stands at the street corner, under the harsh, cold lights. He's right back where he started from.
"The Shield" (2008)
Another truly wild ending and far too complicated to lay out in detail, so let's go to that final image. Vic (Michael Chiklis) has nothing left. Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) has gone into some witness protection program, and everyone else he's seemingly ever come in contact with is either dead or in jail. Of course, he's bought a get-out-of-jail-free ticket by working out an immunity deal, but in exchange must work a desk job until hell freezes solid. In fact, this is hell for Mackey: He sets his jaw, grabs his gun, and heads out into the night.
Let's make this easy. In two words, Jack (Matthew Fox) dies. On the Island, he lies down in the same spot where he woke up six seasons earlier; Vincent the dog comes and lies next to him, and Jack's eyes slowly close as the plane moves overhead. In the "Sideways" world, Jack goes to his father's coffin, opens it -- finally! -- and inside, nothing, or no one. His father, in fact, is standing behind him, and Jack knows he, too, has died, and so have all the other Islanders. They had led a full life after leaving the Island (some of 'em) and had come to this church or holy place where they could reunite. A bright white light envelops them all. This was a finale that had an impossible task -- to answer a thousand hanging questions that, of course, could never be answered, though at least we did get two final answers: the fate of our beloved characters, both on the Island and in "Sideways" world.
Speaking of questions, whither Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland)? The last we see of him, he is leaving a fenced-in area, about to dissolve into the big city beyond. The last season could have gone a couple of ways and, considering that Jack could just have easily died as lived -- it was, after all, the season when he witnessed the death of his One True Love -- it was certainly notable that our hero lived to fight another battle. On a big screen. In a theater near you. One of these years.
Good night, Seattle, for the very ... last ... time. Here's the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem Frasier Crane closed with on his final broadcast, before heading to San Francisco (see if this jogs those memory cells):
"It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are --
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will;
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
After reading that, he says something to the effect that it's best to take chances, and thanks for listening and ... "Goodnight, Seattle."
"The Sopranos" (2007)
Again, let's thumb through a series of images from this most famous of finales. The war with the Lupertazzi family has finally exhausted itself, though Phil Leotardo is believed to be hanging out ... in Oyster Bay. Eventually found, shot ... at the gas pump, and his car rolls over his head (crrrunch. How could we forget). Tony and family are later in the diner; a man stares. Tension builds. More staring. More tension. Meadow enters the dinner. More staring. More tension. Someone goes to the bathroom ... the man. Then .... nothing. Millions of people fiddled with their TV sets. Many were not happy. Many were. In any event, David Chase refused to give fans a final resolution in this, the most famous closing scene in TV history that was not even a "scene."
"Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" (2003)
This may be -- no, this is -- the wildest, wooliest finale in TV history. So much happened, that books have been written. But let us compress for you: A huge epic battle between the Slayers and the Turok-Han and Bringers; Slayers win! Hellmouth cave opens up and the whole dang town of Sunnydale collapses into the blasted thing. Buffy herself was almost killed in this one, though of course she was not.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1994)
Another show that seemed to end before its time (it did) and another wild conclusion, in which Picard seemed to jump back and forth in time at will, or maybe not at will, as he was none too happy about this. Data figures out some way in which all three Enterprises -- the same one in the past, present and future -- undertake some sort of warp drive, thereby ending all this nonsense. (Please, don't ask for more details; get the finale and watch again. It's worth it.)
"Sex and the City" (2004)
In which the four ladies are reunited in NYC, and we learn "Big's" name for the very first time: "John." (Funny ... at least it wasn't "Cosmo.") Carrie Bradshaw's very last voice-over? "The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well, that's just fabulous."
After 15 years, the final episode was called "And in the End," and in the end, some of the series regulars from the early years turned up, Ernest Borgnine had a cameo. Dr. Greene's (Anthony Edwards) daughter was also in this one, and she, too, was to become a doctor and would have her first call to duty in the closing minutes. The circle of life ... (And in the very, very last image, Cook County was seen in its entirety.)
"Six Feet Under" (2005)
A memorable conclusion in which the show flash-forwarded to various characters' fates ... and their deaths.
"The West Wing" (2006)
The last day of the Bartlet administration, and the first day of the Santos (Jimmy Smits) one. It was a particularly emotional close because outgoing President Bartlet was given a cocktail napkin that read "Bartlet for President." Leo McGarry had scrawled the note years earlier. McGarry had died earlier in the season. Of course, the character who portrayed him so memorably over the series run, John Spencer, had died in 2005.