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Endings are tricky, especially when it comes to our favorite television shows. Why? Well, after spending so much time with and investing so much emotion in these beloved characters, they become family. And we expect the sort of closure that not only takes us out on a high note but also ties up all of the show’s loose ends and makes us feel good about all of the time we’ve spent in these people’s company. Yes, that may sound like we’re asking a lot from the final episode of a TV show. Perhaps too much. Which is probably why so many of them end up feeling disappointing (Hello, Seinfeld!). So when a show ends well, it’s an accomplishment. The list of shows that wrap up better than that — the truly great endings — is a short one. Here is our list of the 15 best TV finales of all time, ranked in order of greatness (Warning: Spoilers ahead).
15. Lost (2010)
With a series as full of mysteries as Lost, there was no way the show’s finale would make everyone happy. After six head-scratching seasons, there were just too many stray threads to tie up. As expected, the super-sized, two-and-a-half-hour closer left plenty of questions unanswered (what about those polar bears?!), but the one that it did address head-on (well, at least in its own sideways fashion) was the revelation that the island’s inhabitants all existed in a sort of purgatorial limbo full of tear-jerking reunions and fan-friendly callbacks. How do I know it’s a great finale? The first time I watched it, live, I absolutely hated it. A few years later I watched it again, and I was sobbing.
Watch it again: Lost, on Hulu
14. The Sopranos (2007)
Sometimes Big Idea finales work ... and sometimes they don’t. The controversial last episode of HBO’s sensational mob drama (or, rather, the controversial last scene of the last episode) certainly was a swing for the fences, as creator David Chase brought Tony and his family together in a New Jersey diner for one last family dinner, only to have it end with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” on the jukebox and a mysterious slam to black. As soon as the end credits rolled, fan theories about what they’d just seen started pinballing around the internet: Was Tony whacked by a shady-looking customer at the diner? Or was it just a happy moment showing a fractured family coming together? The Sopranos finale was certainly a memorable conversation starter. But many fans were left confounded and annoyed by Chase’s cryptic lack of clarity. One thing’s for sure, if you watched it, you’ll definitely never forget it.
Watch it again: The Sopranos, on HBO Max
13. Mad Men (2015)
By the time Mad Men wrapped, the show’s America was in a very different place from where it was when the series began. And so was its so-called hero — Jon Hamm’s self-invented adman, Don Draper. During the final season, we saw Don in a harrowing downward spiral. The man who was always in control no longer was. So when we finally glimpsed him at the end on a California cliff, dressed all in white, meditating and dreaming up what would become the most famous commercial of the era (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”), Don’s spiritual and creative rebirth felt perfectly redemptive and perfectly cynical (of course, he used his enlightenment to sell sugar water!). The Mad Men finale divided fans, but I’d argue there was something about the way this show went out that was completely truthful to the character.
Watch it again: Mad Men, on Amazon Prime
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12. The Wire (2008)
The Wire wasn’t always the easiest watch, but David Simon’s inner-city anthology was certainly one of the creative high points of the Golden Age of Prestige TV in the 2000s. Fittingly, for a show that never shied away from the ugliness of real life, The Wire would end on notes of both hope and despair, unafraid to grapple with difficult answers even on its way out the door. Some characters were left in moments of positive transition: Aidan Gillen’s Tommy Carcetti becomes governor, Seth Gilliam’s Ellis Carver is promoted to lieutenant, and Andre Royo’s Bubbles finally gets clean. But like real life, others were headed in a more hopeless direction. For a show that always refused to sugarcoat things, it made sense that its finale was both sweet and sour.
Watch it again: The Wire, on HBO Max
11. Friends (2004)
Think of how many nights we spent vicariously sitting around Central Perk listening to Joey’s tales of botched auditions, Ross and Rachel’s dating dilemmas, and Chandler’s sarcastic quips. After 10 years, these six hilarious best friends had experienced just about everything that twentysomethings trying to find their way in the Big Apple could go through — and, as the theme song said, we were there for them. All the way. So saying farewell couldn’t help but be a little traumatic. But what made the heartwarming Friends finale so note-perfect is that we were leaving them better — and more grown-up — than they were when we first met them. On-and-off couple Ross and Rachel were on for good; Monica and Chandler had left their selfishness behind and were now the parents of twins; Phoebe was happily married; and Joey was still Joey. Which is just how it should have been.
Watch it again: Friends, on HBO Max
10. St. Elsewhere (1988)
The conclusion to this hit medical drama (which introduced the world to Denzel Washington) gets bonus points for the most ambitious and meta finale in TV history. I can’t even think of a runner-up that comes close to the pure wackiness of this concept. After six seasons chronicling the daily dramas at Boston’s St. Eligius Hospital, the finale ended with the ultimate pull-the-rug reveal: that the entire show had been the imagining of the autistic son of Ed Flanders’ Dr. Westphall as he gazed into a snow globe containing a miniature replica of the hospital. Mind blown!
Watch it again: St. Elsewhere, on Hulu
9. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1994)
Perfectly titled “All Good Things…,” the emotional conclusion to what is still the greatest of all Star Trek spin-offs left us on a high note with Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard skipping through time to three crucial periods of his life. The most crowd-pleasing, to be sure, was Picard checking back in with his loyal Enterprise crew members where he’d initially found them — at the beginnings of their journeys, ready to voyage to strange new worlds and seek out new life. It’s a final adventure within a final adventure. And it was the ultimate dose of fan service for the most faithful of all fan bases, Trekkies.
8. The West Wing (2006)
Presidential administrations come and go, the political parties and faces that run them change, but the office remains. After seven seasons, Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet was exiting the Oval Office and some old faces were staying behind (Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman and Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn). Yes, The West Wing was always a liberal fantasy about how the White House operates — the idealism, the compromises, the soap-opera interpersonal dynamics — but it never really mattered whether you agreed with the show’s politics or not. It was the most entertaining (and smartest) civics lesson the small screen has ever served up. The finale left us with one last key lesson: The country is stronger than one person. Democracy will go on.
7. Breaking Bad (2013)
How does a good man go bad? For five seasons, Breaking Bad explored the nature of evil … and crime … and family secrets … and the manufacturing of blue crystal meth … thanks to the powerhouse performance of Bryan Cranston as high school science teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White. A cancer diagnosis and a lack of money to leave behind for his family was the catalyst for Walter’s descent, but soon he became seduced by the dark side like a Southwestern Darth Vader. He would leave this world on his own terms. And in the terrific finale, that’s exactly what he did. Walt goes out in a final bullet-riddled blaze of glory, lifeless on the floor with what looks eerily like a smile on his face.
6. Six Feet Under (2005)
It’s fair to say that America had never met a family quite like the Fishers before Six Feet Under arrived on HBO in 2001. For one thing, they were a clan of morticians. For another, they would become part of one of the most emotionally resonant — and cleverly constructed — dramas of the 2000s. These days, The Sopranos tends to get most of the credit for ushering in HBO’s glorious run of boundary-pushing shows during the decade. But the importance of creator Alan Ball’s series shouldn’t be overlooked. Plus, it ended in a far more satisfying way than The Sopranos’ controversial fade-to-black finale. For a show focused on mortality, Six Feet Under showed us how each of its characters would ultimately shed their mortal coil, via flash-forwards in their lives. Some were brutal, some beautiful. But the most profound moment came paired with Sia’s “Breathe Me” on the soundtrack as youngest child Claire (Lauren Ambrose) takes her final breaths. A perfect grace note for this risk-taking series to go out on.
5. Cheers (1993)
The highly charged, will-they-or-won’t-they sexual chemistry between Beantown bar owner Sam (Ted Danson) and high-brow grad student-turned-barmaid Diane (Shelley Long) fueled the first few seasons of the hit NBC comedy. And remarkably, the show didn’t lose a step (and maybe even got funnier) after Long left and was replaced in the brilliant ensemble cast by Kirstie Alley. And yet Diane always remained in the back of viewers’ minds. So when she returned at the end of the show’s run, the big question became: Would Sam leave his bar behind and move across the country with Diane? Of course not. How could he ever leave behind Norm, Cliff, Woody and the watering hole where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came? That, after all, was Sam’s truest love.
4. The Fugitive (1967)
The two-part finale to this thrilling, long-running serial mystery adventure about David Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble and his tireless search for the one-armed man who killed his wife was watched by 72 percent of American TV households — a figure that’s impossible to imagine in our age of countless cable channels, streaming platforms, and audiences so narrow and niche they can barely be measured. In the end, The Fugitive would give Kimble and audiences exactly what they wanted, as he faces off with his elusive nemesis atop an Indiana amusement park tower, finally gets the confession he’s been hunting all this time for, and — 54-year-old spoiler alert! — watches the one-armed man fall to his death.
Watch it again: A 5-minute clip from The Fugitive’s final episode, on YouTube
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977)
I’d argue that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the greatest workplace sitcom in TV history. Every member of the cast was flawless, delivering both pathos and punch lines with crack timing. For the show’s finale, the new owners of small-time Minneapolis TV station WJM fire the entire news team (except, of course, Ted Knight’s dim-bulb anchorman Ted Baxter). Tears flowed and hugs were dispensed, but since this was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, even those minor-key moments were turned into comedy fodder. Especially as the embracing bunch of coworkers shuffle across the newsroom as one to get some tissues, afraid to let go of each other. It was the definition of laughter through tears, and we know exactly how they felt.
2. M*A*S*H* (1983)
After 11 highly rated seasons and 255 episodes, this Korean War dramatic comedy about a mobile army medical unit starring Alan Alda said goodbye with a two-and-a-half hour TV movie that aired on Feb. 28, 1983 — and was watched by 106 million people (it’s still the highest-rated series finale ever). Fittingly, by the show’s wrap, the war had come to an end and the beloved members of the 4077th exchanged farewells, set to finally go back to their lives in the States. The best — and biggest lump-in-the-throat moment — is saved for the end, however, when Alda’s surgeon Hawkeye Pierce is flying off in a chopper and sees from the air a message from his best friend, Mike Farrell’s B.J. Hunnicutt: the word “goodbye,” spelled out in stones on the ground. At that moment, 106 million people simultaneously reached for the Kleenex.
1. Newhart (1990)
Bob Newhart’s second great sitcom ran from 1982–1990. And while it never quite matched the delirious slow-burn heights of the original Bob Newhart Show (1972–1978), it did surpass its predecessor — and every other long-running show in the history of television, for that matter — when it came to its final episode. Playing a Vermont innkeeper, Newhart goes to sleep and wakes up in the Chicago bed of his previous series next to his wife from that show (Suzanne Pleshette’s Emily) with a look of total bemusement on his face. The entire series had been a dream. Yes, St. Elsewhere had tried something like this two years earlier. But while that ending was weird and confounding, this one was downright hilarious, unexpected … and, well, just perfect.
Watch it again: Newhart series finale, on YouTube
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.