Home > Pop Culture, TV > Ending On A High Note: A Few Great Season Finales

Ending On A High Note: A Few Great Season Finales

The 2010-2011 network TV season draws to a close this month, sending us out into invigorating, socially well-adjusted, outdoor summer evenings (okay, fine, sending us flipping over to repeats and catch-ups on Netflix). In honor of this bittersweet time, let’s talk favorite season finales.

By no means is this meant to be a best-of-all-time catalog, since I can’t pretend to have seen all sixty years worth of television (careful observers will note that all of these episodes aired in the last two decades). Nor is this even a comprehensive list of my personal favorites. I have no doubt that I’m omitting some wonderful specimens from shows I love – Cheers and Homicide: Life On The Street come to mind – but which I simply haven’t seen recently enough to recall sharply. I’m also excluding series finales, which aren’t fair to compare given their built-in emotional triggers.

So, feel free to jump into the comments and share your own favorite, and tell me exactly why I’m an irredeemable soulless idiot for leaving it off the list.

(Oh, do I even need to add that spoilers follow? Well, this is the Internet, so yes. Yes I do.)

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Restless,” Season 4, Episode 22, Original Air Date: May 23, 2000; written and directed by Joss Whedon

I am restricting myself to only one example per series, and picking just one representative from Buffy is nigh-impossible. I could easily shower praise upon season two’s “Becoming,” season three’s “Graduation Day” (both two-parters), or season five’s “The Gift,” each of which belongs in the series’s top 15 or 20.

But if I’m to select just one – and my arbitrary, self-imposed rules are nothing if not ironclad – I’ll single out the one finale which was not a climax but a coda. Having dispatched the year’s Big Bad, Adam, in the penultimate “Primeval,” season four ended on a note exploring its theme rather than its plot. Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles each delves into a nightmare drawn by their most deep-seated insecurities, revealing the richness of the characters at the core of the show. And somehow, “Restless” also manages to be one of the funniest episodes of an often hysterically funny series.

Friday Night Lights, “State,” Season 1, Episode 22, OAD: April 11, 2007; written by Jason Katims, Patrick Massett, and John Zinman, directed by Jeffrey Reiner

This series makes its living on gut-punching, tear-welling moments, and the fresh emotional impact of the first season remains the most gripping. A year of strain and hardship culminates in a hard-earned victory, but even that excitement is tempered by the pall of Coach Taylor’s impending (short-lived) departure for TMU. FNL struggled in the ratings perennially, and if the first season finale had proved a series finale, it would have encapsulated the show’s ethos perfectly as the capstone on a story fully told. Its characters, like the show itself, scraped and struggled for every inch of success they ever found.


And “State” serves up some of FNL‘s most indelible moments: the quiet awe washing over the team arriving at Texas Stadium; Coach’s stirring halftime speech not about football or winning but about family and integrity; Eric embracing his QB One after the game; the road trip hilarity of Grandma Saracen and the Collete crew packed into the Landrymobile.The West Wing, “Two Cathedrals,” Season 2, Episode 22, OAD: May 16, 2001; written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Thomas Schlamme

Certainly a cliche on a list like this, but sometimes cliches become cliches for a reason. I have my issues with Bartlet’s multiple-sclerosis arc that led to this point, but I can never help but be riveted by Martin Sheen chewing out God in Latin with precisely measured rage, channeling the memory of Mrs. Landingham to battle his demons, and striding to the East Room through the thunderstorm to the strains of “Brothers In Arms” – easily one of my all-time favorite uses of pop music to score a scene of television.

The Office, “Casino Night,” Season 2, Episode 22, OAD: May 11, 2006; written by Steve Carrell, directed by Ken Kwapis

The second season of The Office is when the show distinguished itself from its British inspiration, largely by trading the latter’s undercurrent of fatalism for a jaded but romantic core. That heart is pinned square on the sleeve of an episode which forms the pivot point between the show’s two strongest seasons. Jim’s parking lot declaration of love to Pam, and their subsequent first kiss, is a powerfully earned expression of the way a deep enough friendship becomes indistinguishable from romantic love. 

the office casino night kiss.jpg

Besides which, it’s packed with sharp and hilarious moments, like Darrell’s faux-street slang (“fleece it out… dinkin’ flicka…You know, things us Negros say.”), a vintage Michael-Toby exchange (“I hate so much about the things that you choose to be.”), Jim’ fake telekinesis, Dwight and Angela’s thrill-of-victory kiss/slap at the craps table, and the debut of Scrantonicity.

Seinfeld, “The Opposite,” Season 5, Episode 21, OAD: May 19, 1994; written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld, directed by Tom Cherones

One of the top three or five episodes of the series, and a quintessential case of examining a key character by subverting that character completely. And befitting Seinfeld‘s ethos – “no lessons” – George’s life-changing personal progress here has vanished by the time season six starts (though somehow he still retains gainfully employment with the Yankees for two more years).

The Simpsons: “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” Season 4, Episode 22; OAD: May 13, 1993; written by John Swartzwelder, directed by David Silverman

Again, virtually any season finale from The Simpsons‘s Golden Age in the early-mid 90s could qualify here, simply because pretty much every episode period from that four- or five-year stretch belongs on any “favorites” list worth its salt. I’m selecting this one because it feels more like a proper “finale event,” rather than just a terrific half-hour of TV that happened to air last before the summer break (it was a toss-up between this and season six’s cliffhanger “Who Shot Mr. Burns, Part 1.”).

It featured a roster of guest stars that most contemporary sitcoms wouldn’t dream of nabbing in an entire season – including Elizabeth Taylor (before she became the voice of Maggie), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hugh Hefner, Luke Perry (hey, it was 1993, he was huge!), Bette Midler, and Johnny Carson, whose celebrated Tonight Show swan song this episode paid homage to. As that line-up reflects, this was the year that The Simpsons became a ubiquitous pop culture juggernaut – and, in perhaps a sly bit of meta self-deprecation, “Krusty Gets Kancelled” satirized pop culture fads in the form of Krusty’s hugely popular and then quickly forgotten competition Gabbo.

Mad Men, “Shut The Door. Have A Seat,” Season 3, Episode 13; OAD: November 8, 2009; written by Matthew Weiner & Erin Levy, directed by Matthew Weiner

I’ve always relished the stories that examine the culture and dynamics within Sterling Cooper just a little bit more than the ones that focus on Don’s home life. Even amidst Mad Men‘sdeliberate, cerebral, often moody nature, the classic circle-the-wagons story at the center of this episode is a great deal of fun. It’s exhilarating to watch the ad men assemble to improvise the ramshackle, mildly felonious birth of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

Categories: Pop Culture, TV
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