TV Series Finales Are A Bittersweet Escape

How to shed a few tears without getting too real.

Author by Theresa Fisher
Art credit: Megan Schaller

Series finales — even those of widely acclaimed shows — rarely go down in history as “good” TV. Instead, on-screen goodbyes tend to traffic in gooey sentimentality and overly tidy resolutions. And I love them for that. 

Not infrequently, I find myself in the mood for a light emotional release — a chance to shed a few tears without having to get too real. And when that mood strikes, I stream the series finale of a show I originally watched on an actual TV, back when a network would spend weeks hyping up a sitcom’s swan song. Revisiting the final stand of a show I saw the old-fashioned way — one week at a time, year after year — is a reliably bittersweet escape. 

Here are 5 series finales I stream when I feel the urge for an emotional purge.

The Wonder Years
Episode: “Independence Day”
Air date: May 12, 1993
Stream it: Currently unavailable to stream, DVDs available on Amazon and Netflix

The Wonder Years wasn’t merely a nostalgic show; it was a show about nostalgia. And any show with wistful recollection baked into its DNA is going to be more than a tad heavy-handed. Nostalgia isn’t a sophisticated emotion. It’s something we know how to force — by flipping through old photos or trading back-in-the-day stories. Or, you know, reuniting with TV characters whose lives are stitched into our memories. But, hey, The Wonder Years did heavy-handed backward glances better than any show before it and, I’d argue, any number of more recent attempts to exploit the power of reminiscence.

The final stretch of the finale, which takes place the summer before Kevin Arnold’s senior year of high school, is engineered to stimulate tear ducts. With about six minutes left in the episode, Adult Kevin delivers his final monologue against the backdrop of his hometown’s Fourth of July parade. I reliably start blubbering when Kevin reveals that his dad, Jack — the person who’s informed most of what I think I know about the Greatest Generation — dies two years later.

The final scene gives us a zoomed-out shot of the Arnolds’ cul-de-sac and Kevin’s now-famous reflection on his everykid suburban upbringing: “I remember a place, a town. A house like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder.”

Then, over a faded-to-black screen, a little-boy voice says, “Hey, dad, wanna play catch?” To which Adult Kevin replies, “I’ll be right there.”

Childhood fin.

The Office
Episode: “The Finale”
Air date: May 16, 2013
Stream it: Netflix

Season 9, episode 23 of The Office is filled with touching moments: Erin meeting her birth parents, Jim and Pam becoming good-ol’ Jim and Pam again, and, of course, Michael returning to Scranton, with his wizened salt-and-pepper hair, saying, “I feel like all my kids grew up and then they married each other. It’s every parent’s dream.”

But the part that really warms my stinkin’ heart is Dwight’s final interview: “Do I get along with my coworkers?” Dwight says to the camera. “Well, first of all, I don’t have coworkers anymore, I have subordinates.” He proceeds to list off several of his subordinates, ending with: “My top salesman, Jim Halpert, was best man at my wedding. And office administrator, Pamela Beasley-Halpert, is my best friend. So, yes, I’d say I have gotten along with my subordinates.”

When Steve Carell left The Office at the end of season 7, the show scrambled to find a proxy Michael Scott, and it never quite succeeded. But it did succeed in leaving its little paper universe in the hands of a sincerely strange emotional center: Dwight K. Schrute, Regional Manager.

Episode: “My Finale” (season 8, not season 9, which doesn’t count)
Air date: May 6, 2009
Stream it:

Scrubs wasn’t a subtle show: Every episode was filled with goofy physical gags, absurd fantasy sequences, and on-the-nose song choices. We rarely had to infer how characters felt, thanks to constant narration by John “JD” Dorian (Zach Braff). But an ensemble of highly specific, endearing characters made the show’s over-the-top approach to storytelling work. 

The finale takes place on JD’s last day as a doctor at Sacred Heart hospital. The last scene hits all the signature notes of a sentimental series finale: There’s a fantasy montage of JD’s imagined future (marrying Elliot, celebrating Christmas with Dr. Cox), a slightly cheesy indie song (“The Book of Love”), and a monologue describing exactly how JD feels in that moment. JD then returns to reality and, as he exits Sacred Heart for the last time, offers up a concluding thought: “And who’s to say this isn’t what happens. Who can tell me that my fantasies won’t come true, just this once.”

Friday Night Lights
Episode: “Always”
Air date: February 9, 2011
Stream it: Buy episodes on Amazon

FNL managed to tug at heartstrings in a more thoughtful, layered way than a lot of primetime dramas. True to form, the finale was a meditation on small towns and big hearts. But it still played by the series finale-rulebook, giving us a montage set to a wistful song, a last line reminding us that home is where loved ones are, and a series of plot developments that neither left things too open-ended nor restricted the possibility of the series getting a reboot or a (second) film. 

The show signs off with a shot of Coach and Tami Taylor, who’ve left Texas to espouse homegrown humility in Philadelphia, walking off a football field. I’m not sure if I subscribe to the “Texas forever” mentality, but I can definitely get on board with “Taylors forever.”

Episode: “Goodnight, Seattle”
Air date: May 12, 2004
Stream it: Netflix 

After an 11-year run, Frasier went off the air the week after Friends — which, at that point, was the most-seen show in NBC’s must-see lineup. Back then, I cared more about losing my Friends than saying goodbye to the Crane family. But my allegiances have changed. Too often, Friends is only funny if you like the characters, who got to be a bit much. And the humor isn’t always sharp enough to overshadow how retrograde the show can seem. But Frasier, with its Moliere-esque set-ups and relentlessly clever wordplay, is a timeless farce.

The Frasier finale gave each of the Crane men their own happy, hopeful ending: a first child, a second marriage, a new city. Still, it’s always a little grim to watch people you know and cherish together (even fictional ones) go their separate ways. Marty will always belong in Marty’s chair in Frasier’s living room in their highly fictitious version of Seattle, with Niles, Daphne, Roz, and Eddie no more than one commercial break away.

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