Swan Song on the Small Screen – The Perfect Series Finale

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010, will be the perfect day to rob a bank.

On that day—about two months from now—the entire known universe will simply just not be paying attention to anything but the airing of the final episode of Lost, and that being the case, we will once again get to savor the very distinct flavor of a landmark cultural event … The series finale.

Sure, television shows are axed all the time, and the technical definition of “series finale” happens fairly often. But series that truly occupy our lives, hearts, and living rooms become more scarce as television evolves, so when a show manages to capture our rapt attention for more than five years, its swan song becomes more than just must see TV—it becomes sinful to miss.

The finales of long running television series are united in that they are all major television (and often cultural) events, but beyond that, their similarities are fewer. Series finales are not all alike, and can be separated into categories, marked by the reaction people have to them. A few examples:

What?!?!?! – This is the finale that completely takes a piss on everything you thought the series was about. Prime examples would be Newhart, whose finale (brilliantly) revealed that the entire series was only a dream, and St. Elsewhere, who used its finale to drop the bomb that the entire series only existed in the mind of an autistic child.

I Just Have Something in My Eye. – Yeah, tears. This one is very specifically designed to trigger the sniffely waterworks. Good examples would be Dorothy’s authentic yet tearful farewell on The Golden Girls, the iconic “Goodbye” written in stones on MASH, or Archie’s achingly sincere revelation to Edith that he ain’t nothing without her on All in the Family. Please, use a tissue, would you?

Wait…Wait…Wait! – This is the finale no one gets, the one that doesn’t tie everything into neat little bows or answer all the questions. In fact, these finales often bring up more questions and only succeed in annoying its faithful viewers for years after the curtain goes down. Seinfeld widely disappointed (especially for all the hype) even though the “nothing” finale was true to a series about “nothing.” And if you doubt the resonance of the final chord of The Sopranos, I heard people heatedly debating who really got whacked in that ending as recently as this past Saturday.

But even more rare than the landmark series finale is the perfect series finale, the finale that achieves television nirvana by quietly yet chillingly ending the entire series in one graceful moment. And the best example of this would be the series finale of Cheers.

In order to understand this particular kind of perfection in the series finale of Cheers, it helps to take another look at the pilot. Cheers premiered on September 30, 1982, and was actually almost cancelled because they came in dead last in the ratings of premieres for that season. But regardless, the first moments of this barely viewed pilot—titled “Give Me A Ring Sometime” — begins with an exterior shot of the bar. Then, we move inside and see Sam walking out of the back hallway (the one we would come to know as the hallway that leads to the poolroom). As he walks out of that hallway and into an empty bar, he stops to fix a picture on the wall. He then moves to his position behind the bar, and is soon confronted with a teenage customer trying to order a drink. The teenager croaks, “How ‘bout a beer, Chief?” To which Sam replies, “How ‘bout an ID?” Here, have a look:

Of course, Cheers would bring us another eleven years of high ratings and bar hijinks—Frasier running with scissors, Sam and Diane, Coach’s death, Carla’s hatred of Cliff Claven, the rivalry with Gary’s, and the disaster that was The Tortellis. But in the end, in those final moments of the series finale—titled “One for the Road”—the creative team behind Cheers would really show us what they were made of. Because the last things we see in the final moments of Cheers are basically the first things we saw in the pilot—in reverse.

The finale’s grand finale begins with Sam behind the bar, introspectively claiming to be “the luckiest son of a bitch on earth.” He walks out from behind the bar, and a grown man appears at the door. Sam tells him they’re closed. He then straightens the Geronimo picture on the wall (which was said to have been a nod to the memory of Nicholas Colasanto), and he exits out the same hallway he entered from in 1982. Fade out on an exterior shot of the bar. Here’s a look at that (the actual ending starts at about 5:37):

There was no big reveal, no earth-shattering twist, no tear jerking farewell—just an end that perfectly mirrored its beginning. Cheers — in a 273 episode,11 year run that saw cast changes, heartbreaks, ups, downs, and NORM!—was really one big epic episode in the life of this bar.  Perfectly bookended.  It didn’t need to scream, “Look who died!”, “Goodbye forever and ever!”, or “Check out how mind blowing we are!” It only needed to say, “Telling this story has been our great privilege. Thank you for listening.” It’s one of a kind, a finale that merely trusted the strength in its own storytelling to show how beautiful and powerful television can be in its own subtlety and simplicity. This is the potential and the power that television holds.

When it isn’t trying so hard to shock its viewers into cardiac arrest.