While some fantastic shows have had controversial finales (The Sopranos, Mad Men, Lost) and others are just too sugary for viewer’s tastes (The Newsroom, Parks and Recreation, Entourage), a TV finale is a cultural event. No matter what, audiences will sit through the good, the too good, and the bad to find out exactly how their favorite show will end.
Over the course of a long-lived TV series, viewership fluxes in and out, but when a network announces a series finale, viewers start to regularly tune in, hoping to catch the final moments of beloved characters while they still have a chance to do so. They’re often highly-rated affairs, with classic characters popping in, special guests making appearances, and an expectation that all the loose ends will be tied up by the end of the episode.
Some series do an exceptional job at delaying those mysteries until the very last moment, and fans can’t help but tune in to find out if the lovers end up together, the protagonist meets a grisly end, or what will be the fate of a favorite family or a beloved groups of friends.
Over the course of TV history, a certain number of shows have delayed suspense and engaged a fan base so well, millions upon millions caught their final outing; these are the 10 Highest Rated Series Series Finales of All Time.
10. Family Ties – “Alex Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1989)
By the 1980s, a generation of former hippies were beginning to have teenage children. Like most teens, these kids didn’t want anything to do with their parents, and one character on TV in the ’80s embodied this shift extremely well, the preppy, conservative Alex P. Keaton (Micheal J. Fox) facing off against his father, Steven (Micheal Gross).
When Michael J. Fox starred in Back to The Future and Teen Wolf in 1985, the young Canadian became one of the world’s biggest stars. It was only a matter of time until Fox’s star rose above the show, and in 1989 Family Ties, ended after seven seasons. In the finale, Alex and his family cope with him landing his dream job on Wall Street, which his mother Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney) is finding exceptionally difficult.
As an interesting coda to Alex P. Keaton’s story, Fox made sure to update the audience on Keaton’s life in his next sitcom role as Mike Flaherty in Spin City. With his tenure unfortunately interrupted by Fox’s actual Parkinsons diagnosis, Flaherty is written off in a way that provides double closure to fans. Moving to Washington D.C. to take a job as an environmental lobbyist, Flaherty notes that he has a meeting set up with Senator Alex P. Keaton, tying up both shows in a perfect little package.
9. All in the Family – “Too Good Edith” (1979)
Viewers: 40.2 Million (17.8% US Population)
All in the Family is a TV anomaly. While the loud, ignorant, under-educated head of the family has always been a TV trope, All in the Family took it to a new level and placed the bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) center stage, and without much of a filter. Even in the ’70s this was a shock to many, and the saving graces of the show was the eventual “error of his ways” moment that Archie had to confront each week, and the love of his simple yet ever-forgiving wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton).
With the humor of his prejudice backfiring and the family-oriented nature of the show, the program became an overnight hit and saw regular ratings above 30 million viewers over its entire run. All in the Family was seen as a cultural milestone even while it aired, and five of its hugely popular characters had spinoff series created about them, with The Jeffersons and Maude being the most notable.
In the 9th season, the show made a significant change with Archie and Edith’s daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and her husband, Micheal “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner) leaving the show. Rumor had it that in the final episode, the ever faithful Edith was going to die, and fans flocked to their TVs to catch the last moments. While Edith didn’t die, she did end up bed ridden, with Archie finally offering her the care that she always provided him.
8. The Cosby Show – “And So We Commence” (1992)
Viewers: 44.4 Million (17.3% US Population)
In the 1980s, while white, middle-class America had moved out of cities and into the suburbs, The Cosby Show was introducing the nation to a different type of black family then was being depicted on the evening news.
Created by show co-creator and star Bill Cosby to serve as a positive role models, respected OBGYN Dr. Heathcliff “Cliff” Huxtable (Bill Cosby) and his wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad) raise five mischievous-yet-harmless children in New York. Cosby’s reputation has been irreparably tarnished lately, after a series of sexual assault allegations, making it difficult to remember just how much of a role model he portended to be for much of his career. Weekly adventures of the series focused on benign yet universal themes like Theo getting his ears pierced, Sondra’s trips home from college, Denise buying a car, Vanessa sneaking a drink with a group of friends, or Rudy just being adorable.
The night of The Cosby Show finale, the city of LA was suffering its second night of riots after the acquittal of the officers accused of beating Rodney King, one of the country’s largest news events ever. Still, almost 45 million people tuned in the Huxtables one last time, watching Cosby son Theo graduate from college, a fitting juxtaposition to the news of the day.
7. Magnum, P.I. – “Resolutions” (1988)
Viewers: 50.7 Million (20.7% US Population)
At the end of the seventh season of Magnum P.I., the mustachioed crimefighter Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) is injured in a firefight, and spends the episode in a coma, ending with him walking into heaven. With renewal uncertain, the episode was supposed to serve as a series finale.
When the show was renewed for an eighth season, Magnum spends his new lease on life trying to find his ex-wife and daughter before his attempted killers can get to them. In the actual final episode for the series, Magnum reenlists in the Navy, figures out what happened to his family, the truth behind servant Higgins (John Hillerman), and just who his benefactor, Robin Master, actually is.
Of the two finales, the second is seen by fans and critics to be a more fitting sendoff, as it avoids tainting the final memory of the show with the classic TV trope of having a character see the world without him.
6. Friends – “The Last One” (2004)
Viewers: 52.5 Million (17.9% US Population)
As far as finales go, there are two cliché ways things can go: the characters can get everything they ever wanted and live happily ever after, or someone or all of them can move away or even die, changing the dynamic of the show and justifying the end of the story. Because of the feel and story arc of Friends, there was only one way the show could have signed off.
Ever since season 2, America was pining for Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) to get back together, and after a bit of teasing, this episode didn’t disappoint on that front. With Rachel about to leave for a new job in Paris, Pheobe (Lisa Kudrow) rushes Ross to the airport so he can let Rachel know that he still loves her. After a few mishaps, Ross gets the message to her, and she returns the sentiment.
Meanwhile in one last buddy pairing, before Chandler (Matthew Perry) and his wife Monica (Courtney Cox) move to the suburbs, Chandler and Joey (Matt Leblanc) have to rescue a pet duckling and chick from the inside of the friends’ foosball table.
In a move to create a Cheers/Frasier like pairing, wildly popular character Joey was given his post-Friends spinoff, Joey. However, unlike Frasier, the sex-crazed Joey was unable to carry a show on his own, and the series only lasted for two seasons before being canceled.
5. Seinfeld – “The Finale” (1998)
Viewers: 76.3 Million (27.7% US Population)
If Friends offers an example of a series finale offering sweet success for all the characters involved, Seinfeld is a prime example of the story being stopped dead in its tracks by a major change.
During an emergency landing in Massachusetts on the way to Paris, jaded New Yorkers Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George Costanza (Jason Alexander), and Cosmo Kramer (Micheal Richards), end up witnesses to a robbery and do nothing to stop it. Because of a new “Good Samaritan” law, their character is put on trial and the prosecution rolls out everyone they’ve ever affected to pursue conviction.
The trial was a fantastic plot device that allowed the return of fan favorite characters like The Soup Nazi, Newman, Puddy, and the Costanzas. Likewise, former guest stars who had since hit it big were brought back, including Jane Leeves, Keith Hernandez, and Teri Hatcher.
However, some of this “pandering” hurt the way the finale has been regarded by critics and fans, and the two-part episode suffers mixed reviews to this day. With the characters left in a state of limbo, the final episode of Seinfeld ended where it started, a gang of friends sitting across from each other, having the same conversation about the placement of a button. But really, right with the feel of the show, it was a conversation about nothing.
4. The Fugitive – “The Judgment” (1967)
Viewers: 78.0 Million (39.3% US Population)
In an era where unshaken allegiance to authority was being challenged from every angle, the TV thriller The Fugitive served as a great reflection of the times. Even 40 years later, the four season show about a pediatrician on the run from the law, accused of a murder he didn’t commit, is still regarded as one of the best television series ever.
Convicted of killing his wife, Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) escapes while being transported to Death Row. Spending four seasons avoiding the law and tracking down the killer known as “The One-Armed Man,” the fugitive crisscrossed the country a the quest to clear his name and avenge his wife.
In the finale, Dr. Kimble finally catches up to his target, and while Fred Johnson, the one-armed man, is killed, Kimble is absolved of any wrongdoing. Presented with his freedom, he faces the change from hunted man to regular citizen, with the final scene showing Kimble isn’t quite there yet, but will make it eventually.
In 1993, Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones starred in a film remake of the TV series that proved to be as big, if not a bigger success. Earning about $370 million on a budget of $44 million, The Fugitive was a box office smash, partially credited with kickstarting the TV remake craze. The movie holds up well even today, and Kimble’s dive from the dam is one of cinema’s most iconic moments.
3. Cheers – “One for the Road” (1993)
Viewers: 93.5 Million (36.0% US Population)
Cheers spent 11 years following the life of retired baseball pitcher/bar owner/womanizer Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and the regulars at his Boston bar, Cheers, in Boston. Venturing from the standard sitcom laugh-of-the-week format, Cheers followed the progression of it’s characters and featured both weekly laughs and long-term growth of characters who spent a lot of time in a bar.
In the 98-minute finale episode, former lead character and Sam’s one-time lover Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) returns to Boston, and Sam and Diane attempt to rekindle their love, which inevitably fails. In a bid to balance Sam’s failure, supporting characters Woody (Woody Harrelson) is elected to city council, Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) accepts a proposal from her boyfriend, Carla (Rhea Pearlman) settles into being single, and Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and Norm (George Wendt) both see greater success in their careers.
Fans of Cheers didn’t lose the show entirely, as the indignant Dr. Frasier Crane held on for a long while after his original show was canceled. Less than four months after the end of Cheers, Frasier began airing, marking the beginning of a series with another 11 season run. With huge ratings and reviews for both shows, “One for the Road” marked the point where Cheers launched from great sitcom to the most successful show and spinoff pairing of all time.
2. Roots – “Part VIII” (1977)
Viewers: 100.0 Million (45.4% US Population)
For anyone who lived through the 1970s, Roots is as notable of a cultural event as Watergate or the premiere of Star Wars. Over the course of eight nights in January of 1977, ABC aired the eight-part miniseries that told the history of slavery in America through generations of African Americans living through it.
Based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel of the same name, the series followed African man Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton) as he is captured and sold into slavery in the American South. Forced to abandon his African heritage and name, the show follows him and his descendants up until the point of emancipation.
Unsure the mini-series would work with white viewers based on the topic; the network opted to run the show on subsequent nights, instead of a weekly airing. Neither the subject matter or strategy hurt them, and the Roots finale is still ranked the 3rd highest rated program/episode of all time.
1. M*A*S*H – “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (1983)
Viewers: 125.0 Million (53.5% US Population)
The only series finale to get over half the country sitting in front of the TV at the same time, the M*A*S*H sendoff was a fitting goodbye to a show and characters that used Army doctors in the Korean War helped to help the entire nation get past one of the darkest periods in American history, the Vietnam War.
Told over the course of two and a half hours, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” dealt with the controversial issues of Hawkeye (Alan Alda) dealing with PTSD, an attack on the otherwise unaffected field hospital, and the cessation of hostilities in Korea. As viewers had come to expect, M*A*S*H hit home by using both a lighthearted approach, but without underplaying or mocking the tough concepts.
With so many people tuning in, America stood still on February 28th, 1983. The episode not only affected the hearts and minds of the audience, but the length may have touched their bladders as well. As soon as the TV movie ended, viewers flocked from the TV set to the washroom, and in New York City alone, an additional 6.7 million gallons of water were flushed through the city’s sewer system within 30 minutes of the episode’s end.
Which finales deserved to be on this list? Let us know in the comments!
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