Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Best TV Season and Series Finales

Clockwise from top left, photos courtesy of tvaddictsblog.com; connectin.com; combom.co.uk; unrealitymag.com.

Sorry to have been MIA for the last week, but I was busy graduating from college. (Your dear writer is now the proud holder of a Bachelor of Arts! Yay!) Today however, as promised, I'll be finishing off FinaleStravaganza with a list of the five best season and series finales of all time. (Well, at least my favorite season and series finales.) Without any further ado, I'll start with the list of season finales.

5. South Park, "Cartman's Mom Is A Dirty Slut"

The first season finale of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's filthy, sharply satirical, button-pushing series both showcased the dirty humor the show was known for, but also provided an on-the-nose parody of cliffhanger season finales. The plot centered on Cartman's quest to find out who his father was, from a lineup of suspects that ranged from Chef to the Denver Broncos. The ending provided an absurd cliffhanger, in which Cartman's test results are delayed because someone shot the geneticist who knew the results. The episode was not only a razor-sharp parody of season finales, but it also provided viewers with the knowledge that, if Cartman ever hears the beginning of the Styx song "Come Sail away," he has to sing the entire song. And thus, a viral video was born.

4. Community, "A Fistful of Paintballs" and "For a Few Paintballs More"

 This finale was recent, but boy was it great. The two-part paintball war was as epic as they come, and the genre parodies - first a Western, then a Star Wars-style action film - were clever without being too all-consuming. You can read my full recap here, but the final hour of Community's second season managed to be laugh-out-loud funny, action-packed and emotional, all within the absurdist framework of a giant paintball war. This finale proved that Community is one of the smartest, funniest, most original shows on TV.

3. Fringe, "Over There Part 2"

Many people prefer the first season finale of Fringe, "There's More Than One of Everything," in which the parallel universe was revealed through a jaw-dropping shot of Olivia in an office in the World Trade Center. I, however, prefer the second season finale, with its action-packed fight between the Fringe team from our world and the team from Over There, the sacrifice of Leonard Nimoy's William Bell, and the final shocking twist. The last image of the episode - Ourlivia staring out of a cell on Liberty Island, begging for her freedom, while the other Olivia was safe on our side - was absolutely chilling, a perfect ending to the season and a great set-up for the war between the universes that culminated in the third season finale.

2. The Vampire Diaries, "Founder's Day"

The first season finale of the CW's addictive drama was, like most other episodes, packed to the gills with revelations, plot twists, emotional moments, and snarky Damon humor. The high point, however, was the final-scene revelation in which the woman we though was Elena, who had just shared a kiss with Damon, was revealed to be none other than Katherine Pierce. Bringing Katherine into the story was brilliant, and made the audience rethink every scene featuring Elena in the episode. The reveal of Tyler's supernatural abilities and Caroline's car accident were also great, and very important for the next season, but even these moments paled in comparison to the Katherine reveal. After the first season finale, the second season kept the action going as fast as possible, and never let up on the twists or the reveals. That's the mark of the good season finale; it kick starts an excellent next season, and The Vampire Diaries certainly did that.

1. Lost, "Through the Looking Glass," parts 1 and 2

The series finale of Lost may have left a bad taste in many viewers' mouths - I certainly felt it was too heavy on the spirituality, and too light on the answers - but no one can deny the power of the third season finale. "Through the Looking Glass" was full of emotional moments, like the tear-jerking death of Charlie Pace and the arrival of the helicopter that, at least for the moment, signaled rescue. However, the real impact of the episode came with the final scene, where a disheveled, alcoholic Jack was revealed to be not in a flashback, but in a flash-forward. The scene completely reinvented the show, introducing a whole new set of questions - how did Jack make it off the island? Who else managed to escape? Who was in the coffin? - while leaving our collective minds reeling. These two episodes were so powerful, they set a new standard for the show, one that the final season never managed to live up to. For the two hours of "Through the Looking Glass," however, the potential was unlimited.

And now, for the my four favorite series finales.

4. Freaks and Geeks, "Discos and Dragons"

Freaks and Geeks is a show that falls firmly in the category of "canceled too soon." The Judd Apatow-produced series featured many of today's leading comedic actors - Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel to name a few - in a show that was both heartwarming, funny and honest, a fine-grained portrait of the struggles of high school. The series finale was nothing more and nothing less than an encapsulation of the character's struggles, the most poignant being a storyline that featured Linda Cardellini's Lindsay struggling to decide whether to take part in an academic summit, or to spend the summer following the Grateful Dead around the country. It doesn't seem like that big a decision, but in the world of Freaks and Geeks it seemed like it could determine the course of Lindsay's entire life. The final episode was just as deft, funny and touching as the rest of the series, and left the rest of us wondering why this lovely, subtle show would never get a second season.

3. Arrested Development, "Development Arrested"

Another episode that perfectly sums up the series that preceded it, "Development Arrested" was a showcase for the meta humor and absurdist twists that made the series so funny and unpredictable. From Michael finally realizing that he doesn't want to take care of his family, to Buster apparently losing his other hand to the seal with the bowtie, to producer and narrator extraordinaire Ron Howard making a cameo and sparking hope of an Arrested Development movie (hope that just keeps getting destroyed), the episode was everything we loved about this too-short-lived sitcom. Save our Bluths, everyone, and pray for the movie!

2. Doctor Who, "The End of Time" parts 1 and 2

I know that "The End of Time" isn't technically a series finale, but since it marked the end of both David Tennant's performance as the Doctor and Russell T. Davies as showrunner, I'm counting it. The episode wasn't necessarily the best Doctor Who episode ever - that would be the Series Three two-parter "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" - but it featured great performances by Tennant, John Simm as the Master, and Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, as well as some memorable visuals and a lovely final sequence in which the Doctor silently bids goodbye to all his past companions. The storyline with the return of the Time Lords - led by Timothy Dalton of all people - may have been a bit silly, but it offered a wonderful moment of redemption for the Master, and the Doctor's death and desperation to hang on to life were sad and, given the way he died to save Wilfred rather than at the hand of the Master, tragically ironic. Plus, there were no Daleks!

1. Scrubs, "My Finale"

Whatever you may think of the later seasons of Scrubs - I for one certainly found them uneven, and Zach Braff's J.D. became much whinier and more self-involved as the series went on - you can't deny the pitch-perfect emotional power of the finale. (And yes, this is the real finale, because I choose to pretend that the strange medical school spinoff never happened.)  From J.D. and Turk's inability to get their goodbye right to Braff's final scene with Dr. Cox. every moment struck a wonderful balance of sadness and laughter. The final scene, in which J.D. imagines his life playing, in a series of home movies, to the sound of Peter Gabriel's cover of "The Book of Love," it is a moment of bittersweet sadness that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It's a beautiful scene that brings magnificent closure to the show and J.D.'s character, and leaves the audience perfectly satisfied.

Of course, I'm sure you all have opinions about what I did and did not include, so sound off in the comments! (Although if any of you include the Lost finale in the best-of list, we will have words.)

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