Top 20 Television Series Finales

For this week's Ranked!, we took a look at our favorite television series finales.

Did yours make the cut?

Find out below!

20. Star Trek: Voyager
19. The Wire
18. Golden Girls
17. Tonight Show With Johnny Carson
16. The Fugitive
15. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
14. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
13. Life On Mars (UK)
12. Smallville
11. Battlestar Galactica
10. Star Trek: The Next Generation
9. The Sopranos
8. Arrested Development
7. Lost
6. The Wonder Years

5. Quantum Leap

I was late to the party when it came to Quantum Leap. I had one friend who was really into the show, and he finally convinced me to watch it toward the end of the next-to-last season. I was immediately hooked. (Luckily there was a marathon on TBS between seasons 4 and 5, so I was able to catch up before the last season started.) Quantum Leap was a brilliant show, one that could literally be a different experience every week. Although it was, ostensibly, science fiction, it rarely dwelled on futuristic themes. Instead, it was a drama one week, a romantic comedy the next, an action-adventure the next. Like I said, literally every experience in the book. It was also a history lesson of sorts--the show was able to look at eras in history and occasionally, pivotal historical events--and put them in a modern perspective. But it was more than that, too.

At the heart of the show was the relationship between Dr. Sam Beckett and his closest friend and project observer, Al Calavicci. Most of the time, Al acted as Sam's guide, providing him the information on the timeline that Sam needed in order to fulfill his time traveling mission and to set right things that once went wrong. Occasionally, Al was also Sam's conscience, reminding Sam of the rules that Sam put in place when it came to altering the past for personal reasons. It was in these moments that we really got to know Sam and Al and realize how deep their friendship really ran.

Two episodes were pivotal to this. In one, Sam leaped into an undercover police detective. His mission was really to save the detective's partner from being killed, but Al kept telling sam he had to keep a woman named Beth from abandoning hope for her husband who was MIA in Vietnam and marrying someone else. Sam figured out that Beth's MIA husband was Al, and that the thought of getting back to Beth was what kept Al going while he was a POW. Despite this, Sam stuck to the rule of not changing history for anyone's personal gain, and Beth went on to marry the other man. This almost destroyed Al's life and career. (Sam's inclusion of Al on the Quantum Leap project was what turned Al's life around again.)

In the other episode, Sam had leaped into his brother's squad in Vietnam just days before his brother was to be killed in action. The squad was on a mission to rescue some POWs who were being moved in the area, and in the original history they were ambushed and killed. Sam was close to the POWs and could have saved them, but that would have left his brother to die. At the last minute, Al reveals the location of the ambush and Sam saves his brother's life. The POWs are not rescued and it turns out that one of those POWs was Al's younger self.

Sorry for the Quantum Leap history lesson, but it's necessary in order to talk about the final episode. When, in the last episode, Sam finally leaps in as himself (he normally leaped into another person), he learns a little about the forces that have been bouncing him around in time and he finds out that he was in control all the time. When an all-knowing bartender (who may or may not have been God) reveals this to him, Sam decides that his desire to finally leap back home was in his grasp, but he decides against going back. Instead, he chooses to continue his mission. But first he decides that there is one huge regret he has. He realizes that Al sacrificed everything to allow Sam to save his brother, and that Sam failed to do the one thing that Al ever asked of him. So, Sam leaps into Beth's house (right where the episode several seasons earlier ended) and tells her to wait for Al. She does. Al and Beth remain married and Al's life is better for it. And Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home.

This was, perhaps, not the ending that everyone wanted. Heck, nobody who loved the show wanted it to end at all--it certainly could have gone on for another five seasons or more without getting stale. But Quantum Leap was a show that the network just didn't understand, and its ratings couldn't support it. So, the show ended with an episode that played directly to the fans who were deeply involved in the ongoing story over its five-year run. It was a fitting ending for a show that often followed the premise that all endings are not happy ones. Sam was never seen again, but Al and Beth lived happily ever after, their lives "put right" by Sam. As a diehard fan of the show, I couldn't think of a better conclusion to a truly epic saga.--Dave

4. Six Feet Under

Series finales are incredibly difficult. They bear the unfortunate burden of having to speak for an entire series, sometimes encapsulating years worth of stories, when the attention level and expectations from the audience are sky high. It’s rare when a finale can not only walk the tightrope between providing closure and ending on a high note. Six Feet Under was able to do it in one of the most elegant, emotional finales ever.

Six Feet Under was always an emotionally wrenching show, but the episodes leading up to the finale were especially so. It appeared that the series might have peaked before the last episode. Then came the beautifully haunting finale. In the closing moments of the episode, the show used the gimmick that had opened every episode to show us the deaths of the characters. Each flash-forward revealed where the characters had gone and what they had done with their lives. As always with Six Feet Under, it was bittersweet; the scenes were sometimes good, sometimes bad but always poignant. The montage was scored by the evocative song “Breathe Me” by Sia. There has hardly been such a perfect match of picture to music. You can’t hear the song and not think of the show. Six Feet Under was one of the most nuanced, well-acted and well-written shows on the air, right up until bitter end.

Watching the close, my wife and I sat on the couch, mouths agape and tears in our eyes. As soon as the last moments were over, we watched it again. It was powerful, mesmerizing television and one of the best season finales I’ve ever seen.--Daddy Geek Boy

3. Cheers

After eleven seasons, it was time to say goodbye to those loveable loonies on the hit TV show Cheers. The series finale, titled "One for the Road" aired on May 23rd, 1993 and it was a perfect way to tie up loose ends and end its run. The show was known for tackling some pretty heavy stuff (like homosexuality) while still weaving humor into its storylines. Cheers also spawned an equally successful spin-off, Fraiser, which ran for eleven seasons as well.

In the Cheers finale, Shelly Long, who left in season 5, returns as Diane. The Cheers gang sees her win an award on television, and Sam (Ted Danson) is compelled to reach out to his "soulmate." Diane is married with kids, so Sam decides to pretend likewise thinking she is also lying about her life.

Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) somehow manages to accidentally tell her boyfriend "No" when he proposes. Sam convinces her to pretend to be his wife when they meet Diane for a reunion lunch. The whole event becomes a disaster when Rebecca's real boyfriend comes in and proposes, and Rebecca makes sure to give him an enthusiastic "Yes." Sam feels like an idiot, but Diane's own plan unravels when her fake husband's real husband shows up.

Sam and Diane are back together, and Sam agrees to go back to California. But in the end, Sam cannot leave his beloved bar. After a sentimental goodbye at Cheers, Diane walks out of the bar and Sam's life forever. The gang lingers, joking around while smoking some Cubans before going home. Woody is starting a new life as City Councilman, Norm gets a job working as an accountant for the city, and Cliff gets a promotion. Sam will always have his bar, and he's content with that. As Sam is closing up Cheers, we see someone trying to enter. Sam shakes his head and politely tells the would-be customer, "Sorry, we're closed."--Jay Noel

2. Newhart

It's no secret that a killer ending is the hardest part of storytelling. Everyone knows the opening lines of Moby Dick and A Tale Of Two Cities, but can anyone remember the closer? Television writers have an even tougher job, with story arcs that last years and fans whose fervent devotion to characters and stray narrative threads raise expectations to extraordinary levels. The TV landscape is strewn with disappointing endings, often collapsing into treacle (Friends), nostalgia (Seinfeld), or utter absurdity (The X-Files). You have to be brave and creative to pull it off, and that's rare in Hollywood.

But the ability to surprise, delight, and drop your jaw all at once... that's a remarkable, near-impossible feat. I can think of only one show that ever succeeded, and at the time it was the most unlikely of candidates. That show, of course, was Newhart.

Who would have thought that a show about a Vermont innkeeper and a wacky cast of small-town characters would craft the most meta finale in television history? This is a show your mom watched, for God's sake! At first it looked like yet another shark-jumping ending, with Japanese tycoons buying the entire town and turning it into a golf course. The townsfolk transform into eccentric millionaires and the usual cheap payoffs ensue ("OMG! The Darryls just spoke!"). This goes on for a full 30 minutes, effectively the entire show.

But like the greatest of magic tricks, it was all about misdirection. With an extra five minutes added to the finale, the entire episode--the entire show--is revealed to be a dream. And not just any dream, but a dream from another show, the original Bob Newhart Show. I was only a kid when that show was on, but I remembered it well enough, and when Bob nudges his wife and Susan Plechette rolled over every circuit in my brain fried. It was so perfectly staged, and so perfectly unexpected, that years later, when shows like Night Court and Perfect Strangers are almost forgotten, Newhart can show up on a list with classics like Cheers and M*A*S*H.

David Lindelof and Carlton Cuse would kill for 5% of that sublime genius.--CroutonBoy

1. M*a*s*h

After eleven years on the air, M*A*S*H came to an end in the spring of 1983. The finale, titled "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," smashed the single-episode ratings viewership record set by Dallas, and held on to that record until the 2010 New Orleans Super Bowl victory, and it still holds the record for most-watched series finale in the history of television (106 million Americans tuned in that night). The epic 2.5 hour finale is one that I vividly remember watching with my parents. I was pretty young then, but we watched M*A*S*H weekly at my house, so I conned my parents into letting me stay up way past my bedtime because I just had to say goodbye to the family.

We settled in that night with a big bowl of oil popped butter popcorn and I sat with my dad in his chair as we all watch events unfold. The finale was shocking and lovely and heart-wrenching all at the same time. Klinger married! And stayed in Korea! Hawkeye had a nervous breakdown because of a truly horrific incident! And then sent back to work! Hunnicutt was granted a discharge - but wait! It was revoked! While it's not uncommon for my mom to cry at the television, I remember it being the first time I ever saw my dad get a little teary eyed.

I've watched a lot of television in my life, but I honestly couldn't tell you how, say Friends, ended. But I suspect that all 106 million people who watched the end of M*A*S*H that night could tell you what the final image of the episode was.--Archphoenix

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