TV

Revisiting TV’s Most Divisive Finales

It’s hard to pinpoint what goes into making a great TV finale. You’ve got to wrap up all major storylines in a satisfying way, and point each of the characters in the right direction, as if their fictional lives will continue on, even though no one’s there to watch it. Some TV shows pull this off masterfully, giving the audience a poignant, bittersweet sendoff. Sometimes, the conclusion isn’t quite what audiences are expecting. 25 years ago today, the Twin Peaks finale fell into the latter category, with an unsatisfying resolution that failed to satisfy the viewing public. That show certainly is not alone, as we take a look at other TV finales that didn’t quite leave fans cheering.

The Sopranos

Why It Was Divisive: By the time The Sopranos‘ was in the midst of their sixth and final season, it had already divided audiences. It was split into two parts, and slowly built up tension over several episodes, and everyone was looking for a major payoff in those last few episodes. Then, that historic Sunday night, The Sopranos abruptly cut to black, and those that didn’t like let the world know. By the following morning, the internet was flooded with theories about what it all meant, and while most critics viewed it favorably, reaction was not overwhelmingly positive.

In Hindsight: Since then, The Sopranos finale has gone down as one of the most beloved and divisive TV events of all time. In recent years, showrunner David Chase, who initially insisted that if viewers “look at the final episode really carefully, it’s all there,” had even started discussing it again in recent years. The fact that it’s been nearly ten years since it first aired and is still a hotly contested moment in TV history shows that Chase probably knew what he was doing.

How I Met Your Mother

Why It Was Divisive:  A show where the entire premise was right there in the title, How I Met Your Mother‘s pilot starts with future Ted (Josh Radnor) telling his kids a long story on how their parents met. It’s a long story, it turns out: Nine seasons went by teasing a romance between Ted and Robin (Colbie Smulders), whom we’re told from the start is not the mother. The final finally does reveal the titular mother (Cristin Milioti), a woman who steals Ted’s heart, marries him, then later dies off screen from an unspecified disease. When Ted’s kids end up telling future Ted that he should go ahead and pursue Aunt Robin anyway, viewers and critics were not happy with the resolution.

In Hindsight: It’s one of the more recent finales on this list, so the reveal is still raw for some die-hard fans. Others, however, have come around, calling the big reveal (or lack thereof) a work of misunderstood genius.

Seinfeld

Why It Was Divisive: For nine seasons, Seinfeld dominated the television landscape, following the lives of four New Yorkers in their show about nothing. Then, for its finale, those four characters are taken out of their typical New York City setting (even though the show was filmed in L.A.), and dropped in the middle of Latham, MA, where they end up arrested for violating a Good Samaritan law and brought to trial. In an incredibly ambitious move, the show then brought back scores of minor characters for a cameo appearance in the courtroom. Suddenly, it had become a show about something, and the story painted the four leads as self-centered, and deserving of their fate.

In Hindsight: The finale is still a pretty polarizing episode, though it certainly hasn’t hurt the popularity of the show, which has seen massive success in syndication, and led Hulu to fork over $160 million for the rights to stream the series last year. Larry David, along with the four cast members, would later play off those criticisms as a major story arc on David’s HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Dexter

Why It Was Divisive: The final episode of Dexter saw its title character (Michael C. Hall) have one last showdown with that season’s big bad, Oliver Saxon (Darri Ingolfsson). It also saw Dexter’s sister, Deborah (Jennifer Carpenter), critically injured, in a coma, and on life support. That is, until her brother shuts off the machines keeping her alive, which kills her. He then carries her body out of the hospital completely unnoticed, to the dock where his boat was waiting for them. With a hurricane brewing in the background of the episode Dexter heads off nobly into the storm after dumping Deborah’s body overboard. The hurricane destroys his boat and lands his obituary front page of in the paper.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the show tacks on one more scene where he’s inexplicably working as a lumberjack, beard and all. Dexter gets away with everything he’s ever done, and audiences were left without any sense of real closure.

In Hindsight: While the show’s producers have vocally defended the finale, the fans largely have not, nor has star Michael C. Hall.

True Blood

Why It Was Divisive: True Blood started as a thoughtful, supernatural soap opera/gay rights parable but slowly built itself up around the promise of a human vs. vampire war. The final season fell short of that, as it aimed to go back to the smaller stories of its earlier days, to varying degrees of effectiveness. Key characters were unceremoniously killed off, and the show came barreling toward a finale that tried its best to put a bow on everything, though the episode was not well-received overall.

In Hindsight: On its own, the final episode did tie things up fairly well, concluding the tale of Bon Temps, LA. Though it’ll still be one of TV’s great mysteries as to why Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) didn’t have a single line.

Lost

Why It Was Divisive:  A show that spent six seasons intricately building a world that was based on unanswerable questions was bound to let a few people down no matter how it ended. Still, by the time the finale aired, Lost instead opted to create a confusing meditation on the meaning of life and questions about destiny. Most fans weren’t terribly happy to have so many questions go unanswered, though it certainly had its defenders. Like Sopranos showrunner David Chase, the creators have stayed engaged in the discussion about meaning of the finale in the years that followed.

In Hindsight: While the finale has managed to stay a conversation topic through the years, knowing that all their questions about smoke monsters and polar bears were going to go unanswered, fans seem to have taken it for what it was, which is an integral part of the lore of the show.

Quantum Leap

Why It Was Divisive: We’ve talked about the disappointing end to Quantum Leap before, a finale that ruined the idea that Samuel Beckett (Scott Bakula) would right wrongs throughout history and eventually make it back home. The finale starts to lay some groundwork that it was finally going to happen: Sam ends up going back to save Al’s (Dean Stockwell) love-life. Then, at the end of the episode, Sam leaps again, before a (misspelled) caption comes up on screen revealing that Sam never makes it back home.

In Hindsight: When the intro of every single episode points out that the whole idea was that one day Sam would make it back home, it felt like quite the cop-out to leave him aimlessly bouncing through time from now through infinity. That’s to say nothing of all the plots involving evil leapers and a god/alien-like creature who is revealed to (maybe?) be at the center of it all. It’s still a beloved sci-fi drama, but the lack of resolution in the finale is a sore-spot with the show’s fans.

Roseanne

Why It Was Divisive: When it premiered, Roseanne was praised for casting a light on the lower-middle class of America’s heartland. They were regular people living hand-to-mouth, always a little bit afraid that the wrong circumstance would cause them lose everything. Needless to say, it alienated their fanbase a little bit when the family won the Illinois State Lottery in the final season, and were suddenly able to live a lavish lifestyle. Then, in the show’s final moments, Roseanne pulled out the notorious “it was all a dream” trope, if you replace “dream” with “indulgent fantasy diary.” Oh, and Dan (John Goodman) had been dead for the entire last season.

In Hindsight: Despite (or because of) how forgettable the last season was, like Seinfeld, it managed to not have a negative effect on the show’s success in syndication. While the ending was far from beloved, it’s not quite as reviled as some on this list.

Little House on the Prairie

Why It Was Divisive: This is technically a made-for-TV movie made to conclude the story of the series, which spent nine seasons delighting fans with their earnest and overtly moral adventures. In the finale, titled “The Last Goodbye,” residents of Walnut Grove come to learn that their town is owned by a railroad tycoon who’s looking to run them all out. Their solution: let him have the land, but not their town. So they pack it with explosives and blow it up, building by building. Really.

In Hindsight: It turns out there was a practical motive behind the sudden turn of events: The show had agreed to return the site of Walnut Grove to its original condition when production wrapped for good. Rather than dismantling the buildings, they blew up the fictional town, thanks to an idea by star Michael Landon. Practical as it may have been, it was a bewildering end to a long-running TV favorite.

Twin Peaks

Why It Was Divisive: During the first season of Twin Peaks, it seemed like just about everyone was obsessed with the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). However, when the first season came and went without solving its big mystery, and much of the interest began to wain. The mystery was eventually solved midway through the second season, mostly due to pressure from the network. By the time the show ended, it threw one last twist on the audience, with Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Maclachlan) possessed by the spirit of Bob (Frank Silva) trapping him there forever.

In Hindsight: Though Twin Peaks attracted intense attention after it debuted, it seemed that audiences weren’t quite ready for longform television, particularly one with a premise so bizarre and no apparent interest in resolving its central mystery. No matter how people felt about the finale at the time, Laura telling Agent Cooper in the Black Lodge that she’d see him in 25 years has drummed up significant excitement for the shows return, slated to premiere on Showtime sometime in 2017.

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