[List] - 7 TV Shows That Ended At The Right Time

Unrelated, except for being a great way to end a show.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Television

The spring has all but gone, and most American network series have concluded their seasons. Some won't be coming back. For some series, it will be an unexpected end, for others will be the inevitable finale. Some will have resolved their stories and left the characters in a good place. Others will be cut off, left to drift through the world of fiction without satisfactory conclusion, to the woe of the show runners and the interested audience. Spring 2013 is actually pretty light as series finales go. Of the higher profile finales, only the Office has ended this spring, with Fringe and 30 Rock having ended early in the year, and Breaking Bad, Futurama and Dexter concluding over the summer.

Going back and looking at shows on DVD long after they've ended is fun. You can see the direction the writers were taking the series in far clearer then when you have to wait a week between each show. You can also see the weaknesses in greater detail, and when a show begins to fall apart, it is much more jarring. I've talked about those shows that could have ended earlier in their runs before. Now, I'll highlight seven shows that, looking back on them, ended exactly when they should have.

Hit the jump for the list, which doesn't so much contain spoilers, as it does give away the ends of shows. The most recent one ended in 2007, so hopefully you'll have seen them all by now. If not, then you've got some homework, don't you?

Quantum Leap: Five Seasons (1989-1993)
Courtesy of Universal Television

The first of the abrupt cancellations that populate this list, and my favourite series finale of all time. Donald P. Bellisario was expecting Quantum Leap, one of the finest time travel series ever, to last into a sixth season. When NBC abruptly cancelled the show, the best they could do was alter some post script title cards to provide some kind of closure. The last episode concerned Sam understanding that he had been the one controlling his leaping, and that it was his desire to put right what once went wrong that would make his coming leaps that much harder. Sam used this understanding to go back and change his best friend's life for the better, repaying him for the years of kindness and assistance during his ordeal. And like Superman, Sam was burdened by never being able to help everyone that he wanted to, and thus was never able to convince himself, on a subconscious level, that we was worthy of returning to his own time. The final lines of the series, seen above, are chilling and profound, and perfect. 

From a production point of view, Sam's new found ability to control the where and when of his leaps promised an interesting change in direction had the series lasted another year. However, in it's final year, the series was showing signs of desperation. The theme song and titles were replaced by an actiony techno mix that didn't match the tone of the series at all. And Sam's leaps became less about the societal effects of Vietnam or Sam's emotional journey, and more about famous people, with Sam leaping into Elvis, Marilyn Monroe's assistant, Dr. Ruth, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Dr. Ruth even appeared as herself, counselling Al on his relationship. Season five also saw Sam violate the "within his own lifetime" rule, leaping into his great grandfather during the Civil War. An increase in gimmicks on genre shows in usually a sign of a) desperation to attract new viewers through spectacle, or 2) a sign that the writers were running out of ideas. I suspect the erosion would have continued into a sixth year.

Angel: Five Seasons (1999-2004)
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television

Another cancellation, though less abrupt, Whedon and company had 10 episodes from the time Angel was cancelled to the time they concluded, in which to wrap things up. In perfect Whedon fashion, they choose not to. Little things were altered, and slight course corrections were made to leave certain stories less open ended. But within those last ten episodes, Whedon still killed Fred and replaced her with an entirely new character, had a puppet episode, and build up a huge confrontation with the series-long big bad that ultimately... is not resolved. Whedon maintained that while Buffy was a metaphor for growing up, Angel was about adulthood. And how the challenges we face as adult never really go away. There is always debt, or mortgage, or illness, or some other thing that tries to wear us down, to break us, and that our strength of character keeps us from being destroyed by those pressures. In the context of the metaphor, these every day terrors are dragons and hoards of demons. And the fight, like the series, never ends. There is always work to do.

From a production point of view, Whedon admits the show not getting a sixth year was his fault. Each year, the WB had renewed them at the last minute. In the fifth year, Whedon gave them an ultimatum at Christmas: give us a sixth season now, or don't. They called his bluff, and axed the show. A show that had struggled for two years to find a new direction. After some serious narrative missteps and character alterations (partly through the necessity of writing in Charisma Carpenter's pregnancy, and then writing her out of the series) in season four, they tried rebooting the series in season five, which saw the heroes take over Wolfram and Hart. Many fans view this period as one of moral decay on the show, with the characters becoming shades of their former selves. The last ten episodes, (mostly) those written with the end in sight, were a return to form, a reminder of the quality of the series during the heydays of seasons 2 and 3. It is uncertain how many elements from the After the Fall comic continuation would have actually made it to screen if a sixth season had been commissioned, but without the push of being cancelled, would season five have rebounded as much as it did?

Farscape: Four Seasons (1999-2003)
Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company

A very abrupt cancellation here, considering Farscape was at the time Sci-Fi Channels's top show, and the writers were so assured of a renewal, they ended the series on a cliffhanger (there is a rumour that they had enough time to change the final scene of the series, but chose not to). There is something poetic about the ending though, especially on a show whose primary motivation was subverting convention and surprising the viewer, that in the final moments, when five years of sexual repression have been eliminated, and the primary characters have found happiness and contentment, they are unceremoniously and mistakenly killed. There is a poignancy and a reality to that sort of image, and one that no other show I can think of (Black Adder aside) that would even considering ending things that way, even temporarily (Buffy doesn't count, because her death was intentional and meaningful).

From a production point of view, a change in the leadership of Sci-Fi was what prompted the cancellation, much like Doctor Who, when the new man in charge thought the (considerable, for cable) money could be put to better use elsewhere. It could be argued that Farscape's cancellation allowed the Battlestar remake to get green lit, but at the time it was a shocking and insulting move by the network. On reflection though, Farscape was all about the unexpected. Practically reinventing itself season after season, if only because it could, the sudden ending seemed perfectly within it's nature. The series did get a mini-series wrap up, but attempting to cram the whole planned fifth season's story lines into a single film came out more muddled then amazing, and could'a should'a would'a done better. The comic continuation was substantially better, and again, ended rather abruptly.

Veronica Mars: Three Seasons (2004-2007)
Courtesy of Warner Bros Television

Not all of these will be abrupt cancellations, I swear. Only just most of them. Veronica Mars also got a bit of warning, only three episodes with which to wrap things up, and they took the same basic tact as Angel did. Life, as if happens, never resolves itself in a tidy little pile. And, when it does, it is rarely a happy pile. I respect the finale of Mars for not coddling the viewer, and not pulling the punches. The entire episode is a collection of bad decision making, and the repercussions of those decisions. There isn't a big bad, and there isn't a grand finale. There is disappointment, no clear victor, and a resentful walking away.

Production wise, they knew the end was coming. They only got a third season pickup out of pity, after the second season failed to capitalise on the popularity of the first (that and, the blending of the WB and UPN into the new CW meant the new network was more likely to stick with established properties then produce original stuff in their inaugural year). In fact, the whole second and third seasons were mostly attempts to recapture what made the first unique and special, making them repetitive and derivative. The third season getting cut short and forcing the writers to abandon their planned arc actually resulted in a better evolution for the series, and should have been the direction they headed in from season two on. Of course, in light of recent events, the characters may yet get their resolutions.

NewsRadio: Five Seasons (1995-1999)
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

NewsRadio was a new breed of sitcom. NBC was coming off the high that was the golden age of the sitcom, the 1980's, was still coming down off the departure of Cheers, and was basking in the new found glory that was Friends. NewsRadio didn't fit into that mold. Despite assembling some top tier comedic talent (Kids In The Hall's Dave Foley, SNL's Phil Hartman, character actor Stephen Root), it was way too outside the box for both the network and the majority of viewers. In it's final year, it finished in 77th place in the ratings. According to Uproxx, this same viewership would make them the most watched programme on the entire NBC schedule today. The network didn't want to keep them around, but wanted to keep Hartman locked into a talent contract, so despite the subversive and "unwieldy" tactics of the writers, the show was kept on the schedule. Until Hartman wasn't an issue anymore.

Hartman's murder in 1998 is one of the great crimes of the twentieth century, not just because of its cold-bloodiness, but because it robbed the world of one the great talents, comedic or otherwise. His death occurred between seasons, and NBC had already renewed the show for another year. Replacing Hartman was an impossible task, left to his good friend and former SNL partner Jon Lovitz. The writing remained the same crazy, manic brilliance, but Hartman's absence was deftly felt, and NBC had no reason to keep the under performing show on the air past season five. And as the writers understood that NBC wasn't paying attention to them, the writing became crazier and crazier. With previous seasons having episodes set on board the sinking Titanic and in a doomed space station, had the series continued for another year any thread of narrative cohesion would have undoubtedly been completely lost. Even the finale involved everyone abandoning their jobs in New York and setting up a new radio station in rural New Hampshire.

Doctor Who: 26 Seasons (1963-1989)
Courtesy of the BBC
By the end of its 26th season, Doctor Who was beginning to show it's age. The much maligned Ghost Light brought untold levels of confusion and general terribleness in the latter stages of what had been a rough period through the late eighties. Story ideas were apparently running out, and The Cartmel Masterplan threatened only to bog the series down further in rewriting the show's history in favour of additional character development. The final serial, Survival, was about a fire planet that turned people into cats, a bizarre and crushing end to a generation's worth of story telling. Happily, it ends with the Doctor and Ace, wandering off, their adventures far from over (though the more poetic ending would have involved the TARDIS fading away: note to future Doctor Who showrunner at point of termination).

Behind the scenes, the end had been a long time coming. The head of the BBC at the time hated the show, and desperately wanted to end it. Low ratings caused the delay of season 23 and subsequent firing of Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor. Sylvester McCoy's three years on the show were plagued by an inconsistency of tone, alternating between dark and gritty and absurdly comedic. By the time the 26th season appeared, the writers were all but certain the show would be cancelled, and it really needed to be. And I think most prefer to live in a world where the Cartmel plan never happened. Happily after 15 years, with some new blood and not allowing the Americans any creative input, the show regenerated. And eventually, the time will come for it to end again. I just hope they recognise that time when it comes before they cross the line rather then after.

Firefly: 14 Episodes (2002)
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television
I'm going to say something potentially unpopular: I'm glad Firefly was cancelled.

Done throwing old fruit and shoes at your screen? Because you're only hurting yourself, I'm not actually in here. Can I continue? OK. I'm not actually glad. I'm furious that we were robbed of this universe by some idiot executives who didn't even know enough to air the episodes in the right order. But, think of it this way: at 14, Firefly produced as many episodes as two series of your average British show. I'm a big fan of brevity, and believe that shorter runs produce better results, because writers only have time to tell the stories that need to be told, rather then having to create filler. I'll take a short lived, short run show over a long lived, long run show any day. It's why I've all but stopped watching network TV, preferring cable's 10-13 episode standard (a standarad which networks are adopting slowly). And no programme, no matter how good, should last more then five years, ideally (Doctor Who gets a pass for being literally grandfathered in).

At 14 episodes (and a film, that incorporated plot elements from Joss' planned second season, but in a far better and less compressed way then Farscape did above), we got a series that is good. Solidly good all the way through. The weakest episode, arguably Heart of Gold, is still a pretty decent piece of television. There wasn't an opportunity for filler episodes to distract us (Joss believes that the first six episodes are the real pilot period, meaning those will presumably be the episodes that try the hardest to be the best). There wasn't a chance for the story to go off the rails (Angel season 4) or for the narrative direction to be lost (Buffy season 6) or for cast members to leave the show, or for Joss to make characters too happy and feel the need to kill someone (if the show had continued, I figure it would have been Simon to bite it first) to bring the rest back to Earth. What we've got is... shiny. And I'd rather have those 14 episodes that are practically perfect, then a lot of seasons I feel ambivalent about, any day.

Plus, it takes less time to marathon through them when the mood hits you.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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