Memorable Finales

For anyone who knows me and anyone who has been following this blog it may be quite apparent: I’m fond of television. I refrain from saying good TV because that certainly lies in the eye of the beholder. Let’s just agree that TV classics have a special place in my heart and probably yours. That they have a quality most modern shows are struggling to repeat. That their appeal grows in proportion to their age, out of nostalgia for our youth or the good old days, I do not know. That will have to be a topic of another post. What I want to talk about today is an integral part of any television series. Finales, those long awaited yet dreaded farewells to our favorite shows. Those final episodes we miss when TV series get canceled on short notice.

Personally, I love a great finale when the audience gets a chance to say goodbye to their favorite characters and the writers get to wrap up their storylines. Some of my favorite examples are M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. All shows that stayed true to their formula and honored their protagonists by creating a melancholy but optimistic end. The West Wing as one of my favorite modern shows on the other hand aimed high but fell strangely flat. Set in a political environment, for me, the last episode was too quixotic to meet my expectations. Although it wasn’t as disappointing as The Wonder Years nor as sobering as The X-Files, it still lacked the critical essence of a program I had thoroughly enjoyed for seven years. It may be a matter of taste, but I like to imagine my favorite shows to continue ad infinitum. “Now it seems to me the place to start is at the beginning” will always be my favorite line to end a show. And who else could have said it but Raymond Burr on Perry Mason, a show that has out-classed many by paying tribute to its crew in the final episode. That’s my preferred way of saying goodbye. To leave the fans with a sense of gratitude, hope and infinity. The characters we’ve come to love over the years continue to exist even if we don’t get to visit them anymore on a weekly basis.

A great exception are finales that offer a conclusion to a finite storyline or explain events that seem to have pushed the boundaries of the original tale. Roseanne is such an example. Although not one of my favorite shows, the explanations the last episode offered to make sense of the exaggerated plot of the final season still resonate with me today. Equally memorable was Six Feet Under, a show I increasingly disliked over the years but always held in high esteem for its stellar cast. The outlook we got on the fate of the main characters met with a sense of closure that pushed the program on an almost ethereal level. The only other comparison that comes to mind is Malcolm in the Middle, a show completely different in style but similar in its ability to complete a given storyline.

With all these good examples, I almost shy away from mentioning the frustrating ones we all know exist. Those let down finales and anticlimactic farewells with the potential to ruin the fun of an entire show in retrospect. Battlestar Galactica is my favorite example. A show that lost its promise in the last season when it was interrupted by the Writer’s Guild strike in 2007. Chopped into two halves, the long awaited revelation failed to address one of the program’s most haunting signature sentences and ultimately revealed that the Cylons (like the writers) never had a plan. Although given the time to bring a complex story to a fruitful end, the final season was dragged out but rushed at the same time. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, ALF and last year’s Alcatraz did not even get a chance to conclude their stories which is probably the most dissatisfying way for a show to say goodbye. With a cliffhanger and many burning questions, fans were denied the satisfaction of a proper conclusion and thus nurtured the reluctance of fans to invest their time in new programs.

The most appealing alternative for anyone who has been left hanging in mid-air more than once may be the great array of mini series TV has spoiled us with over the years. These programs are, after all, thought through from beginning to end and offer a guaranteed conclusion (although not necessarily a happy end). Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House or Angels in America were all equipped with unforgettable finales that live up to the series’ initial promise of quality and entertainment. Each one of them a great treat for TV enthusiasts and a milestone in television history.

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ALF

TV classics: ALF

USA 1986-90, four seasons, 120 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, NBC, color. Cast: Paul Fusco, Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Andrea Elson, Benji Gregory.

Plot summary: He’s an alien life form who crashes into the Tanner’s garage. Needless to say that from that day onwards, nothing will ever be quite normal again.

ALFReview: In the 1980s, television offered a lot of gems for kids to grow up with. Out of this World, The Cosby Show and an odd fur ball called ALF. As a mixture of comedy and science fiction, the show was one of a kind. It stood out from a wide array of family shows by blending new ideas with proven concepts. It was directed at an audience who still had a heart for Mork and Mindy but also liked true-to-life puppets like the Muppets. Operated by creator Paul Fusco, ALF was a 285-year-old alien from a planet called Melmac whose sense of humor was as grown-up as his appetite. Loud, funny and always looking for trouble, the little alien soon won the hearts of the Tanners, the family whose garage he had crashed into with his flying saucer. Although still struggling to fit in with his human rescuers in the pilot, ALF quickly adapted to the habits and joys of American life. Glued to the radio, television and the fridge, the visitor from outer space made the best of his secret existence in the Tanner household and entertained his audience with comments on human customs.

Technically difficult and thus demanding in production, the show only lasted four short seasons and left its fans with a cliffhanger finale. Despite his untimely farewell, ALF has remained popular in reruns until today. Available on DVD since 2004, the show is now considered a TV classic and continues to entertain children and their parents in equal measure. Unfortunately, the boxsets are incomplete and only offer all episodes as shown in syndication and not the full length versions. For die-hard fans, however, there’s still hope for an improved release. Until then, the edited edition will have to do (unless you are lucky and still have your tapes from the late 1980s).

Don’t hear the theme song in your head?! Here’s the pilot episode to refresh your memories of how ALF actually came to our planet.

The 80s

The 1980s

Looking back, the 80s seem to have been dominated by aerobics, a blindingly rich pink and shoulder pads. What the decade brought us was yuppies, legwarmers and a 1950s comeback. Blue jeans were stone washed, perforated and often tight, and career women wore sneakers on their way to work and then switched back into their heels before entering their business palaces. Bows were big on prom dresses and wedding gowns, men had mullet hair, women perms, and artificial fabrics and colors were the thing to wear. Madonna released her debut album in 1983, The Bangles were popular and so was REM. Lean cuisine entered the market and dieting was a public motto now along with a general fitness craze.

On TV, Murder, She Wrote with super sleuth Angela Lansbury as J.B. Fletcher was mighty popular, as well as Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, The Wonder Years and Who’s the Boss. Other famous shows were The Greatest American Hero, Remington Steele, Fall Guy or ALF. Like in the 70s, the list of household names is long and many of these shows are still well received on DVD or in re-runs today. Continuing a tradition that started back in the 1950s and 60s already, the 80s brought us a lot of shows with Hollywood legends, familiar faces and names. Falcon Crest, for example, featured Jane Wyman, Hotel first Bette Davis and then Ann Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck graced a season of Dynasty‘s spin-off The Colbys. In 1985, my favorite Perry Mason returned to TV after almost 20 years of absence and reunited Raymond Burr with Barbara Hale as Della Street for twenty-six star-studded TV movie episodes that lasted well into the early 90s. Women continued to redefine their image on stellar shows like Cagney & Lacey, The Golden Girls and Designing Women, standing their post-feminist ground as working mothers, single women and retirees.

At the movies, teen flicks like Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club turned into box office hits, as well as dance movies like Dirty Dancing, Fame or Footloose (which was just recently remade). All in all, 1980s cinema was dominated by comedies, action movies and romance, creating stars like Molly Ringwald, Michael J. Fox or Patrick Swayze. Some of my decade favorites are Out of Africa, The Big Chill, Beaches, Mask, Matewan, The Doctor or Steel Magnolias. As the last full decade that knew how to create old style Hollywood momentum, the 1980s brought on many more memorable TV shows and films with a lot of stars that are still around these days, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris or Michelle Pfeiffer only to name a few. The 80s also rediscovered class – now guess who’s fond of that?!