The Best Sitcom Finales of All-Time

'The Office' swan song calls to mind 15 last acts that sent our favorite sitcoms off in style

Mary Frann and Bob Newhart in 'Newhart'
Everett Collection
May 14, 2013 5:25 PM ET

When NBC's The Office goes off the air on May 16 after nine seasons, it does so with a big blockbuster episode, one that promises to be full of memories, in-jokes, awkward silences, and maybe even visits from old friends (Steve Carell's Michael Scott is rumored to be a surprise guest). Still, the finale has to live up to more than just the legacy of The Office; it also has to live up to all the emotional notes we've come to expect a sitcom finale to hit. The Dunder-Mifflin crew have their work cut out for them if they're going to push all the right buttons. (That's what she said!) Thanks to the shows on the list below, we expect sitcoms to say goodbye in a way that pays sentimental homage to what fans have loved about the program, resolves loose plot ends, and still makes us laugh. That's a tall order, one that even some of the greatest sitcoms haven't been able to fill. Still, the 15 on this list approached the ideal in their own way, some more successfully than others. They're the funny farewells we'll never forget.

Closing Time: Saying Goodbye to The Office

15. WKRP in Cincinnati
The fourth season finale of WKRP wasn't supposed to be the series finale, but CBS canceled the show, so that was it. Still, the show's creators must have seen the writing on the wall, as they crafted an episode that did serve nicely as a final farewell. (The show's title, "Up and Down the Dial," a phrase from the lyrics of the show's opening theme, suggests the writers knew a summation was called for.) In the episode, scary station owner Mrs. Carlson (Carol Bruce) finally plans to implement her long-threatened format change and make the AM radio outlet into an all-news station. But the staffers get her to admit something that, in retrospect, explains the whole series: that she'd always allowed her incompetent son, station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) to run the station into the ground as a money-losing tax dodge. (This may have been a nose-thumbing metaphor for the way CBS had treaded WKRP over four seasons, kicking it around the schedule as if the network wanted the show to lose viewers and force its own cancellation.) Mrs. Carlson's revelation forces her to keep the existing album-rock format. Which means that viewers get to imagine DJs Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap rocking into eternity.
14. Scrubs
Scrubs' troubled ratings history ended up yielding two series finales. The first, after eight seasons on NBC, marked the departures of most of the principal cast. Before he leaves Sacred Heart, J.D. (Zach Braff) gets to hear what mentor Dr. Cox (John C. MicGinley) really thinks of him, remembers past patients (living and dead), and imagines a vivid possible future life. But then, ABC picked up the show for another season. With a mostly new cast and a class of new medical students, it was more like Scrubs: The Next Generation. That year's season finale marked the end of a chapter (the first semester winds down, and the students pay homage to the dead by thanking the families who donated cadavers) while suggesting intriguing possibilities for the future. The episode ended up being the series finale after ABC decided to take the show off life support. Of the two finales, hardcore Scrubs fans naturally prefer the first; after all the emotional farewells, it was hard for viewers to come back and endure all that a second time.
13. Seinfeld
This is still the most controversial sitcom finale of all time. Written by Larry David (the inspiration for Jason Alexander's George Costanza, and the future creator/star of outrage-fest Curb Your Enthusiasm), the supersized episode saw Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer put on trial for callousness. Nine seasons worth of catchphrase-wielding guest stars were trotted out as character witnesses against them. It was as if David had been saying that the show's loyal viewers were either fools or sociopaths for caring about these four jerks for nine years. What's more, the show that had become famous for refusing to moralize or impart life lessons was suddenly appearing awfully moralistic and judgmental. But David still got the last laugh. Found guilty, the four frenemies express no remorse and begin serving their time by having the same inane conversation about shirt buttons that they had in the series' first episode. So yeah, no one learned anything. And we got to enjoy a lot of cruel, polarizing laughs along the way. Along with The Sopranos, Seinfeld can boast the ballsiest, razziest series farewell ever.
12. The Larry Sanders Show
Talk show host Larry (Garry Shandling) had spent six seasons telling viewers, "No flipping," a plea for them not to change the channel, but the series finale was entitled "Flip." After all, Larry had spent the season preparing to pull the plug on his show rather than submit to further network interference, so it was finally okay for viewers to click away. Still, you wouldn't have wanted to miss the spectacle as Larry prepared to hand over his stage to a coked-up Jon Stewart (hey now, don't laugh – who do you think's going to get the Late Show when David Letterman quits?). Larry plans a finale that he hopes will rival the one Johnny Carson threw for himself when he left The Tonight Show, but while he does get Jim Carrey to sing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the song comes with a bitter rant from the rubber-faced comic about Larry's fair-weather friendship. And Jerry Seinfeld upstages the tearful goodbye from needy sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). Larry, too, gives the most heartfelt speech of his career, telling the viewers that he doesn't know what he'll do without them. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how Larry will survive without an audience; the episode ends with a typical gag, as Larry says of the fiasco he just aired, "I hope we beat Leno."
11. The Office (BBC)
Fans of Ricky Gervais' original British version of The Office were treated to two finales. In the first one, at the end of Season 2, boss David Brent (Gervais) gets fired on what is supposed to be a triumphant day for him, and lovelorn Tim finally declares his feelings for receptionist Dawn, only to have her spurn him and run off with her douchebag boyfriend. (Tim tries to put on a brave face, telling the confessional interviewer that his life will go on after the cameras stop rolling.) It was a typically uncompromising and bitter episode, thoroughly in keeping with the tone of the series thus far. But then, there came the Christmas special, seemingly an afterthought, in which the principals reunite a few years later and get a chance to set things right. So the show and its fans got to have it both ways. David tells the interviewer he'd like to be remembered "simply as the man who put a smile on the face of everyone he met." He's gotten his wish, if not in a way he could have imagined.

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