5. 30 Rock
Creator/star Tina Fey seemed determined not to make 30 Rock's sendoff a conventional sitcom finale; for one thing, she made sure to get Liz Lemon's wedding and adoption of a child out of the way earlier in the show's seventh and final season. With those plot points already taken care of, she was free to blow the last episode on a thoroughly superfluous plot about Lutz's successful power play over the rest of the TGS's writing staff, forcing them to order a prosaic last lunch from Blimpie's before they went their separate ways. The only truly out-of-character event was Jack's brief crisis of self-confidence, but his protégé Liz was able to talk him off the proverbial ledge, proving that she really had taken his years of occasionally dubious advice to heart. All along, the "Last Lunch" episode was filled with the rapid-fire absurdist gags that had always characterized 30 Rock, but the most touching absurd gag was saved for last. In a nod to the St. Elsewhere finale (where it was revealed that the entire series was the dream of an autistic child looking at a snow globe), there was a jump to the future, where Liz's great-granddaughter was pitching to NBC the series we'd been watching all along, based on tales of office lunacy handed down to her from the matriarch. And she was pitching to an ageless Kenneth, still in charge. The idea that, generations from now, there will still be an NBC, with a benign Kenneth still holding court at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, may be the most poignant and touching element of the entire last episode.
Frasier closed out its 11 seasons much the way its predecessor Cheers had, by giving nearly every one of the characters a happy ending. Unlike Cheers, it spent much of its final season building up to that finale, so that the character developments seemed organic. And funny. Niles and Daphne finally had a baby, and Martin and Ronnie finally got married, though no one would have predicted that both events would take place at the same time, in a veterinarian's office (terrier Eddie swallowed the wedding rings.) Roz got promoted to station manager, and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) decided to accept a job offer for a higher-profile radio show in San Francisco, closing out the Seattle chapter of his life. But in the show's final seconds, we learn that Frasier instead flew to Chicago to pursue Charlotte (Laura Linney), the dream woman he met during his final weeks in Seattle. It was an impulsive, romantic move, the kind of thing that the old cerebral, uptight Frasier would never have done. We didn't know what would become of Frasier's career or whether he and Charlotte would live happily ever after, but we got to see him grow and learn some life lessons.
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
If the sitcom series finale is a genre of its own, then The Mary Tyler Moore Show invented it, just as the series had invented the workplace-as-surrogate-family comedy genre in the first place. Mary Richards (Moore) makes the point explicit when management fires everyone at the TV station except idiot anchor Ted. "Last night I thought, 'What is a family?'" she says in her farewell speech to her colleagues. "They’re just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family." There's a group hug and a group rendition of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" before the gang marches out of the office and Mary shuts off the light. The episode set the benchmark for all future finales with its blend of laughter, tears, life lessons, and leaving the viewers with the sense that, whatever would befall the characters afterward, they were gonna make it after all.
The Korean War sitcom lasted nearly four times as long as the actual war, so it was fitting that the show wound up its 11 seasons with an epic-length, 150-minute finale. In this episode, entitled, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," the end of the war means the breakup of the 4077th gang, which proves especially difficult for Hawkeye (Alan Alda). Up until then, he'd been the show's voice of sardonic sanity in the midst of the chaos of combat, but he's just witnessed an incident that drives him over the edge (a Korean woman smothering her baby to keep its cries from exposing a busload of people to enemy troops). Much of the episode deals with Hawkeye fighting his way back from his nervous breakdown. As a result, the episode (directed by Alda) is more dramatic than funny, but in a way that seemed apt with the darker, more serious turn that the series had taken in its final years. (The episode also sees Father Mulcahy permanently deafened after a mortar attack and Charles traumatized after teaching some POWs to perform Mozart, only to see them killed in the final hours of the war.) So it's hard not to tear up when Hawkeye finally takes off for home and sees through the helicopter window the message that best friend B.J. Hunnicut had left for him, spelled out on the ground in rocks: "GOODBYE." Some 106 million people watched the finale, the biggest audience ever for a scripted entertainment show, and a number unlikely ever to be surpassed.
Bob Newhart's second classic sitcom offered eight years of slightly surreal goofiness, as provided by innkeeper Dick Loudon's (Newhart) eccentric neighbors and staffers, but the finale amps the surrealism to new heights. There's the sequence of Vermont villagers trudging away from their hometown to the tune of Fiddler on the Roof dirge "Anatevka," after a conglomerate buys out the whole town (save Dick's inn) and turns it into a golf resort. There's the sight of backwoodsmen Larry, Darryl, and Darryl as well-dressed moguls after the windfall, with brothers Darryl and Darryl uttering their first words of the entire series (shouting in unison "Quiet!" to their chatty wives). Finally, in the best sitcom switcheroo ever, there's Newhart waking up as Robert Hartley, his character from the 1970s The Bob Newhart Show, next to his 1970s TV wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), and realizing that the entire eight seasons of Newhart were just Robert Hartley's nightmare. Viewers did not feel cheated; this was the best it-was-all-just-a-dream scenario ever, one that didn't dishonor the eight seasons of sublime silliness that preceded it. The M*A*S*H finale may have garnered the biggest ratings, but when TV fans think back to the sitcom finale that pleased them the most (and offered the biggest, most satisfying laughs), they think of Newhart.
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