Late last Saturday night, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey said their goodnights on SNL and threw it to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, who belted out a rousing version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” Everyone on stage looked absolutely giddy, from Maya Rudolph dancing around in a fabulous cocktail dress to Kenan Thompson, singing the late Clarence Clemons’ old “better be good for goodness’ sake” part. By the time Little Steven Van Zandt waved surprise guest Paul McCartney over to his microphone, the whole performance started to feel like a benediction. It was like television itself was signing off for the year.
This whole week was filled with shows switching out the lights and locking the doors: some just for the holidays, some for the season, and some for good. Many went out strong. Stodgy characters made big changes, and long-running series saw things happen that have never happened before. An atomic bomb went off, and a pop culture institution laughed its way into a premature grave. Our last Top 5 TV column of the year thanks them all for their service, in what has been a busy, and often spectacular, 2015. Take a rest, boob tube. You did good.
5. The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon finally bazingas Amy (CBS)
The writers of this still insanely popular sitcom have always refused to define what, if any, developmental disorder Sheldon Cooper has — a decision that’s given them the freedom to let the Jim Parsons’ character grow. He’s still the chilly and compulsively fastidious brainiac he was at the start of the series, but he can also be flexible now, or even warm-hearted. At the end of last season, Sheldon’s long-suffering girlfriend Amy Farrah-Fowler decided she couldn’t handle his quirks any more. After breaking up and reconciling, he decided to show her just what she really means to him — by having sex with her for her birthday.
This being The Big Bang Theory, ‘the deed” was intercut with the rest of the gang going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens; like Sheldon and Amy, they worryied that something they’ve been awaiting for so long wouldn’t live up to the hype. The episode also threw in a cameo by Bob Newhart as the ghost of the boys’ reluctant science guru, dressed as Obi Wan Kenobi and giving halting romantic advice (“Once the man gets the woman … out of her bloomers …”). This wasn’t just some big “midseason finale” stunt. When Sheldon confessed to Amy, “I’m worried that I might be overwhelmed and ruin everything,” his candor was as much as breakthrough as anything that happened in the bedroom.
4. Rock the Vote: Survivor finale and the 64th Annual Miss Universe Pageant (CBS/Fox)
The reality-show stalwart just had one of the best seasons in its history, thanks to fans picking the cast and the savvier “Second Chance” castaways quickly ditching the show’s usual “form an alliance and never waver” tactic. Instead, they switched sides from week to week, leading to more unpredictable tribal councils and dramatic “blindsides.” All those moves and countermoves ultimately resulted in a finale where something happened for the first time: a tribal where nobody was voted out, because two hidden immunity idols were played. Host Jeff Probst dug out some arcane “if/then” rules, and eventually tsettled on a loser. But the whole sequence was wonderfully loony, and a fitting capper to a season that was a gift Survivor fans gave to themselves.
Even crazier was the ending to this year’s Miss Universe pageant, which saw confused host Steve Harvey triumphantly announcing the name of the first runner-up as though she were the winner … and then quickly having to correct his mistake on-camera. (Poor Miss Colombia stayed awkwardly perched at the front of the stage, sporting a tiara she’d eventually have to hand off to Miss Philippines). Harvey profusely apologized, both on the air and after the show. But say this for the man: For a few minutes at least, he made people care about an annual television mainstay that hasn’t been relevant in … maybe ever?
3. A bomb drops on Manhattan (WGN America)
The under-watched WGN show upped its ambition-level in its second season, all while building up to the ripped-from-the-history-books moment in last week’s finale. The men and women of the Manhattan Project detonated a nuclear weapon, as part of the famed “Trinity” test — creating an excuse for series creator Sam Shaw and director Thomas Schlamme to bring all the show’s different threads and personnel into one place. It was an episode that felt like a fast-paced, super-tense one-act play, with all the major characters coming clean to each other, just in case it was their last night on Earth.
In the wrong hands, contrasting petty personal dramas and a major historical event could’ve come across as ham-handed, or grossly insensitive. (We’re supposed to care about some guy’s hurt feelings when the military is about to test a weapon that could kill millions?) But the episode — “Jupiter” — had a powerhouse ending, culminating in a blinding flash and a despondent scientist shooting himself in the head. Rarely has an image so visually bright been so deeply dark.
2. Dr. Thackery gets nicked on The Knick (Cinemax)
The pilot had began with an operation gone fatally awry — so if the second-season finale ends the show forever, at least it wrapped up properly, via another wildly gory surgery. For all the explicit, flesh-peeling nose-jobs and eye-stabs that this show has foisted on Cinemax subscribers over the past two years, there’s never been anything quite like the scene toward the end of last week’s “This Is All We Are,” where Clive Owen’s doctor attempted to resect his own bowels (!) in the middle of a crowded operating theater. There had also been no warning on the show for what would happen next, with our antihero accidentally slicing a major organ and bleeding to death.
Besides being memorably disgusting and costing the series its star, the doc’s dangerous stunt put a strong exclamation point on what this season has really been about. The Knick‘s sophomore go-round has delved into experimental drug treatments and New York’s fascination with sideshow attractions. Its big climactic scene pretty much combined those two ideas, with the hero letting his colleagues gawk at him as he effectively murdered himself in the name of science. Thackery left this world (and said sayonara to premium cable) with the words of the episode’s title, admitting at last that even a brilliant surgeon is naught but a piece of meat, and easily butchered.
1. The Soup and Fargo sign off (E!/FX)
Even as The Soup was saying its final goodbyes last week, with celebrity guests and gallows humor galore, the show was proving how essential it still is, via one particular package of clips. Host Joel McHale looked back at some of the most memorable bits of reality TV and talk-show weirdness that he’s spent 11 years mocking: from Oprah shouting, “My vajayjay is painin’!” to The Hills stars trying to comprehend the meaning of the Large Hadron Collider. But the series finale was at its best when it summarized what its own network has been up to for the past decade. In a montage of the best of the “Let’s Take Some E!” segments, McHale essentially traced how much had changed even since 2007, when he had to explain to the audience at home who Kim Kardashian was — a few months before she got her own series. What will we do in the years to come, without our weekly report on the rapidly spreading garbage-fire that is 21st century celebrity culture?
Even beyond The Soup, it was a good week for montages, with Fargo throwing another beauty into the opening minutes of its stupendous finale. Through two seasons, FX’s existential cops-and-killers show has skillfully pilfered and repurposed music, images, and ideas from the Coen brothers. But who would’ve predicted a direct swipe from Raising Arizona, of all movies? After an episode that ended in a massive bloodletting (interrupted briefly by a UFO), the finale began with weakened cancer patient Betsy Solverson looking into the future, H.I. McDunnough-style, and seeing what’ll become of her family after she dies. In the middle of all the dreamy images of happy domesticity, Season One’s cast-members made a cameo appearance (a nice touch, this).
For those who typically find Fargo too clever by half, that opening may have come off as excessively cutesy. But for those who appreciate how head writer Noah Hawley puts his personal stamp on borrowed material, Betsy’s dream was a beautiful thing, setting the tone for a finale that was at once reflective and predictive. As the series bid farewell to the late 1970s, it consigned its surviving villains to a life of vengeance and paperwork, while giving its exhausted heroes a welcome moment of quiet peace and togetherness. For such a grim, violent drama, the show can be surprisingly gracious. Hawley understands that any story can have a happy ending — it just depending on where its creator chooses to cut.