It always pays to be wary of grandiose statements and definitive pronouncements. When I first watched Forrest Gump in the theater, one-third of the way through the movie it occurred to me I might be watching the greatest production of all time, and walking out of the theater I carried that thought with me. But time changes things. Now I see it as a fun film, but it’s not at the top of any of my “best of” lists. Professor Schofield advised that you can’t really objectively analyze something, an art movement, a political figure, a fad–anything worth analyzing–unless several years had transpired and you could have the value of time and distance, contemplation and reflection, to look back with.
So it is with a bit of reservation that I am asserting that the series finale to How I Met Your Mother that aired Monday night should top any list of great finales. The writers, producers, and actors simply got it just right. Exactly right. Airing the first episode of season one just before the finale aired really showcased how this ending was exactly what viewers deserved after nine seasons of sticking with the show. Consider all the series finales that were promoted over the years, and despite the biggest of viewing audiences, you might find that most last hoorahs miss the mark, try too hard, or just do something that didn’t reflect the best of the series.
The granddaddy of all finales was the 1983 M*A*S*H extended episode “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.” Although some elements were right, like a bounty of typical and appropriate sad goodbyes, Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, (one of the best characters of all time) after more than a decade of using laughter to beat the odds and help his unit survive the Korean War, cracks at the very end. NBC’s comedy spy series Chuck made a similar mistake, wiping the memory of Chuck’s hard-earned love interest Sarah after we cheered him on all those years, requiring the story to basically start over from scratch in some far off place after the series wrapped. Another less than satisfying but at least appropriate-to-the-series finale was the end of the monumental 20th year of the original Law & Order. We basically got to see a fairly typical episode of the series, which certainly fit the seriousness of the show’s drama. But we also got a goodbye scene and were left on a positive note with “Lieut’s” good news about her hard-fought illness.
Before that, you might have seen the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Nick at Nite or other classic rerun network if you weren’t old enough to catch it in its initial run. The TV network that was the subject of the series fires everyone including Mary at the end, except Ted Knight’s character Ted Baxter. The annoying guy that we loved for being annoying gets to stay. A funny series with a funny end, as well as the requisite bittersweet goodbye scene. A similarly funny sitcom, Psych, wrapped its eighth and final season last month, tying up all its remaining loose ends. Psych took a different path, taking its angst-inducing character, Detective-then-Chief Lassiter, and with a redemption of sorts, switched up his role in the last two seasons to become a guy viewers could cheer on.
Another comedy, Newhart, gave us a completely bizarre ending for an otherwise enjoyable comedy series. Yet it was saved literally in the last two minutes by a brilliantly concocted stunt–bring back Bob’s wife from his original series, The Bob Newhart Show, the lovely Suzanne Pleshette, revealing the whole series was just a dream. It’s a gimmick that didn’t work for a series like the original Dallas (recall Bobby Ewing died then came back to life with a “poof”), but for a comedy wrap-up, it couldn’t have been better timed.
Sci-fi series haven’t fared much better, with many smaller series not getting a chance at a finale, cut short by network pencil pushers. The original Star Trek is an example. But the other Star Trek series finales aren’t in the league of the best of their series runs. The best is probably from Star Trek: The Next Generation because of some nice flashbacks and recreations of past episodes. Yet as with M*A*S*H we had to watch our lead captain go through his own mental breakdowns, something that didn’t really track with the character’s past on the series. The other Trek finales seemed to try too hard to do something grand.
Scott Bakula’s Quantum Leap had a fine ending for purposes of keeping folks watching the series in syndication, but for those that longed for Sam Beckett to finally find his way home, as promised in each week’s introduction, it was a no-go.
The finale for the reboot of Battlestar Galactica was set up to be the climax of a mystery that built season after season, but the big reveal, returning to the fabled planet Earth, was more of a letdown after so many exciting episodes.
In the action genre, Magnum, P.I. was one of those odd cases where the series had two finales. The first, the last episode of season seven, was filmed before the series was renewed, and included the death of Thomas, walking off into the clouds to a John Denver song. Magnum became his own last case. The show was so popular the network renewed the series for one last year. Although season eight suffered a bit from lack of fresh story ideas, the actual finale was almost as good as the season seven finale, reuniting Thomas with his wife and daughter, and seeing Magnum back in uniform to move onto some other adventures off-camera.
The series that followed Magnum, P.I. each night, Simon & Simon went off the air in 1988 without showing its finale. Fans didn’t get to see it until decades later with the DVD release. But seven years later a reunion movie gave fans a refreshing update to Rick and A.J. and their lives, amounting to a finale TV movie worthy of the series.
Although The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel each had completely unmemorable episodes (seriously, who can describe either of these genre series finales?), we’ve discussed other successful series finales here at borg.com, including the brilliant wrap-ups with the completely unpredictable Leverage, the zany House, M.D., the spot-on In Plain Sight, the satisfying Burn Notice, and the short-lived but superb Awake. We even got a series finale for The Closer, that really was more a midpoint for the cast who went on to build the successful drama Major Crimes.
And back to the present, fans of the unlikely but mega-popular series Breaking Bad seemed to be unanimous in the success of the series finale and wrap-up of Bryan Cranston’s terminally ill Walter White. 10.3 million cable TV viewers watched that series finale. In comparison, How I Met Your Mother was viewed by 12.9 million viewers–a great feat for a non-cable show, no doubt bolstered by fans brought in by its years of opportunity to catch the show in reruns.
Why was the How I Met Your Mother series finale so good? The series itself was a set up for the final episode from the first episode. Another series that had a similar search for the end at its core was Lost, but its finale left most viewers feeling like they just witnessed a train wreck. The comedy-laced drama Monk also had at its core a mystery to unravel–who killed Monk’s wife Trudy? Monk’s series finale delivered the goods in a satisfying way, even leaving the needy lead character in the caring hands of his wife’s previously unknown daughter, while bringing back a co-star from past seasons (Bittie Schram’s Sharona) to forge a new romance with goofy and lovable cop Randy and go off on their own off-screen adventure.
The ending for How I Met Your Mother was likely to be somewhat predictable, yet the writers did everything they could, mostly unexpected, to each character, spanning decades of ups and downs in only 40 minutes. Smartly, the real Mother of the title had been previewed dozens of times before, so we didn’t get a surprise visit at the end from some unexpected celebrity. And the writers, in a bit of smoke and mirrors magic, masterfully swung the pendulum back to its extreme with the recent wedding of Barney and Robin. There’s just no way the ending that happened could happen.
Those same forty minutes were infused with equal parts drama and laughs–no different than any past season of the series. Cobie Smulders’ Robin gets the career success she always wanted. Neil Patrick Harris’s Barney meets his one, albeit unexpected, true love. Jason Segel’s Marshall gets to leave his dreaded job to become a judge. Alyson Hannigan’s Lily builds a huge family. And Josh Radnor’s Ted seems to get two happy endings. Happily ever after? Sure, but not without a lot of bumps along the way. A failed (or very successful short) marriage, a death, two successful marriages. But the crowning achievement may be that thing that everyone wants whether they know it or not–the fact that the show goes on after the curtain falls. We get to watch the series over again in syndication in a new light, and it’s not likely to lose its luster.
Is How I Met Your Mother the best of the series finales? Ask me again in a few years.