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[This article was originally published in May 2021]
A pitch-perfect series finale can often seal a show’s place in the pantheon of TV greatness.
From classics like M*A*S*H and Cheers to recent examples such as Mad Men and The Deuce, a great series finale is a sure-fire way of ensuring that a show’s reputation will endure. But what happens when TV creators get it wrong?
Either by playing it too safe or taking too much of a risk, many otherwise beloved programmes have seen their shine dulled by the stigma of a finale misfire.
Some are universally despised, while others are simply divisive, works of arguable genius that nonetheless alienated large portions of their fanbase.
Sometimes, a finale is so disliked that it requires a do-over – which is what happened with Showtime’s grisly serial killer drama Dexter.
On Sunday 7 November (or Monday 8 in the UK), a revival series entitled Dexter: New Blood is debuting, eight years after the original series aired its disastrous final episode. Will it bring, as its creator hopes, “redemption” for its past failure? Only time may tell.
Here is a selection of the 20 most hated series finales of all time…
20. Breaking Bad
Wrapping up a series as electrically popular and perpetually surprising as Breaking Bad was always going to be a tough task – and the initial reaction to the finale (“Felina”) was one of widespread adulation. But while the episode still has its high points – Jesse’s euphoric escape from captivity; Walt’s theatrically tragic demise – its reputation has cooled, for many, to one of gentle disappointment. When you’ve made one of the medium’s all-time great series, a finale that’s simply “good” won’t quite cut the methstard.
19. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rachel Bloom’s cult musical comedy series made some questionable calls towards the end of its four-season run - which included re-casting erstwhile love interest Greg with an entirely different actor. But its finale was still viewed as a particular cop-out by some fans, as its dysfunctional lead Rebecca sidestepped the choice between her three potential suitors and chose instead to focus on music. Thematically satisfying? Maybe, but most viewers had already picked a side, and anyone watching to “ship” was left unfulfilled.
A new child being born in a TV finale is as common as it is hackneyed (think Chandler and Monica in Friends, or Niles and Daphne in Frasier). Girls put its own spin on the cliché in “Latching”, which saw insufferable writer Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) rebuild her relationship with the even-more-insufferable Marnie (Allison Williams) after giving birth to a son, Grover. For a show originally premised on the hip, quintessentially millennial friendship between four twentysomething women in New York City, Girls transformed into something radically different – and not altogether successful – in its dying breath.
17. The Undoing
Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman’s tense psychological thriller had viewers entranced when it aired on Sky earlier this year. But many were disappointed by the finale’s predictable grand reveal. In a two-star review of the episode for The Independent, Eamon de Paor wrote: “The finale of David E Kelley and Susanne Bier's The Undoing contains a big reveal alright – but it isn’t a bombshell regarding the killer of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). It’s that we have given this glossy and seemingly ingenious whodunit too much credit. In the end, it turns out the killer was the obvious suspect. Everything else has been mere distraction. For the past five weeks, the series has been skating by on smoke, mirrors and Grant’s Hollywood smirk.”
16. Line of Duty
Line of Duty’s sixth (and, potentially, final) season concluded on 2 May, 2021, with an episode that broke modern viewing records. Fans were finally given an answer to the long-running mystery of “H” – although many were far from satisfied. Rather than pin the blame for police corruption on a Machiavellian mastermind, creator Jed Mercurio instead opted for a more true-to-life assessment of the situation, pointing out institutional failings, greed and incompetence as the root causes that allowed “the fourth man” to flourish. This may have been the smarter direction for the show, but those hoping for a full-blown Keyser Söze mic drop seemed to think this cop show had copped out.
The propulsive appeal of Lost had always been its core mysteries. The two-part finale doesn’t offer a whole lot of answers, and divided fans down the middle. Damon Lindelof’s spiritualistic bent is out in full force here, and while there is a strong contingent who adore how everything wrapped up, the finale’s detractors argue that it is overlong, confusing and overindulgent. In fairness, it’s probably the most misunderstood finale of all time.
14. True Blood
Alan Ball’s pulpy post-Six Feet Under vampire drama indulged in its fair share of melodrama down the years, but the finale still lives in undead infamy. When Bill (Stephen Moyer) forces Sookie (Anna Paquin) to kill her, a series-long romance is thrown out the window, without much of a comprehensible reason. At its best, this series could really sink its fangs into you; by the end, it just sucked.
13. The X-Files
Another series that entered decline long before its let-down of a finale, The X-Files promised big things with the return of David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder. It was a shoddy end for one of TV’s great sci-fi series: a confounding, often dull hour that lapsed into heavy-handed theism and trite TV tropes. “The most imaginative show on television has finally reached the limits of its imagination,” wrote The New York Times after the episode’s airing.
12. Star Trek: Enterprise
Enterprise creator Brannon Braga would later say that the series finale of Star Trek: Enterprise was “a kind of a slap in the face to the Enterprise actors… I regret it.” The episode, which was framed as a holodeck sequence aboard the Next Generation vessel a century into the future, offered little in the way of closure for Enterprise fans, and to top it off, the show needlessly killed off Commander Trip Tucker, played by Connor Trinneer.
11. Desperate Housewives
Taking its name from a Stephen Sondheim lyric, the Desperate Housewivesfinale “Finishing the Hat” took all the melodrama tension that had been building all season and turned it into… not much, really. Karen Mc Clusky (Kathryn Joosten) confesses to killing Alejandro, defusing Bree’s murder trial. For a series that built its reputation as a sharply subversive suburban satire, Housewives couldn’t deliver a proper pay-off, with its blandly happy endings all round.
Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s modernised spin on the Sherlock Holmes stories was something of a sensation for the BBC throughout its first three short series. The de facto finale, however (barring any future return), was seen by most as a misstep. “The Final Problem” saw Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) contend with the villainous Eurus (Sian Brooke), in a story that was deemed by some critics both confusing and sexist.
9. Twin Peaks: The Return
Depending on whom you ask, the finale to David Lynch avant-garde Twin Peaksrevival is either one of the finest, boldest pieces of TV ever made, or an inscrutable, frustrating mess. Having waited all season for the return of charismatic good guy Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), fans finally saw old Coop return in full fettle during the penultimate episode. The reunion was short-lived, however, and both Cooper and Twin Peaks ended with an hour that was surreal, hostile and unsettling – the viewers craving resolution or closure were left sorely disappointed.
8. Gossip Girl
Teen drama Gossip Girl concluded with a shock reveal: that Dan (Penn Badgley) was the blogger known as “Gossip Girl” all along. Many fans were unhappy with the twist, which threw up a whole load of new questions (namely: “why?”). What’s more, the series’ final scene, showing a new, younger group of cliquey high school kids, didn’t really land.
7. Little House on the Prairie
Selling the farm is one thing, but blowing it up with dynamite? The explosive conclusion to Little House on the Prairie saw the titular house reduced to smithereens, along with the rest of Walnut Grove. In the TV special The Last Farewell, the residents destroy their own property to stop it falling into the hands of a sinister development tycoon. Naturally, those Prairie fans who had grown to love the locale were aghast.
6. The Sopranos
Has there ever been a finale so wholly divisive as that of The Sopranos? David Chase’s medium-changing mob drama was, at times, so funny and compelling that it was easy to overlook how experimental it could be (Kevin Finnerty, anyone?). The finale, with its now-infamous “cut to black” ending, was The Sopranos at its risk-taking best, though many fans were dismayed at the ambiguity of Tony’s fate. Some of the cast members even complained that they thought their TV had suffered a glitch while watching the episode’s closing moments.
As most nine-year-old English students are told, “…and it was all a dream” is just about the most reviled way to end a story known to man. Roseanne did something tantamount to this with its original ninth season finale (before being eventually revived in 2018), as it was revealed that most of the events after Dan’s (John Goodman) heart attack in the previous series were simply imagined by Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) as part of a book she was writing. Dan, it turned out, had died from the heart attack. When the show was revived a few years ago, the writers pretended this finale (and most of season nine) never existed; most viewers wished that were the case at the time.
4. How I Met Your Mother
While twist endings in films are often celebrated, they’re harder to pull off in the medium of TV, when characters and contexts have solidified over the course of years. How I Met Your Mother went for a doozy with its widely loathed finale, bait-and-switching Ted’s (Josh Radnor) love interest by consigning the titular Mother (Cristin Milioti) to a death by terminal illness. Between the last-ditch pivot to Robin (Cobie Smulders) and the complete undoing of Barney’s character development, this finale tarnished the whole legacy of the once-beloved sitcom.
Since the very beginning of showtime’s sensational serial killer drama Dexter, people were wondering how it would end. Would Dexter Morgan (Michael C Hall) finally be brought to justice as the infamous “Bay Harbour Butcher”? Would he confess? If you’d guessed “moved to Oregon to live out the remainder of his life as a lumberjack”, you’d have certainly got good odds – the startlingly leftfield conclusion came out of nowhere, and satisfied just about nobody.
How do you end one of the most popular, acclaimed sitcoms of all time, that was, famously, “a show about nothing”? The answer, for Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, was to make it about pretty much everything, embroiling Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer in a farfetched (even by the show’s own merits) legal battle which saw a courtroom of characters from the show’s past conspire to send the gang to prison for crimes against social decency. David would later have another run at a finale in the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the damage was already done; Seinfeld’s catastrophic conclusion left millions of viewers asking, “What’s the deal?”
1. Game of Thrones
The bigger they come, the harder they fall – and in the world of TV, Thrones was a titan. The hit HBO fantasy series was plagued with narrative and stylistic problems throughout its eighth and final season, culminating in an over-hyped finale that was met with something resembling a collective shrug. The decision to award the coveted seat on the Iron Throne to the unlikely Bran Stark was far from Thrones’ only problem. The show’s early assuredness and deft plotting had given way to implausible spectacle, and many fans were left feeling like their best-loved characters had been betrayed by the show’s notoriously trigger-happy creators.