The franchise depicts a group of fictional characters who served at the fictional “4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MAS*H)” during the Korean War, loosely based on the historic 8055th MASH unit. Hawkeye Pierce is featured as the main character, played by Donald Sutherland in the film and by Alan Alda on television. Later spin-offs involve characters who appeared in the series, but were set after the end of the war. Almost all versions of the series fit into the genre of black comedy or dramedy; the lead characters were doctors or nurses, and the practice of medicine was at the center of events. However, to relieve the pressures of duty in a field hospital close to the front and the attendant horrors of war, the staff engage in humorous hijinks, frivolity and petty rivalries off duty. The theme song from the original movie is played with the original lyrics, “Suicide Is Painless”.He cried, I cried, everybody cried dammit.
2. The Sopranos
The Sopranos is an American crime drama television series created by David Chase. The story revolves around Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a New Jersey-based Italian-American mobster, portraying the difficulties that he faces as he tries to balance his family life with his role as the leader of a criminal organization.
None more so than in the final scene, one that became controversial from the moment it aired because it was so damn ambiguous. It’s had more interpretations than the Mona Lisa’s smile.
What were Tony and his family doing in that diner? Who were the people around them he was eyeing off suspiciously? Why the hell was Meadow having so much trouble parking her car? And what about the man who glances at Tony then heads towards the bathroom. Is he going to get a gun from behind the toilet the Godfather? We don’t know because of the final image as the restaurant door opens and Tony glances up to… We don’t know.
The screen’s gone black. Credits roll.
3. The Leftovers
The Leftovers starts three years after a global event called the Sudden Departure, the inexplicable, simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people, 2% of the world’s population, on October 14, 2011. Following that event, mainstream religions declined, and a number of cults emerged, most notably the Guilty Remnant, a group of white-clothed, chain-smoking nihilists, and a cult led by Holy Wayne, a man who views himself as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The final episode carries an enormous weight. How to tie up so much, particularly the central question: “what the hell happened to the two percent?” Yet in one speech, Nora explains to her lover across time and dimensions Kevin exactly that – in a way that’s both logically and emotionally perfect. Added bonus – our own Livinia Nixon in a cameo.
4. The Bob Newhart Show
His first eponymous television series which ran from 1972- 78 was gold. Particularly the interplay between he and his on-screen wife Suzanne Pleshette. The show was rebooted as Newhart in 1982, giving us three of the best minor sitcom characters ever: Larry, Darryl and his older brother Darryl (the latter two of which never speak).Newhart played Dick Loudon and his wife Joanna was the actress Mary Frann. In the final episode of Newhart, Dick/Bob is knocked out by an errant golf ball. In the final scene he wakes up in bed next to his wife – and it’s Suzanne Pleshette from the original series. The second series has all been a dream. Also Darryl and Darryl spoke for the first and only time.
5. Breaking Bad
The greatest story arc in American television drama came to an appropriately violent and bleak end.
Walter White’s journey from supine high school teacher to murderous drug kingpin was resolved in the only way it could be: brutally. Walter is estranged from the son who once adored him, his wife is broke and bereft.
Although at least Walt comes clean on why he became a meth king: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.”
And there is the visceral satisfaction of Walt’s garage-door remote operated machine gun wiping out a whole lot of Neo Nazis. No “it was all just a dream!” happiness here.
Well, except, the “Newhart”-style gag was used as a bonus sketch in the DVD set of Breaking Bad, with Bryan Cranston waking up in bed next to his wife from Malcolm in the Middle. Kudos.
6. The Office
Ricky Gervais is a staunch supporter of the Fawlty Towers template for not overstaying your welcome: make two seasons, and get out.
So, revisiting The Office for two Christmas episodes was a risk. And it was worth it for two scenes near the very end. We’re heartbroken as Dawn and Tim part for what seems the last time.
He turns to camera and says, “Dawn was a ray of sunshine in my life and it meant a lot but if I’m really being honest I never thought it would have a happy ending.” Until… in the taxi Dawn opens Tim’s “Secret Santa” present, a painting kit, with the words “Never give up.” Next minute, she returns to the party, they kiss, fade up “Only You” by Yazoo.
And the hitherto appalling David Brent is given a sort-of redemption – meeting his blind date Carol who likes him. As he walks back into the party, old mate Finchy makes an off-colour comment – to which Brent responds with, “Why don’t you f— off”. Which may not rival Oscar Wilde as wit but is as satisfying as Walter White unloading on the Nazis.
7. The Wire
The television drama against which all others are measured. If Shakespeare was born 400 years later, he would have churned out something like this.
“The bigger the lie, the more they believe,” says detective Bunk, and that’s the premise of this erstwhile cop drama that takes us through every layer of corruption a large city can produce, from police headquarters, to City Hall, to newspapers.
At the centre of it all, Detective McNulty – charming, scheming, lying, occasionally self-aware enough to approach redemption before diving into the merde again. Actually the final episode isn’t as fist-pumpingly great as the others here – but I just think everyone should watch The Wire.
Like MAS*H, Cheers had veered into sentimentality towards the end. But “One For The Road” wisely plays against that: long ago lovers Sam and Diane are reunited and announce their engagement – only to go their separate ways. Sam returns to the bar. As Cliff says, “You’ll always come back to her.” Before he goes into an extended observation about why the great discoveries in history owe everything to comfortable shoes.
As the lights click off in the final scene and Sam walks away from us, he stops to straighten the picture of Geronimo on the wall – one that in real-life belonged to actor Ernie Pantusso, who had played the much-loved “Coach” until his death. Okay, now it’s me tearing up.
9. The Americans
Like Walter White, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are characters which could be easily detestable – except they’re so damn likeable.
They are secret Russian agents living with their American-born children in the suburbs of Washington DC during the Reagan era. They murder, exchange sex for information – and get home in time to take the kids to sports practice.
The finale takes place when they are questioning the role of the KGB in the Gorbachev era. The worst has happened – the Jennings have been outed and are on the run. And the six seasons culminate in one extraordinarily tense 11 minute exchange of dialogue between Phillip Jennings and his best friend, FBI agent Stan Beeman that had me biting my nails and those of several people around me.
And after that there is one more big, devastating twist to come.
Which is one plot point I won’t spoil because this is the most recent finale of all.