The art of the final episode is tricky; some shows get canceled and end without any fanfare, while others just fade away. But shows that have time to plan their exits often go for grand gestures, some of which work, and some of which fail spectacularly. Both outcomes can make for notable send-offs, though, as you can see in this list of the most memorable sitcom finales.
Cited by the producers of Friends as the “gold standard” that influenced the creation of their own finale, the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured the characters leaving behind the beloved TV station where they had spent the past seven seasons, and it included special appearances by former regulars Valerie Harper (as Rhoda) and Cloris Leachman (as Phyllis). After the final news broadcast, everyone gathers for a group hug and a cry, and Mary, the last one to leave, turns off the lights and closes the door, in an iconic TV-finale moment that’s been often imitated and parodied.
The M*A*S*H finale remains the most-watched non-sports TV program of all time, and it was a monumental cultural event when it first aired in 1983. Directed by series star Alan Alda, the two-and-a-half-hour episode finally ended the Korean War for the show’s characters (after stretching it far longer than it went in real life) and sent almost all of them home after many tearful goodbyes. Although some find the finale too sentimental (reflecting a trend of the show’s later seasons), it offered a touching and heartfelt ending to a series beloved by millions.
'Newhart' (CBS, 1990)
Bob Newhart’s second long-running sitcom (after The Bob Newhart Show), in which he played the exasperated owner of a Vermont inn, ended with a parade of the show’s typical wackiness. What made the finale so memorable, though, was the very end, in which Newhart’s Dick Loudon is knocked unconscious and then wakes up in bed as Dr. Bob Hartley, with Suzanne Pleshette as Emily Hartley right next to him. The two main characters from The Bob Newhart Show then declare the entirety of Newhart to have been Dr. Hartley’s dream, in a brilliant parody of “it was all a dream” plot devices and a perfect absurdist way to end a zany comedy.
The thing everyone remembers from the opening credits of The Cosby Show is the dancing. Bill Cosby and the rest of the cast members dance with exuberance and warmth, showing the characters’ love for each other and exuding the wonderful geniality of the show. At the end of the final episode, Cosby and Phylicia Rashad as Cliff and Clair Huxtable start dancing together and keep dancing right off the set, breaking the fourth wall and connecting the action of the show to the familiar images of the opening credits, bringing things full circle.
The second most-watched TV series finale of all time (after M*A*S*H), the final episode of Cheers featured the return of Shelley Long as Diane Chambers after six years away from the show, and the renewal of her romance with Ted Danson’s Sam Malone. Sam and Diane nearly run away together but end up deciding against it, and Sam returns to the bar that he loves. Cheers ends not with all the characters parting ways or the bar shutting down, but merely with Sam telling an unseen customer that the place is closed for the night.
'The Wonder Years' (ABC, 1993)
Throughout the six seasons of The Wonder Years, audiences watched as young Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) wooed Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), all via the lens of his older self narrating the events of the past. Given how much of Wonder was about nostalgia, it’s no surprise that viewers expected Kevin and Winnie to end up together at the end of the show. But narrator Daniel Stern revealed the fates of all the characters in the show’s closing moments, and Kevin and Winnie turned out to just be friends. It was a bittersweet ending to a show that was all about being bittersweet, and perfectly appropriate even if it left some fans dissatisfied.
By its ninth and final season, Roseanne had gone pretty much off the rails, with its creator/star having decided that the show’s blue-collar family should win the lottery and become millionaires. The final episode only piled on the insults to longtime viewers, positing that the entire show was a fictional narrative created by Roseanne’s character, and then announcing that various important character developments over the past few seasons either hadn’t happened or had happened differently. It was a memorable disaster, and a sad ending to a generally excellent show.
The final episode of Seinfeld is one of the most polarizing shows in TV history, and whether you love it or hate it, you’re not likely to forget it. Taking the extreme selfishness of the show’s characters to its bizarre conclusion, series co-creator Larry David envisioned a scenario in which Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards) were on trial for callousness, bringing up all their past wrongdoing. It might not have worked as a regular episode, but as a dark and clever meta-commentary on the show, it was sort of brilliant.
The producers of Friends studied other sitcom finales to craft their own version, and it shows: The final Friends is a careful culmination of all the storylines and character moments that have come before, with Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) finally committing to their love, Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) moving to the suburbs, and the gang gathering for one last coffee at Central Perk. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but it was a perfect way to say goodbye to the people who had been America’s best friends for 10 seasons.
Throughout its three seasons on Fox, Arrested Development was constantly in danger of being canceled, despite critical acclaim and a bevy of awards. The show’s finale parodied that idea, with references to Skating With Celebrities (the reality show that replaced Arrested Development in its previous time slot) and a petition to improve television (like the petitions that attempted to save Arrested Development itself). Bluth family member Maeby (Alia Shawkat) tries to sell the rights to her life story to Hollywood, and is told it wouldn’t work as a TV series, but should maybe become a movie instead.