Something about sitcom endings…

9 minute read

September 29, 2021, 9:44 PM

Recently, I was thinking about the way various sitcoms that I watched ended their runs, and it made me realize that I actually prefer a certain kind of sitcom ending over others.  I admit: I didn’t ever think that a preference for certain kinds of sitcom endings would even be a thing, let alone that I would have a preference for types of sitcom endings, but here we are.

First, though, to clarify: I am referring to shows that had a proper final ending, i.e. shows where everyone knew when they were taping the final episode that it was to be the final episode.  To clarify what I mean, Perfect Strangers and Full House, for example, had proper final episodes.  Everyone knew that the final episode was to be the final episode when it was being made, and it was aired knowing that it was the last episode.  By comparison, Family Matters and Step By Step, while both long-running series by sitcom standards, did not have proper series finales.  Both shows were cancelled after their ninth and seventh seasons, respectively, and a proper finale was never filmed for either one.  In this entry, I am talking about the former case, where the end point is known, and not the latter case, where the final episode was not intended as such from the outset.

And interestingly enough, my preference is for series endings where the characters are set up to just go on and on, where things don’t drastically change in the finale, where we’re left feeling like the characters that we had come to love would be just fine going forward, even though we wouldn’t be watching them anymore.  In other words, I prefer the ones where the people involved don’t pull out all of the stops to make a huge grand finale.  They may still provide some sense of closure – a capstone of sorts – but it leaves the premise of the show intact.

The best example of the kind of ending that I like is that of The Cosby Show.  In that case, the final episode features Theo’s graduation from college.  It provides a nice conclusion to the series, as Theo is introduced in the pilot as a bit of an underachiever who wants his father to accept his lackluster performance.  Eight seasons later, Theo has come to understand his own challenges learning and has graduated from college, and has a bright future ahead of him.  The final scene of the episode shows Cliff and Clair saying goodbye to Theo as he goes off to celebrate his graduation with friends, they resolve a season-long running joke about a doorbell, and then, with the music from the doorbell playing, Cliff and Clair dance right off the set.  It’s a happy ending, and it bookends the series nicely.  The family remains mostly unchanged, with only a relatively small evolution of the characters rather than drastic changes.  Even though we would no longer be checking in with the Huxtables on Thursday nights, we knew that they would be just fine, and would remain as we remembered them.

Full House was a similar situation to The Cosby Show, in that the finale didn’t shake things up.  However, while Cosby‘s ending was planned from the outset, my understanding is that Full House was cancelled by ABC, and after a network change was considered, some of the cast decided that it was time to move on, and so what would have been a season finale was rewritten to be a series finale.  It did a pretty decent job as a series finale, as Michelle had an accident while going horseback riding, and they were able to revisit the show’s original premise, as well as a number of things that had occurred throughout the series’ run, all to help jog Michelle’s memory (she gets better just before the end of the episode).  There was also a B-plot about finding a prom date for DJ, which led to Scott Weinger‘s reprising his role as Steve Hale to be DJ’s prom date.  When everything resolved after Michelle got her memory back, the show ended with the realization that they stuck it out and got through it, like they always do, and like they always will.  The ending didn’t bookend the series like The Cosby Show did, but was more of a capstone, revisiting everything, and reminding everyone that things would be just fine going forward, even if we would not be watching them anymore.  What happened after that was touched on in Fuller House, but that show had a completely different kind of ending that I’ll discuss later on.

Interestingly enough, another ending that was going to turn out to be one of those satisfying “going on and on” endings was from the original run of Roseanne.  That episode was turning out to be an “everything will be fine” episode.  Darlene and David were at last bringing their baby home from the hospital after a premature birth where the child nearly died.  Dan and Roseanne had reconciled, and were at their best.  Becky and Mark were expecting their first child.  Friends of the family Leon and Scott were adopting a child.  The family was getting bigger, and everyone was happy.  Things were going to be all right for the Conners.  If the episode had ended right there, everything would have been perfect, despite that one critic at the time described the episode, minus the last ten minutes, as “flat”.  Much could be written about the way that Roseanne went (I certainly did), and the final season was a complete trainwreck otherwise, but the last episode, minus that strange final monologue that completely upended the show’s premise, leaving us wondering what in the hell we just watched, and which we would all much rather forget about, was a pretty decent conclusion to a nine-year run that should have ended at least a year before that.  If we end Roseanne where it really should have, i.e. at Darlene’s wedding (minus the heart attack scene), you still get a happy ending where you see the family going on and on after we stopped visiting them.  The revival of Roseanne, as well as The Conners, bears out a going-on-and-on ending, as the characters were thoughtfully updated from how we left them, with nothing too different from what we might have expected.  In any case, when it came to the ending of the original run of Roseanne, I’m still a bit salty that we never got to see the cast’s final bow, of which clips were shown in the previews for the final episode, but which was not included when the episode aired.  I’m also surprised that the footage hasn’t turned up somewhere online in the intervening 24 years, though.

One thing about all of these examples is that the writers didn’t have to try too hard in crafting the finale.  They all felt quite natural, and left the door open for another season if they really wanted to.  Everything fit within what was already in place, and left it in place.  They didn’t have to get too creative, and that was fine.  Additionally, I find unintentional finales, like those of Family Matters and Step By Step, to be satisfying enough, because without any definitive conclusion, we just see them going on and on, even though our access to their lives was somewhat unceremoniously cut off.

Then there are the kinds of finales that turn things on their head to various degrees that I’m not so big of a fan of.  The ones that demonstrate through their finales that what you knew from watching for however many years is gone for good.  They leave me feeling empty to a degree, because it always feels like something is lost.

A mild example of this is Perfect Strangers.  There, the main characters’ wives had both become pregnant, and both of their babies were due in the final episode.  Perfect Strangers episodes generally revolved around Larry and Balki’s getting into some wacky predicament, and this was no exception, as the discovery that a hot air balloon ride caused Balki’s wife, Mary Anne, to go into labor and then have the baby led to one final wacky predicament for Larry and Balki.  Larry’s wife, Jennifer, was overdue on her own pregnancy, and so they took her up on a balloon ride to attempt to get her to go into labor.  It was successful, as she went into labor and then delivered the baby in the hot air balloon’s basket.  However, a series of mishaps led to Larry and Balki’s hanging from the side of the basket for dear life, as they flew out of control, which ultimately required their rescue.  The show then fast forwards two months, showing Larry and Balki as fathers to their children, giving us the sense that the two have settled down a bit and they haven’t been getting into the wacky adventures like they did before, which, being parents at that point, is probably just as well, with their having more responsilibities now.  Other than that, though, it does leave all of the characters together in their final residence, but now as parents.  I was satisfied with that ending.

I’m not a fan of ones where the entire premise of the show is blown up, where everyone goes their separate ways or the gang otherwise breaks up.  For instance, I really can’t stand the way The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ended.  All of the various family members go their separate ways.  Phil and Vivian move to New York.  Hilary goes to New York on her own.  Carlton goes to Princeton.  Geoffrey moves back to England to be with his son.  Will stays in Los Angeles.  It caps off what was, overall, a pretty awful season, so it’s really no surprise that the finale was a bit of a stinker.  Very emotional, sure, as there is lots of familial stuff for Will to sort out as the living arrangement ends, and the comic relief in that episode falls short.  Fresh Prince really should have concluded at the end of the fifth season.  Have Will get married to Lisa and live happily ever after, leaving the Banks family intact.  Especially ironic that they stopped after six seasons because they didn’t want to become a “franchise zombie” while putting out that mess of a final season.

The same goes for Boy Meets World.  That was a wonderful show, but it was clear that the show had been on for too long, and they had run out of ideas.  The ending was an emotional goodbye that seemed out of place.  Cory and Topanga, now a married couple, were going to New York for an internship that Topanga had secured.  However, they were only just finishing up their sophomore year of college, and there was no indication that anyone was transferring to a new school.  Wouldn’t they be back together in the fall for junior year?  I suspect that the ending was cobbled together after the show was cancelled, and thus they needed to find a way to say goodbye for the television audience, but it really didn’t make much sense.  An ending more like Full House, which comes off as more of a regular episode with some wrap-up elements included, might have been more fitting.

Then there are some endings that just take things a little too far.  Those endings where you wish that they would have quit while they were ahead and it would have been a better ending.  The Golden Girls comes off like this.  For those not familiar, Dorothy meets Blanche’s uncle, Lucas Hollingsworth, and the two of them get married.  Dorothy moves out of the house, and there is a lot of crying involved from all of them as Dorothy leaves.  I felt like, if they had ended it with the wedding and skipped all of the boo-hoos, it would have been a stronger ending.  The goodbyes with the roommates seemed extraneous.  After the wedding was over, they should have thrown the name “Paul Junger Witt” on the screen and been done with it.  Of course, the show ended because Bea Arthur decided to leave the show, and the wedding was how they got rid of Dorothy.  The remaining cast would go on to star in The Golden Palace, which was essentially The Golden Girls without Dorothy, on CBS rather than NBC.  If not for the spinoff show’s waiting in the wings, and thus the need to separate Dorothy from the rest of the cast, I imagine that they might have done a different ending.

Another ending with similar problems as The Golden Girls was Fuller House.  That show, which was a revival of Full House, was just plain ending after five seasons, rather than being retooled into something else because of a cast member’s departure, and they built up to the ending in the final season, culminating in a triple wedding, though I felt like the finale was disappointing overall.  The wedding itself was decent, but then, like The Golden Girls, they went on too long, and the events after the wedding itself took the ending from “okay” to “awful”.  Prior to the wedding episode, Stephanie and Kimmy both had told DJ that they were moving out of the house with their mates in order to work on different locations of their sandwich business, which was fair.  After the wedding, they went through all of the same sort of boo-hoos that The Golden Girls did when Dorothy left.  Kimmy, Stephanie, and Kimmy’s daughter Ramona had packed up and moved out, and actually left the house.  But then they came back at the last second and DJ told them that they could stay.  I couldn’t help but think that we had just suffered through that big, tearful goodbye scene for nothing.  Did they move back in and trash all of their plans on an impulse because they considered themselves inseparable, or did they still move out?  Who knows.  Additionally, one big point in the series was that Stephanie was not able to bear children of her own because of various medical issues.  That led to Kimmy’s being a surrogate mother in order for Stephanie to have a child, spending much of the fourth season pregnant with that child.  In the finale, they made Stephanie pregnant.  I feel like they wanted a “babies ever after” ending, and making Stephanie pregnant was how they accomplished it.  But because of all that had occurred in the series prior to that, they shouldn’t have done it, because now they just trashed a large part of Stephanie’s character in Fuller House.  If they had ended the series with the wedding and dispensed with the pregnancy announcement and let the move-out occur offscreen, it would have been better.

So there you go, I suppose.  I have opinions about television shows.  I guess I know what I like and what I don’t?

Categories: Television