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Television's not so grand finales

In the end, it's tough to bring beloved shows to satisfying conclusions

Stephen King recently explained to the press why he's not a lover of the small screen. "In series TV, it's beginning, then middle, middle, middle," the horror author complained. But for devoted TV watchers, this "middle, middle, middle" is one of TV's most captivating traits. It's the same ever-unfolding element that has seduced audiences from the days of Dickens's serial novels to "Days of Our Lives" and "The O.C." Steadfast and dependable, TV series arrive in our dens every week for years on end, bringing with them stories and characters who become our virtual social circle. The title "Friends" refers not only to the rapport among Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Monica, but also to our bond with them.

But then all good things -- "Seinfeld," "M*A*S*H," "The X-Files," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- must pass out of prime time. And the medium that specializes in "middle, middle, middle" has an extremely spotty record when it comes to series finales. Indeed, the very idea of ending goes against the grain of TV's forward-flowing, successive nature.

As NBC's "Friends" and "Frasier" go to meet their electronic maker in May, after 10 and 11 years respectively, they face the challenge of doing exactly the opposite of what they did to become beloved in the first place. After working to stay on the air and in our hearts, to engage us in the everyday comic tribulations of Ross and Rachel and Niles and Daphne, they must now find a satisfying way to split the scene, each in an hour. Tying up loose ends in a hurry -- even brilliant Victorian novelists such as Anthony Trollope had trouble doing it in their "loose baggy monsters."

Until the 1980s, most popular series departed without even attempting to say goodbye. There were exceptions, of course, notably "The Fugitive," which wrapped in August 1967 with Dr. Richard Kimble finally catching up to his wife's one-armed killer. The two-hour finale scored huge Nielsen ratings and left viewers content with its denouement to four years of loyal viewing.

But most shows merely petered out, as pre-1970s TV was viewed even by its own executives as a fast-food format not requiring the ultimate finish of most narrative art forms. Also, the psychological importance of closure -- of saying goodbye to what we love -- hadn't yet become part of common thinking. Now, of course, every armchair analyst knows the value of a proper split -- between husband and wife, between therapist and patient, between fans and their shows.

Proper send-offs Widespread appreciation for the beautifully handled "Mary Tyler Moore" finale in 1977 began a shift in attitude toward series send-offs. And by 1983, finales blew wide open when the last episode of "M*A*S*H" -- stretched out to 2 1/2 hours -- became the highest-rated show in network history. That was the moment the networks understood the full financial potential of our emotional attachment to long-lived series. Cut to today, as we swim in hype and public grief for the end of "Friends" -- even more hype than the "Seinfeld" finale. Advertisers are paying Super Bowl rates for commercials that will run during the episode, which is May 6. The din is so loud it's drowning out the finale of the excellent "Frasier," which airs May 13.

But don't believe the hype, or at least greet it with skepticism. For every gratifying adieu (Cliff and Clair's final dance off the set of "The Cosby Show") there are at least two sloppy ones (Hawkeye's breakdown on "M*A*S*H," J.R.'s "It's a Wonderful Life" vision on "Dallas"). The nadir of finales occurred six years ago, when the roar that was "Seinfeld" died out with a whimper. The classic series had been a comedy of urban manners and petty obsessions, but Larry David turned the last hour into a bloated criminal trial against Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine. It was an unwonted guilt complex of an episode, with the foursome getting punished for nine seasons of raging narcissism. As guests from the show's history took the stand, what should have been a series resolution looked something like a promo for its syndicated reruns.

"Roseanne" also left a sour taste in viewers' mouths when it left the air in 1997. In a lame twist on the shaky it-was-all-a-dream formula, the show alleged that the final season, in which the blue-collar Conners had won the lottery, was all fiction written as therapy by Roseanne Conner after Dan died of a heart attack. It was a misguided attempt at cleverness that disrespected nine years of honest domestic comedy and drama. Both "Seinfeld" and "Roseanne" are examples of what can go wrong when finale writers break away from their show's usual character to do something "creative."

Sometimes finales aren't out-and-out debacles; they're just deflating. "Sex and the City" fared much better than "Seinfeld," as it took good care letting go of its three supporting characters. The February farewell gave each of them a wonderful sense of closure, especially with Miranda opening her heart and Charlotte trading in her picture-perfect fantasies for a shleppy but loving husband and an adopted child. But still: The fate of the show's Manhattan Everywoman, Carrie, flew in the face of her six years of growth. First she gave up her life for the egomaniacal Aleksandr; then she returned to the emotionally erratic Mr. Big. Fans of Carrie's hard-won independence were left with doubts about her evolution.

Pulling it all together Pity the poor finale writers, though, because the task before them is enormous and daunting. For one thing, they must do justice to all the life that came before the show reached its final resting place. When "St. Elsewhere" closed its doors for good in 1988 after six seasons, it gave loyal viewers little more than an absurdist shrug of the shoulders. Guess what, the writers said: The entire series took place in the imagination of Dr. Westphall's autistic son. Not only was the contrivance out of character with the series, but it dismissed all that had come before it. In this case, the all-a-dream formula accomplished little more than self-erasure.

Finale writers also need to contend with the sad reality that by the time a show ends, its characters and stories have often become quite stale. When "The X-Files" retired in 2002, for example, Scully, Mulder, and the series' mythology had already been through torturously byzantine twists. Viewers were burnt out by them, by creator Chris Carter's many false promises for "the truth" and by the disappointing 1998 feature film "The X-Files." "Happy Days" was similarly comatose before it died, and most viewers were disinterested when the finale gave Joanie and Chachi a marriage license and Fonzie an adopted son. Alas, too many series continue to air long after their creative peaks, if the ratings stay strong.

There is a select group of finales that have provided pleasing resolutions against the odds. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" set the standard, as it delivered both a mildly ironic twist (everyone is fired by new WJM management -- except Ted) and an emotional payoff, as the gang formed a group hug and sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." In a different but equally fitting way, "The Larry Sanders Show" wrapped in 1998 with a satire of finales, as the show within the show left the air amid celebrity ego jostling. After a few seasons of tepid melodrama, "Dawson's Creek" went out in 2003 with one last burst of quality, as Joey ended up with Pacey and Jack finally found happiness as a father. And "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" also rallied after a mediocre season with a bittersweet conclusion last year, as Spike sacrificed himself to save Buffy, and then Buffy and the gang looked back on the remains of Sunnydale.

The piece de resistance of finales, however, may be the last episode of "Newhart," in which Bob Newhart is knocked unconscious by a golf ball and wakes up in bed beside his previous TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette. It was bold, surprising, and honest, in that most Newhart fans preferred his earlier "Bob Newhart Show." Turned out "Newhart" was all a dream, but few people cared. The all-a-dream device, which usually plays like a cop-out and creates gaps in logic (remember Pam's dream on "Dallas"?) worked brilliantly. But the likes of "Newhart" and "Mary Tyler Moore" are anomalies, and the odds are against extraordinary "Friends" and "Frasier" send-offs. Prepare to turn your focus back to the best years of the shows -- which certainly won't be difficult. In syndication, on DVD, and possibly even in reunion shows, they will surely be given a vital afterlife. Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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