I'm generally not a big fan of change, so when my favorite shows say goodbye, I am crushed. But the blow is lessened when the finale is everything you hope it will be -- or, it's so surprising, so clever, so why-the-hell-did-my-screen-just-go-totally-black, you almost forget that at this time next week, you'll be channel surfing for the next best thing.
Here are 10 finales that did their shows proud and made it bittersweet indeed to bid them adieu.
Six Feet Under (2000-2005)
The montage that closed Alan Ball's masterful HBO drama was less "TV" than "six-minute-long gut punch." As a weepy Claire drove off to begin a new life in New York, we witnessed the future demise of each of the show's tortured souls, backed by the strains of Sia's gut-wrenching ballad "Breathe Me." The sequence flipped back and forth from Claire's present to the future; comfort that life will go on for the Fishers. (Well, until they all die.) Rare is the series finale that leaves you numb, devastated, hopeful, and heartbroken all at once: Six Feet Under nailed it.
Already close to overstaying its welcome in primetime, Cheers delivered on its feel-good (but not too good) brand of comedy in the finale, the second-most-watched behind M*A*S*H's. The episode used reliable bits like bringing back old friends (Diane stops in for a visit!), wrapping up characters' love lives (Rebecca trots off with her plumber boyfriend), and solving well-worn mysteries (Woody's real name was Huckleberry?) but left plenty of room for tenderness. Seeing Sam close up shop and tell a would-be patron outside the door, "Sorry, we're closed," made even the crustiest barfly get a little sudsy around the eyes.
The Sopranos (1998-2006)
Show creator David Chase never played nice, so why would he start in the Sopranos finale? Still, some fans were up in arms about Chase's quirky close to the dark mob drama, which pretty much amounted to Tony, Carmela, A.J., and Meadow meeting for dinner at a diner. Yep, a diner. Knowing that we're chumps, Chase played us with every lingering look Tony gave a patron (would that guy be the one to finally kill the mob boss?), the blasting of Journey's cheese-rock anthem "Don't Stop Believin'," and, of course, the abrupt jolt of blackness upon Meadow entering the diner that filled our screens. Crude, rude, and no time for emotional B.S., this finale was a delicious end to a show that reveled in the ugliness of humanity.
This is the only show (that I know of) to go totally meta in its finale, and somehow it worked. Having been abruptly axed from ABC's schedule, beleaguered producers had fun with Maddie and David's last hurrah by writing in an "ABC Executive" character to tell the Blue Moon detectives that they'd been cancelled, prompting the duo to traipse across the studio lot frantically looking for a priest to marry them so the show could go on (their recent lack of chemistry had supposedly turned viewers off). Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis handled the schmaltz like pros and somehow made a bitter exit a little bit sweeter.
Bob Newhart is the unequivocal granddaddy of television comedy, and his second exit from sitcomville was nothing short of genius. After spending eight seasons as a Vermont innkeeper surrounded by idiots, Bob wakes up in bed next to his old Bob Newhart Show wife, Suzanne Pleshette, to find he had dreamed the whole thing (including Lisa Kudrow's popping up in the dream as a girlfriend of Larry, Darrell, and Darrell). Cute in a watch-with-your-parents kind of way, this finale pulled off the gotcha! ending better than any other.
To those who hated the Seinfeld finale I say: Yada yada yada. Watching the two-parter, which found our favorite foursome stranded and then jailed in a small New England town for not being good Samaritans, was like seeing a televised cross section of show creator Larry David's brain under a microscope. Bitter, selfish, and misanthropic, the Seinfeld send-off was bleak, though fun at times -- come on, who didn't love seeing the parade of "character" witnesses from past episodes? Babu! Peterman! Poppy! Teri Hatcher as the woman with fantastic breasts! But in the end, the show about nothing ended with Jerry and the gang in prison -- a properly nihilistic exit.
Sex and the City (1998-2004)
It's kinda strange to think about the SATC finale now that we know what happened to Carrie and Co. after the fact, via the blockbuster movie released last spring, but no matter: The HBO hit's finale was a genuinely sweet conclusion to the best show ever written about adult female friendships. Carrie and Big's dramatic Paris reunion aside (I never did trust that guy), it was touching to seeing Miranda move to Brooklyn for Steve, to see Charlotte and Harry realize their dreams of being parents, and Samantha stay fabulous after cancer. This finale hit all the right notes for a chick-fest's swan song.
It's hard to imagine 77 percent of all TV viewers today tuning in for the last episode of a Korean-War-set black comedy, but that's just what Americans did on Feb. 28, 1983, when M*A*S*H's final installment aired. Still the most watched episode ever, "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," the 2 1/2-hour long event (directed by star Alan Alda) chronicled the final moments of the war and the camp's farewell party. The final teary scene between B.J. and Hawkeye was priceless; the word "Goodbye" spelled out in stones at the very end sealed this finale in the annals of great American pop culture moments.
Family Ties (1982-1989)
I couldn't have told you the plot of this one without looking it up (Alex graduates from Leland College and moves to New York for a Wall Street career). But I can report that I cried like a baby when the cast of my favorite 1980s sitcom gathered for their final curtain call (newer addition Courteney Cox among them). Seeing Michael J. Fox cry and embrace his co-stars was the moment I realized I loved television and was jealous as hell that these people got to do it for a living.
What can I say? I have a soft spot for the six pals with the impossibly large apartments and wasn't disappointed with the blast of saccharine that was Friends' last episode. TV's most annoying couple, Ross and Rachel, got back together. Yearning parents Monica and Chandler adopted twins and moved to the 'burbs. Phoebe ... well, did ... something. And Joey decided to move to California (and we know how well that turned out). Over 52 million Americans tuned in to see the gang grab their last cup of joe at Central Perk, and I, for one, was broken up to see them go.