Coming up with a good series finale is a very tricky thing. There’s a lot of pressure for the writers to find a unique idea that will, in some way, cap off the series. Of course, no matter how good it is, one way or the other, they’re not likely to please everyone. Popular themes for finales have included moving out, job changes, graduations, births, deaths, and the return of a significant character from the past. And then, there’s the “big dream” explanation.
Just a handful of TV series have attempted to go out this way. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. What’s the difference between a finale that’s dreamy and one that’s simply a nightmare?
It ultimately comes down to what’s right for the particular show. Does the dream scenario fit in with the rest of the series? Or, does it seem like it was just tacked on to the end because the writers couldn’t think of anything better? The good ones are surprising but satisfying. The bad ones feel like a bad case of bait and switch that make you question why you watched the series to begin with.
Here are five examples of shows that were all a dream, from best to worst. Take a look and give us your opinion below.
Newhart — “The Last Newhart”
In the final few moments of the show, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is hit on the head with a wayward golf ball. When he wakes up, we realize that the entire series has been a dream of Newhart’s character, Dr. Bob Hartley, from his previous sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show.
Which dream ending was the best?
Though the dream ending wasn’t planned very much in advance, it fits perfectly. Newhart plays essentially the same character in both shows and, as Dick Loudon, he runs into a few characters that are very reminiscent of those from The Bob Newhart Show. There are also plenty of bizarre events in the series that are best explained as the result of having eaten bad Chinese food the night before. Not only does Newhart’s clever series-as-a-dream scenario work, it ensured that the quiet 1980s sitcom will never be forgotten.
Life on Mars (US) — “Life is a Rock”
Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), a 2008 detective who’d been inexplicably been thrown back to 1973, wakes up in a space capsule that’s just landed on Mars. It turns out that the 2008 scenario was part of sleep-induced fantasy that went wrong as the result of spaceship malfunction. The other members of his Mars crew are people he encountered in the 1973 dream and his strange 1973 memory flashes make sense.
You have to hand it to the writers of this UK series remake for coming up with this clever ending. They had this ending in mind from the start and crafted the series in such a way that they could end it at any time. Even though the ABC show was cancelled rather abruptly, they assembled an unforgettable finale that works. And, like the car that hit Sam in the pilot, it was something that nobody saw coming.
Life on Mars (UK) — Series Two, Episode Eight
After two short seasons and finally getting acclimated to living in the 1970s, Sam Tyler (John Simm) wakes up from a coma in the present day. Once he recovers, Sam returns to his regular life but feels terribly out of place. He realizes that he’d prefer to live in his coma dreams and leaps off a tall building. That ending was a little too dark for some so an epilogue was tacked on at the end. After jumping, Sam ends up back in the 1970s and, with his friends and girl, drives off into the sunset.
The original Mars has a satisfying (though still quite dark) finale but it hardly comes as much of a surprise. Considering the outstanding series as a whole, the finale is a bit of a letdown.
Roseanne — “Into That Good Night, parts one and two”
The long-running sitcom was set to end at the end of its eighth season and John Goodman’s Dan was going to die of a heart attack. At the last minute, ABC decided to bring the show back for an ninth year. Roseanne Barr decided to go out with a bang and turned the last season of the blue collar sitcom into a crazy version of Absolutely Fabulous.
Goodman was only contracted for some of the episodes and so Dan and Roseanne have marital problems in the show and he’s not around very much. In the last season, the family wins the lottery, battles terrorists, and meet celebrities.
In the show’s final moments, we learn that the entire show has been in Roseanne Connor’s imagination. She’s been writing her memoirs and has changed the details of her life that she didn’t like. We learn that, in reality, Dan had died of the heart attack, daughter Becky married David (instead of Mark), daughter Darlene married Mark (instead of David), and sister Jackie is gay (instead of mother Beverly). Barr then reads a very long T.E. Lawrence poem that seems to go on forever.
The whole dream twist comes out of left field and feels completely out of character for what began as a simple blue-collar sitcom. So many could identify with it for so long that to end it this way feels very cheap.
St. ElsewhereSt. Elsewhere — “The Last One”
This groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed medical drama effortlessly mixes issues like life, death, and AIDS, with elements of black comedy. The strong ensemble includes actors like Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, William Daniels, Denzel Washington, Alfre Woodard, Mark Harmon, and even Howie Mandel.
By the end of the series, the struggling St. Eligius hospital is about to be closed for good, characters have left or are leaving, and Dr. Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) dies at his desk. There are comic elements in the last episode as well, including the cliche fat lady singing and bits that are reminiscent of other finales.
In the final moments of the show, it’s revealed that the entire series has been imagined by Donald Westphall’s autistic son, Tommy (Chad Allen), as he stares into a snowglobe that contains a tiny hospital. Though the big twist is a shocker and has gone down in history as one of the most memorable finales in television history, most faithful viewers couldn’t help but feel cheated.