Top 20 Best TV Finales of The Century (So Far)
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the Top 20 Finales of The Century So Far. For this list, we'll be looking at shows that went out on the highest notes possible in the 21st century. While a few of these shows technically premiered in the 90s, all that matters is that they ended the following century. Since we're talking about endings, spoilers are unavoidable. Our countdown includes "The Last One" from "Friends" (1994-2004), "START" from "The Americans" (2013-18), "Sozin's Comet" from "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (2005-08), "One Last Ride" from "Parks and Recreation" (2009-15), and more!
Script written by Nick Spake
#20: “Goodnight, Seattle
Between Roz’s promotion, Martin’s wedding, and Niles and Daphne becoming parents, “Goodnight, Seattle” gave each supporting player a touching sendoff. What about Frasier himself, though? Including his time on “Cheers,” we followed Frasier for twenty years. After all that time, what can you possibly say? Well, having such a way with words, Frasier sums it up in his farewell speech with a little help from Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Frasier’s commentary on taking risks is only given more weight when we get to the final scene, which subtly reveals that he chose love over the safer road. It may not be the last we see of Frasier with a Paramount+ revival being ordered, but “Goodnight, Seattle” will always be a sentimental ending to this chapter.
#19: “Brave New World”
“Boy Meets World” (1993-2000)
“Boy Meets World” taught us much about the inevitability of change. After seven years, though, we couldn’t imagine Friday nights without Cory, Topanga, and the gang. The finale softens the blow with plenty of laughs, especially Eric’s doll and Cory’s meta title drop. However, the time to say goodbye eventually arrives. The final scene goes back to where it started with the original central characters. One by one, the four kids we watched mature into adults bid farewell to the teacher who guided them through it all. The final moments propel “Brave New World” from a solid finale to one of the greats. Not every TGIF sitcom ended with a true sense of finality, but Mr. Feeny’s closing remark continues to pull at our heartstrings.
#18: “The Wrath of the Lamb”
Throughout its tragically short run, “Hannibal” had a way of topping itself with each season finale. “Wrath of the Lamb” was every bit as bloody, intense, and atmospheric as we could’ve hoped for, complete with a pulse-pounding confrontation between Lecter and Graham. From the beginning, these two kept us guessing in different ways. We always knew that the unhinged Lecter would go out a monster, but Graham emerged as an unlikely wild card. By the conclusion, it’s debatable if Graham is closer to a hero or villain. All we know is that he can’t live with or without Lecter, leading to a beautifully ambiguous ending. Of course, if Season 4 ever got the green light, we’d gladly gather around the dinner table for another meal.
“Malcolm in the Middle” (2000-06)
Taking a cynical approach to the coming-of-age sitcom, “Malcolm in the Middle” endowed a sad but true lesson: life is unfair. Just because you’re the smartest person in the room doesn’t mean things will ever come easy. In many cases, though, those who suffer the most go on to change the world. It’s not the road that Malcolm would’ve chosen, but it’s the one that might lead him to the presidency someday. Malcolm also finds that even when childhood ends, the bonds of family endure, for better or worse. While maintaining the show’s signature edge, “Graduation” still manages to be a sincere ending with emotional growth for every member of the Nolastname family. At least we think that’s their surname. It’s hilariously never said aloud.
#16: “And in the End...”
Of all the shows on this list, “ER” had the lengthiest run of fifteen seasons. During that time, the medical drama saw various ups and downs. Thankfully, the finale wasn’t just a high point for the series. It was an Emmy-winning event that recaptured the stimulating sensation we experienced when the show first aired. Both the pilot and finale sum up a typical day at County General Hospital. A new trial awaits around every corner and just when things start settling down, matters get more chaotic than ever. Unlike the pilot, though, the “ER” finale had to deliver on a decade-and-a-half of storytelling. The finale is full of memorable character moments and even those who don’t play a significant role are still felt in spirit.
#15: “One Last Ride”
“Parks and Recreation” (2009-15)
When “Parks and Rec” premiered, it seemed like an exaggeration of government incompetence. Not long after the series ended, its portrayal of politics started to feel much closer to the real deal. “One Last Ride” leaves us with a hopeful reminder, however. No matter how bad things get, there will always be people like Leslie Knope trying to make the world better. Even a simple gesture like fixing a swing can go a long way. The finale looks to an optimistic future where April and Andy become parents, Leslie and Ben become even stronger as a couple, and virtually everyone has achieved their career goals. The people of Pawnee still struggle to remember Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry/Barry’s name, but we’ll never forget this farewell.
#14: “I Say a Little Prayer”
“Nurse Jackie” (2009-15)
Throughout its seven-season run, people often debated whether “Nurse Jackie” was more of a comedy or a drama. “I Say a Little Prayer” seems to solidify the show as a tragedy, amounting to an appropriately bleak exit. The finale presents Jackie Peyton with an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, leaving All Saints’ Hospital behind. Alas, old habits die hard, and Jackie ultimately succumbs to her addiction. Jackie’s overdose might’ve resulted in her death, but even if she survived, there’s little chance that she’ll ever change. And speaking of virtuous cycles, Zoey’s final line brings things full circle with Jackie finally hearing the words, “you’re good.” It’s a haunting ending, but given Jackie’s history, it’s not an unearned one.
“The Office” (2005-13)
Some argue that “The Office” should’ve ended when Michael Scott departed from Dunder Mifflin. While that might’ve been one gratifying way to wrap up the series, it would’ve deprived us of this equally poignant sendoff. Although Steve Carell practically steals the show with his brief reappearance, “Finale” is mainly about bidding farewell to Jim, Pam, Dwight, and the rest. It’s cleverly executed with the cast returning to commentate on the documentary they just spent several years filming. For all the tears, the episode isn’t afraid to be a little mean-spirited, most notably pertaining to Creed’s fate and Ryan’s horrible parenting. At its heart, though, the finale encourages us to find the beauty in ordinary things, be it a tedious office job or a comforting sitcom.
“The Wire” (2002-08)
This finale’s title alludes to a journalistic phrase used to mark the end of a story. It’s fitting, seeing how the final season revolved around the media’s role in law enforcement. What’s more, “-30-” effectively wraps up several story arcs, most of which we see through a bittersweet closing montage. While it may be the end for this large cast of characters, the issues they’ve encountered are far from over. If anything, very little has changed. Even when an addict like Bubbles turns his life around, another is inclined to take his place. Scoring an Emmy nomination for writing, the finale remains faithful to the uncompromising realism that David Simon has always been known for while still providing closure across the board.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)
The “Buffy” finale took several chances that paid off in rousing fashion. Multiple main characters die, some of which eventually come back while others aren’t as lucky. Sunnydale is obliterated, saying goodbye to one of TV’s most iconic small towns. For all the sacrifice, “Chosen” is also packed with game-changing triumphs. Buffy may be a badass, but she couldn’t have saved the world on a regular basis without her fellow Scoobies. In their last stand against the First Evil, Buffy receives more support than ever as every potential Slayer unlocks the power inside. With a mix of action, tragedy, and pop culture references, “Chosen” delivered everything we could want from a “Buffy” finale while leaving the door open for further adventures in the comics.
#10: “Happy Ending”
“Schitt’s Creek” (2015-20)
A lot of fans didn’t discover “Schitt’s Creek” until later in its run. Given the show’s growing popularity, it would’ve been tempting for Dan Levy and company to keep it going several more years. Instead, Levy decided to go out on top after six seasons. Although not everyone was ready to say goodbye to the Rose family, we couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying ending. Speaking of being satisfied, David gets two happy endings, one with Patrick and another with a masseur. Johnny, Moira, and Alexis also learn that happiness doesn’t necessarily come from wealth. It comes from friends, family, and finding the best version of yourself. As far as sitcom finales go, “Happy Ending” is simply one of the best.
#9: “The Book of Nora”
“The Leftovers” (2014-17)
When “The Leftovers” premiered, Carrie Coon’s Nora was essentially a supporting player. Nora quickly stole the show with the finale even being named after her. “The Book of Nora” builds to a riveting monologue detailing what could’ve happened to The Departed. The writing and Coon’s delivery paint such a vivid picture that we feel like we’re there with Nora. Of course, we never learn if Nora was telling the truth about this alternate reality. Unlike another supernatural series co-created by Damon Lindelof, though, “The Leftovers” was never about getting concrete answers. It was about dealing with grief and the unexplainable, which “The Book of Nora” brilliantly conveys. The finale lets the mystery be and embraces “The Leftovers” for what it truly was, a love story.
#8: “Person to Person”
“Mad Men” (2007-15)
Don Draper/Dick Whitman spent most of his life trying to figure out who he is. In the episode that finally won Jon Hamm an overdue Emmy, Don seemingly has an epiphany. Some assume that he left it all behind and became a hippie, but we like to think that Don realized what’s been in front of him this whole time: he’s an adman. Don will never be the traditional husband or father we often see in commercials. However, Don knows how to sell that idealized lifestyle. In the end, none of the “Mad Men” characters are like the people depicted in ads, but they all show some maturity as the 70s usher in a new era of peace, love, war, and Coca-Cola.
“The Americans” (2013-18)
Despite not being especially action-heavy, “START” is one of the most intense finales we’ve ever seen. The whole episode is like watching a bomb defuse with a crucial wire being cut in a parking garage. With their cover blown, Philip appeals to FBI agent Stan as a friend and neighbor. Being a Soviet spy, though, it’s hard to say how sincere Philip’s words are. In any case, everyone is forced to be true to themselves in the end. While Philip and Elizbeth have always been loyal to their homeland, Paige is an American and can’t follow the same path as her parents. Winning Emmys for writing and Matthew Rhys’ captivating performance, “START” saw family and country collide in heartbreaking ways.
“Friday Night Lights” (2006-11)
Like the Season One finale, “Always” once again finds Coach Taylor at the State Championship. The difference this time is that the game’s outcome doesn’t really matter. We don’t even see the entire final play that wins the Lions the championship. Even if East Dillon had lost, they still would’ve played their best, which is what’s most important. While football drew us to this series, the game of life kept us coming back. Everyone wins in that respect with Matt and Julie getting engaged, Tim and Tyra reuniting, and Tami and Eric settling in Philadelphia. “Always” also proved victorious at the Emmys, winning for Jason Katims’ teleplay and Kyle Chandler’s performance. In reality and fiction, it was a fairytale ending to a genuine underdog story.
#5: “The Last One”
Being the definitive comfort food show, it’s only appropriate that the “Friends” finale gave fans exactly what they wanted. At the same time, the creators threw several curveballs with Monica and Chandler becoming parents to two children, Gunther making an unexpected confession, and a suspenseful race to the airport that had us holding our breath until the last second. Attracting 52.5 million viewers, “The Last One” remains the century’s most-watched series finale. Granted, the ratings game has significantly changed with the rise of DVR and streaming. Even with those innovations, few finales have come close to matching the impact of “Friends’.” It was the kind of television event that we honestly rarely see anymore, uniting audiences for a night of laughs, tears, and goodbyes.
#4: “Made in America”
“The Sopranos” (1999-2007)
When we made our list of the Top 10 Disappointing TV Show Finales, “Made in America” was generally seen as the most infamous in HBO history. Much has changed since then. For starters, another HBO finale has claimed that dubious throne. More importantly, many have come to recognize the genius of the “Sopranos” finale, us included. At the time, everyone dwelled on Tony’s cut-to-black exit, writing it off as abrupt and unfulfilling. Rewatching the series, though, David Chase clearly planted seeds for this ending, which is far more thematically satisfying than we initially gave it credit. The fact that fans are still analyzing the finale over a decade later is a testament to its staying power, solidifying “Made in America” as one of the best.
#3: “Sozin’s Comet”
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2005-08)
When we think of epic finales that fire on all cylinders, “Sozin’s Comet” immediately comes to mind. From the animation to the action, this four-parter is a spectacle in every sense. The epic scope applies to the emotional stakes with every major character receiving a heartfelt exit. Even several supporting characters we hadn’t seen in a while return for a proper goodbye. Virtually no stone is left unturned, showing just how dedicated and passionate these artists were. Apparently, the crew was willing to pay out of their own pockets to guarantee that the finale went above and beyond. Thankfully, Nickelodeon gave them the budget to fulfill their cinematic vision. Thrilling, tear-jerking, and even quite funny at times, “Sozin’s Comet” is one for the ages.
#2: “Everyone’s Waiting”
“Six Feet Under” (2001-05)
Even the most well-received finales are usually bound to have a few cynics. However, we’ve yet to find someone who wasn’t deeply touched by “Everyone’s Waiting.” Going against the show’s convention, the episode commences with a birth. It wouldn’t be “Six Feet Under” without death, though, and the ending unleashes a tidal wave of emotions. As Claire drives off to her new life, we’re given a glimpse of what the further holds and how each character will go. Some die peacefully, others are taken too soon, and each death hits us hard. A finale can easily destroy a show’s legacy, but “Everyone’s Waiting” has only helped “Six Feet Under” to stand the test of time. If we’re alive in 2085, we’re definitely rewatching this one.
“Breaking Bad” (2008-13)
Going into the series finale, “Breaking Bad” still had so many balls in the air. How could Walt possibly get his money to his family? Would Jesse escape from captivity? What about the ricin? Vince Gilligan managed to wrap up everything in a tidy bow, however. Well, tidy might not be the right word, as Walter White’s journey naturally ends in blood and mayhem. Yet, it also ends with redemption, reconciliation, and sweet, sweet revenge against Todd. We can’t imagine Heisenberg’s story ending any other way, living up to the increasingly high standards that the series kept finding new ways to surpass. Where so many other shows overstay their welcome or end on a rushed note, “Felina” knew precisely how to stick the landing.