Sitcoms That Knew When It Was Time To Quit (And The Ones That Didn’t)
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There’s something uniquely bittersweet about the ending of a sitcom. For viewers, once a show has run its course with relatable characters, running gags, and soundstage sets to which we’ve grown attached, the finale can feel like a high school graduation where we say a tearful goodbye to people we’ve grown to love, and whom we loved to watch grow.
Conversely, the finale might feel like a high school graduation where we flip the bird at all the losers we got tired of seeing three years ago and drive off into the sunset, wondering why we even showed up for it in the first place.
To take the end of high school metaphor one step further for the sitcoms themselves, it sure seems like many, if they don't flunk out, end their runs drinking a flat soda outside a convenience store, staring up at a flickering streetlight, not at an all-night rager bonfire where they finally kiss that person they've waited all of high school to kiss.
Until Netflix achieves its goal of giving every living person on the planet their own series, neither I nor anyone else outside of a select few executives will ever know what it feels like to end your life’s work and to tell a cast and crew with whom you’ve been in the trenches with for a decade that today will be their last day.
On top of that, there are plenty of people out there who believe that their favorite sitcom should last forever, and cannot imagine letting go of something they love so much. Hell, you can even find people who liked the post-Michael Office seasons more than the early ones!
Even still, all good things must come to an end, or at least devolve into a barely recognizable shell of their former selves (if/when The Simpsons ever ends, they might just pull a Futurama). Let’s look at a few sitcoms through the years and see when, and how, they handled their departures:
Newhart Stuck The Landing
The absolute mountaintop of sitcom finales was that of Newhart, the second hit sitcom starring TV Legend Bob Newhart, who, sadly, may only be known to millennials and zoomers as Buddy’s adopted father in Elf.
Bob’s first starring role in a sitcom was in The Bob Newhart Show, which ran for six seasons in the 1970’s. Bob played, well, Bob, a Chicago psychologist married to the sarcastic Emily, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Just four years after the finale of The Bob Newhart Show, Bob Newhart debuted a new sitcom on CBS called Newhart, starring Bob Newhart as Bob Newhart (actually his character was named Dick Loudon, but I wasn’t quite tired of typing Bob Newhart. Newhart Newhart Newhart Newhart Newhart).
Bob Newhart’s new series Newhart ran for eight seasons, with Newhart playing a rural Vermont innkeeper running the 200 year old Stratford Inn with his wife Joanna, played by Mary Frann.
The show enjoyed a little more recognition than its predecessor, including 25 Emmy nominations, and its first six seasons finished in the Nielsen top 25. Starting in its sixth season, however, its popularity started to dwindle, and Newhart saw its largest dropoff in ratings between seasons six and seven.
While the network was happy to keep Newhart running despite its decline, Bob had other ideas. He felt that the show had run its course and that it was time for him to move onto other projects. So, it was decided that season eight would be Newhart’s last. After 23 episodes of middling ratings, Season Eight, Episode 24 of Newhart titled “The Last Newhart” aired on May 21, 1990 and made television history.
In the episode, all the inhabitants of the small unnamed Vermont town with the exception of Dick and Joanna sell their land to a Japanese businessman who intends to turn it into a gigantic golf course.
Cut to five years later, the now-rich former denizens return for a reunion, and as chaos begins to erupt, Dick is struck by an errant golf ball and passes out, only for Bob Newhart to awaken in bed next to his first TV wife Suzanne Pleshette. He describes the events of Newhart as if they were all a dream, and his wife tells him “no more Japanese food before bed” as she turns off the light and they go back to sleep.
Seinfeld Cut And Run
There have also been great shows who got out at the right time, but in the wrong way.
The most controversial entry on the list is none other than the king of sitcoms himself – Seinfeld ran for nine glorious seasons and 180 episodes, although the last two found something a little different from glory. The definitive TV show of the 1990’s had two simple rules – “no hugging, no learning”.
The equally simple formula of four single people lazing around their immaculate Manhattan apartments complaining about everything made “the show about nothing” huge. It was bigger than huge. In fact, it was so monumentally popular that on the night of its finale, the roads of Los Angeles were so clear that when legendary Crooner Frank Sinatra had a heart attack, it took paramedics only twenty minutes to load him into an ambulance and rush him over to Cedars-Sinai medical center.
If you’re not familiar with LA traffic, twenty minutes is roughly the amount of time it usually takes to drive from your driveway to your mailbox. Sadly for Sinatra, he was pronounced dead at the hospital. After Seinfeld’s conclusion, there were likely many fans who envied Old Blue Eyes.
The finale, titled simply “The Finale”, was a two-part episode that had Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer going on one last hurrah before Jerry and George move to California to begin working on Jerry’s TV show, which had finally been picked up for production. The crew sets out for Paris, but after Kramer’s clumsiness causes an emergency landing in Massachusetts, the group witnesses an overweight man getting carjacked.
Instead of helping, Kramer records the incident with his camcorder and the friends take turns making jokes at the man’s expense. They are promptly arrested for violating the “Good Samaritan” law, and at their trial, numerous recurring characters testify against them and they are sentenced to a year in prison.
The episode was universally panned, with critics and audiences alike bemoaning the fates of TV’s pettiest friends. It consistently tops lists of the worst finales of all time, and years later, Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared on David Letterman’s final show, thanking him for allowing her to appear on “another hugely disappointing series finale”.
But while the finale itself was a disappointment, Seinfeld left the air as the number one show of its generation, making the plane crash of a final episode the fourth most watched finale in TV history. Despite the departure of Larry David two years’ prior (he returned to write the hated finale), the show was still going strong from a critical and commercial standpoint. Leaving at the show’s peak was the best decision Jerry Seinfeld made for its legacy, as the years of syndication since Seinfeld’s conclusion have overcome the finale and made it the defining sitcom of all time.
The Office, How I Met Your Mother, & Parks and Rec All Pulled A Weekend At Bernie’s
Oh boy, this part’s not pretty. There have been all-too-many shows throughout TV history that existed long past the point at which they jumped the shark (like Happy Days, which went on for six more seasons after literally jumping the shark). In the spirit of brevity, let’s do a quick recap of the shambling corpses that were the later seasons of some of our most beloved sitcoms:
The Office (US):
The most obvious example of a show not taking the hint that it was time to say goodbye. Steve Carrell’s performance as Michael Scott will be remembered for as long as streaming exists, and the King of Cringe’s exit after season seven should have been the end of the most popular show of our time.
Seasons eight and nine featured absolutely shameless instances of Flanderization, with Kevin’s intelligence degenerating to the point where he literally doesn’t know the alphabet. The introduction of some of the series’ worst characters, the elevation of Andy Bernard to regional manager, and some of the most uninspired episode ideas of the show’s entire lifespan made the slow march to its lukewarm ending completely unwatchable.
In one episode, the entire B plot is that the office gets a K cup machine, and then everyone drinks so much coffee that they get hyper and run around. They beat that dead horse for so long their hands get covered in glue.
While the finale brought back Michael for the best “that’s what she said” joke ever, ending the series with the wedding of the show’s third most likeable couple was hardly as difficult a goodbye as the departure of maybe the greatest character in sitcom history.
How I Met Your Mother:
It’s astounding that a show was able to wrangle nine seasons from the framing device of a father describing the story of meeting his wife to his children. It’s even more astounding that the story didn’t end the moment they met. It’s the title of the show!
The series trudged around for an entire season past the point where any child would have immediately risen from the couch and left the room after hearing their dad explain eight years of his life in excruciating detail.
How I Met Your Mother ended with an almost universally reviled finale in which it’s revealed that, shortly after having her kids, the Mother went through a battle with an unspecified disease, died, then Ted reignited his relationship with Robin following her divorce from Barney. Oh also, Robin and Barney divorced, then Barney had a kid after a one night stand.
Thank god they saved all this convoluted plot for the epilogue. The finale was so bad that the creators channeled whoever the hell made Cats and released an alternate ending with the season nine DVD set that correctly cuts off the series after the season eight finale where Ted meets the Mother.
Parks and Rec:
Of all the finales mentioned in this article, none were as drawn out as the sugar-coated fever dream that was the last season of Parks and Recreation.
While the show could have ended with Anne and Chris’ departure at the end of season six, with the ground breaking on the lot that had been at the heart of the Parks Department’s problems since the first season wrapping up the series in a nice tidy bow, NBC had other plans.
The finale itself was praised and adored by fans who preferred to embrace soft lighting and hugs over conflict and laughs. While a critical and commercial success, the long walk to a happy ending betrayed the spirit of the show that had been about struggle since its very beginning.
The best part of Parks and Rec was watching Leslie Knope, an unstoppable force, get foiled by the many obese, immovable objects in Pawnee that prevented her from achieving her monumental ambitions. Turning Pawnee into a paradise and making Leslie the President of the United States may feel like catharsis, but more than anything it was a resignation. There were no more funny ways to frustrate the bullet train of enthusiasm, only hugs and happiness and friendship. How gross.
There were plenty of other sitcoms whose long runs ended both spectacularly and unspectacularly.
M*A*S*H ran for eleven seasons, longer than the Korean War itself, and its finale was the most-watched episode of any show ever, drawing more viewers than the Super Bowl that year.
Cheers ended its 11 seasons with the incessantly on-again-off-again Sam and Diane coming together to finally answer the question of “will they or won’t they?” (spoiler alert, they will).
Friends powered through its decidedly disappointing penultimate season to bring about closure, with the finale showing the incessantly on-again-off-again Ross and Rachel coming together to finally answer the question of “will they or won’t they?” (spoiler alert, they will,)
And on the other side, shows like That 70’s Show made embarrassing attempts at preserving their lifespans by replacing beloved characters whose actors bowed out with unlikable and unwatchable fresh faces thrust into the same tired formula.
Contemporary shows like Scrubs, Weeds, and Gilmore Girls all wore out their welcomes in varying capacities. Roseanne had one of the most notorious final seasons in TV history, with the famously lower-middle-class family winning the lottery and living a life of luxury, only for the finale to reveal that, like Newhart, it was all a dream. Only darker.
Still To Come
Many beloved sitcoms have yet to take their final bow. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just got renewed for a whopping four more seasons, and with no signs of slowing down, it’s not exactly unclear(?) how producers and stars Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day plan on wrapping up the saga of the worst people in the world.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is in the middle of its eleventh season, and with Larry David in his mid 70’s, TV’s most prolific grouch might soon close the book on his heightened, semi-improvised, semi-autobiographical sitcom. Maybe he’ll get knocked out and wake up in Mr. Steinbrenner’s office.
The question remains– when is the best time to wrap it up? Do you quit while you’re ahead, or do you hold out for absolute resolution? How long can a show last once the magic’s gone, and is it worth the damage to a show’s legacy to drag it out past its prime?
Frankly, I would take a Seinfeld over a Parks and Rec or an Office any day. The best shows leave us wanting more, not begging them to stop. Not every show will end a Newhart, or a M*A*S*H. Most of them will get cancelled before they get so bad that we have to watch Andy Bernard go on American Idol.
But all those that wear out their welcome do a disservice to the greater vision. It’s better to die a Seinfeld than live to see yourself become The Simpsons.
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Top image: NBC