Where do I even begin. I've been thinking about this question for months now, and I first asked it months before that. If I had to pick a moment where I think this train of thought originated in my head, I'd have to say the aftermath of How I Met Your Mother's finale. Do you remember that episode? It premiered back on March 31, 2014. Chances are that even if you didn't watch the episode or even the show, you still heard the outrage that erupted because of how the show ended.
At this point I should probably let you know that I'm going to "spoil" the endings of several shows. All the shows I'm going to discuss ended between 9 months and 3 years ago, but I'll put spoiler covers on all the sensitive information just in case. With that said, here's how How I Met Your Mother ended:
After 8 seasons of the show, viewers spent the final season meeting and getting to know Tracy McConnell. The mother of Ted's children and played by Cristin Milioti, Tracy was a welcome addition to the characters and it was easy to see why Ted fell for her. However, after the full season of watching Ted and Tracy fall in love, we found out that Tracy had passed away years earlier, and the show ended with Ted's children encouraging him to get back together with Robin.
Most viewers felt cheated, but the ethics of human response to this show isn't what I want to delve into here. Instead lets move on and try to answer the question at hand: what it takes for a show to end well. Let's look at 3 shows that ended well, and try to figure out a common theme.
1.) Psych (2006-2014)
Psych is a show about Shawn Spencer, a hyper-observant sleuth, and his voice-of-reason best friend Burton Guster. One too many called-in criminal case tips and a risky-but-brilliant idea leads to Shawn claiming to be psychic, and the two form a psychic detective agency to work with the Santa Barbara Police Department. Here's how the show ended:
After years together, Shawn and Gus are set to go their separate ways. Shawn plans on following his girlfriend and ace detective Juliet to San Francisco to propose, and Gus has landed a new job back in Santa Barbara. With one of the greatest friendships in the Golden Age of television about to separate, Gus shows up just as Shawn is proposing to Juliet (outside of a crime scene) and tells him "I'm an adventurer now with a friendship for the ages and if I have to live in another city to make that happen, then so be it." Just as Juliet says yes to the proposal, a thief running by snatches the ring, and the three leap into a car and give pursuit.
2.) Futurama (1999-2013)
Futurama endured network changes and multiple cancellations throughout its years on the air. The show about a man from 1999 being cryogenically frozen and waking up 1000 years later won 6 Primetime Emmys, and after 14 years the audience said goodbye to Fry, Leela, Bender and the rest of the Planet Express interplanetary delivery crew. The show went out on the perfect note:
In the final episode, an accident with eccentric Professor Farnsworth's time-stopping remote leads to Fry and Leela's existence as the only beings in the universe who aren't frozen in time. The two spend years together roaming Earth and living out their lives to the fullest. At the end of their lives, Professor Farnsworth appears and tells the two that they can step through a portal with him and return to the moment just before the time button was invented, but no one will remember what happened. In response, Fry asks Leela "what do you say? Do you want to go around again?" She answers "I do", they take each others hands and the screen flashes white: roll credits.
3.) Chuck (2007-2012)
For 5 seasons, Zachary Levi starred as the titular Chuck Bartowski, a twenty-something computer geek who ends up with the entirety of the CIA and NSA's secrets downloaded into his brain. Aided by agents Sarah Walker, John Casey and his best friend Morgan Grimes, Chuck adjusted to life as the U.S.A.'s most important intelligence asset and worked to become the world's greatest spy. The finale went like this:
In the fight to take down their most dangerous enemy yet, Sarah, who is now married to Chuck, had to download an unstable Intersect (the name for the compiled government/spy data) and lost her memories, including those of friends and family. The final fight ends with Chuck sacrificing the chance to use Intersect glasses to re-upload Sarah's memories and instead downloading the Intersect into himself so he can defuse a bomb set to destroy an opera house full of international VIPs. After all other characters and storylines are tied up, Chuck finds Sarah on the beach where they first talked openly and honestly years before. Chuck begins to tell her about the last five years, and through the montage we see the two starting to reconnect. Finally, they discuss the idea that a kiss could bring all the memories back, and as they kiss the scene fades to black.
So What is the Common Theme?
Do you have an idea of what the three shows share? Here's a hint via the comments of Steve Franks, creator of Psych, on his intentions for the finale of his show:
"I wanted the end of the show to be: This is not the end of all of it. These guys are still going out and having these adventures somewhere else. It's just not being put on television right now. For me, it was always that — it was about continuing. I knew that the last minute is them racing off on another case."
That's the key: continuing. All of the three shows ended with the promise that while the story we were told had come to an end, a new one was just beginning. That's the comforting thought that fans should have: the show may be over, but the story is not over. Out there, somewhere, our favorite characters are still on adventures, solving crimes, saving lives, whatever. Their time with us is over and it was time to say goodbye, but not in the traditional sense. It's better to phrase it as "saying goodbye for now", because there exists a possibility and hope that one day we might see them again. With all that in mind, I'd like to close by taking another look at the ending of How I Met Your Mother.
After years of telling his children the story of how he met their mother, Ted Mosby finds himself at the realization that he is ready to let go of Tracy. From their reactions to all the stories, it's apparent that his kids realize it too: after all this time, he has fallen back in love with Robin. The finale ends with Robin looking down from her apartment to the street. Standing there is Ted, holding a blue french horn, just like the one that started it all.
That's what it's all about, isn't it? It's hard to say goodbye, and it's unbelievably hard to let go. But it's the right choice. You HAVE to let go and you HAVE to say goodbye, because that's the only way you can move on. That's the beautiful thing about moving on: it brings a new beginning, hope of a bright future, and there's always a chance that one day you might be reunited again. Thanks for reading.