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The Worst TV Series Finale… Ever

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Oh boy.

A week and a half after the finale of HBO's The Sopranos, it seems like the perfect time to take a step back and have a look at television finales, specifically bad ones. I didn't think that The Sopranos did deliver a disappointing final episode, I thought that the ending to the series faced the same sort of uncertainty that was exhibited throughout every season. However I seem to be in the minority here, so I wanted to take a moment and remind people of what a truly dreadful finale is like.

Not every show, of course, delivers a bad finale. Something like St. Elsewhere, with its famous snow globe final show caused viewers to stop and think about what they witnessed. It caused a complete reassessment of everything that came before it, a new prism through which to view all the interactions that had taken place in the series. Then there was Babylon 5, which ended its run with a deadly virus getting unleashed that would destroy all humanity (there was a spin-off in which a group went off to find the cure).

There have also been distinctly disappointing show endings, like Seinfeld's trial and jail finale. Some would actually call that a bad show finale, but it pales in comparison to the worst of them all.

No doubt, hands down, unquestionably, the worst finale ever to air on television belongs to Donald P. Bellisario's Quantum Leap. The show starred Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett and the basic premise was that in the near-future, Beckett created a machine, the Quantum Leap Accelerator, that would allow him to travel in time. Upon its first use, Sam is sent into the past and into someone else’s body. The brains back in the near-future decide that Sam has been placed in this body by something or someone greater than them all in order to correct a mistake, to fix something. Once Sam does this, he moves on to another time and another body, and correcting a mistake there into another, then another, and so on and so forth. Thus, as the viewer is told at the beginning of most episodes, the premise of the show is that "trapped in the past, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home."

That’s it, the basic premise — Sam is time-traveling in the past and only wants to go back home, to his body and his life. The show, though sci-fi in premise, focused far more on human interactions. Sam traveled in time and gave everything he had in order to make the world a better place, to help the lives of individuals and humanity. He struggled, but never shirked his duty, always doing his best to help correct mistakes, and always wanting to somehow get back home.

Well, the finale is all about him getting one last chance to go home, and he fails. The series ends with the postscript that “Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home.” It is true that in its original conception, the episode was only intended to be a season finale, and that upon not getting renewed it was re-edited and turned into a series finale.

That, however, is no excuse.

The ending proffered, that “Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home,” destroys all hope for Sam. Sam is still traveling, still striving to put right what once went wrong, and forever hoping that his next leap will be the leap home. For a show that was entirely about optimism, self-sacrifice, and doing the right thing, for a show that was entirely about changing the world, making a difference, and helping humanity, to have the final message be that those that help the world are doomed to lose themselves and their lives in their work is horrific.

The notion that by doing good we lose who we are is not one that fits the rest of the series. While Sam never intended to help save the world with his project, once he started down that road he continued, unswervingly, and all he ever wanted was to one day, somehow, go back home to his wife.

What a bleak, wretched ending, having this man who gave everything, lose everything.

The show may have ended 13 years ago, but I’m still waiting for a retraction. It is unacceptable that Sam Beckett never returned home. I wait for the day when Beckett travels into Bellisario and corrects this grievous error.

And you thought the ending to The Sopranos was bad.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    Yeah, that did suck. I’d forgotten how bad that was. Ouch.

  • http://www.gpb-katie.blogspot.com Katie McNeill

    My mom is waiting for a retraction too. She still talks about when she watches the show. Do you think it’s too late?

  • http://briansmith.blogspot.com Brian Smith

    Re: your Babylon 5 comment, that was not the series finale. The last episode of Babylon 5’s last season was the magnificent “Sleeping in Light”, a scorchingly good episode that brings a tear or six to the eye.

    You are referring to one of the B5 “television movies”, “A Call To Arms” which was specifically written as a launching point for the “Crusade” series, which was cancelled before the first episode was aired. 13 episodes of this new series were made, and JMS (creator of B5) has said the cure to the plague would have been found at the end of Season 2. However, political machinations would have labelled the crew as enemies of the state and the rest of the series would be about other issues, not just the search for the cure.

    You’re right about Quantum Leap, though, what a depressing ending!

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser “TV and Film Guy”

    Brian, You’re right and you’re wrong. I was referring to the last of the Babylon 5 movies, which, as I understand it, were conceived of before the series itself ended. And, some of Crusade’s first season did air, it was cancelled after the first few episodes.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser “TV and Film Guy”

    Katie, I doubt it. There was a brief rumor about Sci Fi doing a made-for with Al, but I think it died.

  • Ty

    “There have also been distinctly disappointing show endings, like Seinfeld’s trial and jail finale. Some would actually call that a bad show finale, but it pales in comparison to the worst of them all.”

    I don’t know why people dislike the Seinfeld finale so much. I thought it was a great and perfect ending for the show. Although the characters are funny, in the real world people wouldn’t like them, and the trial shows why people wouldn’t like this group of people. It’s also funny and a nice recap of the series. I think that is why people are mad. They wanted new fresh interesting material, but instead got a re-cap. But when you look at the series as a whole, the recap is fitting.

    For them to be found violating a “Good Samaritan” law (I think those are stupid, but still) is fitting because they laugh at sad things and are now punished for laughing at a very sad thing (a crime in front of their eyes).

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    It’s not Sam’s hope that’s destroyed, but the viewers’ since only they are aware of the postscript. Although I would ask the hope of what? Is losing oneself, the ego actually horrific in the grand scheme of things? They are steps towards enlightenment in some religions.

    Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” about returning to his hometown, but it no longer was the same place, so he left in search of a new one.

    I think the end has a lot of meanings beside the one you ascribe to it, but everyone has to decide what works for them. That’s what good art does regardless of the artist’s intention, so I have to disagree with QL being the worst finale ever.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser “TV and Film Guy”

    Actually, Sam’s hope is destroyed too, he’s told in the episode that he’ll never be able to go back home. It’s the postscript that tells the viewer that what Sam learns in the episode is true.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser “TV and Film Guy”

    Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States.

  • http://www.zomboscloset.com Iloz Zoc

    I agree with you, that ending threw me for a loop. And the kicker was to have him face more hardship without his trusty side-kick. Bummer. I hated that episode because it does ruin the dynamic of the show as you’ve illustrated.

    I’m always surprised by how writers intentionally do an about-face when the last episode rolls around. I would have preferred closure that brought his journey full circle instead of putting him in a box with no exit.

    On another note, I’d list the last episode of Enterprise as a bummer, too. Then again, the whole series was a bummer. Hmmm.

  • Rebecca

    I always thought the ending was sad but noble. Sam choose to keep fighting the good fight. Didn’t the bartender Al tell him that he was the one leaping himself through time? It was his choice to make the noble sacrifice.

    I think my favorite episode of that series was the Man of La Mancha episode. It was the whole series in microcosm. Sam is still out there tilting at windmills.

  • Sean Paul Mahoney

    The last episodes of Friends, Roseanne, and Moonlighting were pretty crap-tacular as well.

  • chris

    re: babylon 5 and crusade

    a) the last of the babylon 5 movies was not call to arms, but was Legend of the Rangers, and there is a new DVD set of episodes(mini-movies) coming out in about 1 month.

    b) it’s patently unfair to compare a series finale to a spinoff launch telemovie. the story that was “babylon 5″ ended with the episode “sleeping in light” if you’re going to say “but he had it planned before he ended the regular series” then you also have to give him credit for the fact that 5 years of crusade were planned as well. or you can simply end the series where the SERIES ended. and take the telemovies as a separate entity. and for the record, they were commissioned before the series ended, yes, but they were not part of the original 5 year story plan, and yes, other things changed from that plan(but those changes were, uh, planned for if not themselves planned), but the telemovies have always been considered a separate entity.

    c) crusade was canceled before it was aired, they aired it anyways to recoup the money already spent on it.

    the phrase “canceled” refers to when the decision is made to not continue the series. at the time the decision was made, 13 episodes had been filmed and all or mostly post-produced but none had aired. they showed the episodes because they were expensive to make, and wanted to recoup at least some money from them, they advertised the show as a “special limited series” when the episodes were aired, they actually achieved some of the highest ratings that TNT had up to that point(outside of WCW and sporting events) but the decision to cancel had already been made.

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    Babylon 5, the series, ended well. Not as well as it could, since JMS squeezed some stuff in too early, thinking he’d never get the fifth season, but well enough. The movies don’t count.

  • Joanne

    I could have enjoyed Mirror Image, if not for that final sentence. It was a complex tour de force, if only it had left a glimmer of hope for Sam’s return. I always liked the premise that he came back home, fixed the retrieval program, and launched his daughter Sammy Jo as a new Leaper. Maybe with Sam as her holographic companion?

    One of many great moments Scott Bakula gave us as Sam came in Mirror Image: the anguish in his eyes and voice upon learning the leaps would get harder. A heartbreaking scene, among many in that series.

    Unfortunately Scott, through no fault of his own, holds the dubious distinction of having starred in two “Worst Finale Ever” episodes, the other being These Are the Voyages, the travesty that brought the Star Trek franchise to a grinding halt.

  • http://www.quantumleap-alsplace.com Brian Greene

    True it was a disappointing ending to the series… but maybe genius on the part of Bellisario? If he had simply brought Sam home at the end, would we all still be talking about this fantastic series nearly 2 decades later? Something to think about…

    By the way, there’s a 20th anniversary convention in the works! Check out The Leap Back 2009 website.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    I thought the final episode of Stargate:SG1 was one of the absolute worst copouts in the history of television. Even thinking about it now makes me angry with those fuckers!

  • Marie-Claire

    I thought the “Moonlighting” series finale was the worst – a condensation of all the reasons this once-exceptional show had gradually crashed and burned. You had the central event the wedding of two secondary characters, you had David in love with Maddie’s cousin but gallantly stepping aside so that she could reunite with her decent estranged husband who still loved her, and you had the final breaking of the fourth wall a masochistic piece of unfunny slapstick in which two characters who had once believably loved each other scrambled around joylessly to convince the Powers that Be to renew the show because they really, really did still love each other.

    :: sigh ::

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    I didn’t actually see that Quantum Leap finale, but what you describe doesn’t sound bad artistically, but only as a subjective point to you. Your complaint is basically that he should get a nice fairy tale ending where he gets rewarded for his efforts with a leap home. But what was the reward for MLK’s good efforts, or Jesus? That they left it with what you might regard as a sad ending doesn’t mean that it was a bad ending – though in this case, it wasn’t really an ending at all but just a tacked on thought to a canceled show.

    Also, I really liked the Seinfeld ending. It was a great re-statement of the basic point of the characters underlying unlikability and recalcitrance. They were jerks lacking empathy for others and didn’t want it, and they were going to keep being insensitive jerks right to the end even if it landed them in prison. No hugging, no learning.

  • Melanie

    Sorry but you’re wrong about the B5 finale!

  • Alysen

    Josh, I agree with your basic thesis about the final episode of QL; it was downright European. (Euro lit crit sneers at American lit for skewing toward happy endings which, apparently, seem to European readers to be forced, unlikely, illogical, and pandering. For my part, I think many a European book and movie ends with what seems like a forced, unlikely, illogical, and pandering UNhappy ending. I think it isn’t a difference in literary sophistication, it’s a difference in culture: Americans actually expect happy endings in their own real lives, with a certain amount of anecdotal evidence to support the expectation; so happy endings in stories don’t seem unrealistic or naive to us. Where was I? Oh, yeah.) There was no GOOD REASON for Our Hero to get lost forever.

    However, as Finales that Betray All that Has Gone Before go, I submit that the finale to Forever Knight was even worse. In existential despair, Our Hero gives up on his quest for humanity and salvation and begs his nemesis to kill him, and the villain turns out to have been right all along. Ratzafratza…. I almost didn’t watch Buffy because I was “all vampired out”, so disgusted was I by the final episode of Forever Knight.

  • Graham

    PERSONAL ATTACK!?

  • Katie howe

    my mom was waiting to and it pissed me off!

  • Rich L. of New Haven, CT

    Hey dude, yes, the one who wrote this article, I think YOU missed the point. I think there should be a book called, “Tv’s Quantum Leap for Dummies”, yes because many could use it to understand what REALLY happened to SAM.

    Because he saves Al’s marriage, Al was never there for him all those times he went back in time to put right what once went wrong. Without Al, Sam died, thus he never made it home and now you see why there has never been a retraction nor will there ever be one.

    It was absolutely essential that Al accompany Sam on ALL his journey’s, giving him tips, figures and percentages and basically helping him not only solve the main issue at hand but also to keep Sam SAFE. YES SAFE. With out that safety net, Sam was doomed. It would have been theoretically impossible for him to succeed with out Al.

    Brave Sam is NOT currently traveling in the past because he dies on one of his if not his earliest or even his first journey. All the stories changed. Remember the one called, “Shock Theater” and then the follow-up called, “The Leap Home”, well don’t you see that without AL even those two episodes could not take place.

    History was changed dramatically and Bruce McGills character knew it. Knew that Sam was essentially committing suicide by going back and saving Al’s marriage. Because of it, AL NEVER joined project Quantum Leap.

    Clear it up any??

    ps – Oh and by the way, this also makes QL series finale one of the BEST ever because of Sam’s ultimate sacrifice to save his friend’s marriage knowing full well it would cause his own doom.

  • brian

    While I agree that the author is wrong on quantum leap being the worst, rather I think it is the best ever. But I do not believe sam is dead, someone else can replace al as a hologram to help him out. Just because al’s past is changed doesn’t mean that sam’s has been using an alternate universe string theory.

    The show was the best because it took lives he has saved in the past and helped him realize his true intention in life. There is a reason why the bartender, whom al thinks is God, is from the very first quantum leap episode.

    Sam doesn’t return home because he chooses not to. Not because he can’t. Perhaps you missed the conversation where sam realizes this while talking to the bartender. This epiphany enables him to leap to talk with al’s wife and save their marriage.

  • Julanar

    If you feel so strongly about this issue, then instead of complaining about it, I suggest that you start writing the script for “Quantum Leap: The Movie”.

  • Brad

    I don’t think you were paying attention during the last episode of Quantum Leap. Go back and watch it again. It is explained that Sam can leap home at any time, if he wants to. He said his reason for creating the project was to make the world a better place, but he’s frustrated that he’s been bouncing around time and he says, “I didn’t mean one person at a time!” Al the bartender reminds Sam that each person he helps, helps another person, and they help another. And it repeats many times. Therefore, Sam does help make the world better with every leap. And he realizes he really does want to keep leaping. It appears from this point forward that he is leaping around in his own body, like Shtopa the ex-miner appeared to be doing.

  • Etienne

    yeah sams a real swell guy leaving his family behind like that. worst most depressing ending of all time. it doesn’t even give us hope that the next leap might be the leap home it fucking tells us outright that he never gets home, what the fuck is that shit. its fucking light entertainment i don’t want a sacrifice ending i want and ending that everything works out so i can walk away from the show happy.

  • todd bridges

    get a life man

  • seth

    Clearly you have not seen the Sliders finale. Worst of the worst.

  • Dan

    You missed the whole point, Dr. Beckett doesn’t return home by choice, the choice to continue putting right what once went wrong. He begins this by correcting the mistake he made by NOT making a move to ensure Beth would wait for Al to return from Viet Nam. Once that is corrected Sam is in charge of his leaping and he heads off to continue helping others.