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.