Rules for the Perfect TV Series Finale

The end is near. Fans of the television series Lost know what I am talking about. Only a handful of episodes remain before the popular show ends its run. Will the finale live up to expectations or will it be a bitter disappointment? Hopefully, the producers and writers of Lost have examined some of the other series finales in TV history as case studies of what works and what fails.

The last episode of Lost has already been filmed and we will see the result in a few short weeks, so my advice here is too little too late. But maybe this might come in handy for other shows planning their good-byes.  Take heed!

When it comes to a grand series finale, what works and what does not?

1. Avoid the anti-climax! This is the biggest risk that Lost will face. Expectations are high. Fans have enjoyed developing their own theories about what the answers to the complex storyline’s many questions might be. This is a show that is exiting at the top of its game. As I have written before, it needs to provide answers. It cannot leave the audience hanging. It cannot fade to black, like The Sopranos finale did, and leave the conclusions to viewers’ imagination.

2. Do not negate what came before! I am a stickler to continuity. They have to fit in everything that has already been established. If they pull a fast one with a twist ending that makes the whole series a daydream of one of its characters (like the infamous ending of St. Elsewhere), most fans will feel cheated. They have already suspended disbelief, they have already invested in the mythology of the show, they have already embraced all the characters who have come and gone, so they deserve an ending that isn’t just a gimmick.

3. No “deus ex machina!” We are already dealing with a show that includes supernatural forces of good versus evil, where almost anything might be possible – time travel, alternate realities, shape shifting, communicating with the dead, and so on. But an implausible, out-of-the-blue ending, in which something new is introduced that had not been established before, might be a disaster for the legacy of Lost (sort of like the ending of Battlestar Galactica left some fans distraught). Ideally, the ending will link back to story elements already set up, building on what is already known, even if shown in a new light.

4. Treat the characters (and their fans) with respect! Do not suddenly make a beloved hero into a villain. Do not have the people we have been watching during every episode over all these seasons do things that are suddenly out of character. Do not make us hate the characters we have grown to love (even the ones we love to hate). Seinfeld’s ending failed because even though the finale stayed true to how the characters acted throughout the show, it was supposed to be a comedy and we did not want the fact that the characters were insensitive jerks to be the last impression we had of the sitcom. The finale to Star Trek: The Next Generation was a hit because it showed how the characters might turn out in their future. It was good, speculative fun, consistent with what came before.

5. Give the audience what it wants! The Fugitive confronts the One-Armed Man. The war is over on M*A*S*H. Sam shuts off the lights of his bar one last time after selling it on Cheers and utters that great last line, “Sorry, we’re closed.” It will be tough to satisfy everyone. Even the most brilliant ending will leave some viewers disappointed. But the showrunners by now should know what elements their fans would want to see, what questions they would like to have answered, in what direction they want that last episode to go. They can certainly play with people’s expectations and surprise them with well-thought-out twists. The challenge, however, is to make it entertaining and satisfying for the audience.

Creating a season finale that makes everyone happy is not an easy task, I know, but it is the challenge that the makers of Lost are facing. What they have come up with will determine the show’s final legacy -- whether the series proves to be (a) an amazing non-linear tale of epic proportions with a satisfying conclusion built on plotlines laid out from the beginning or (b) a series full of red herrings that finally imploded under its own weight, evidence that the writers were making it up as they went along and finally painted themselves into a corner that they could not escape.

Let's hope Lost ends on a high note.