The most ballyhooed TV series ending of the year came with September’s intense final scene of "Breaking Bad" as Walter White bid a bloody farewell to his "Baby Blue." But a comic coda leaked last month: a gag “alternate ending” in which show star Bryan Cranston wakes up next to his "Malcolm in the Middle" co-star Jane Kaczmarek, in character as sitcom parents Hal and Lois. "You cooking anything?" she asks.
The clip, of course, was an homage to the 1990 ending of "Newhart" in which Bob awakens in Chicago beside Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) – his wife from his previous sitcom, "The Bob Newhart Show."
The "Newhart" moment stands with the shuffling group hug of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the closing-time capper of "Cheers" as classic sitcom so-longs. The memorable final scenes likely inspired and certainly set high bars for the teams behind "The Office," "30 Rock" and "Futurama," all of which offered sweet and funny farewells in 2013.
But that didn't make it easier to say goodbye – even in a year where some comedy comebacks offered new hope that a show doesn’t always have to end with the closing credits.
"The Office" packed perhaps the biggest surprise of the outgoing sitcoms with the return of Steve Carell's Michael Scott, who arrived at Dwight and Angela's wedding with the best – and bawdiest – "That's what she said" one-liner of them all. The program ended on a classier note, with Pam’s sentimental soliloquy and the camera on her drawing of Dunder Mifflin headquarters – recalling one of the series’ most poignant episodes and reminding us we watched for nine seasons for more than just laughs.
The last scene of “30 Rock” – set in the future with Liz Lemon’s granddaughter pitching the show to NBC President Kenneth Parcell as spacecraft zipped by his office window – offered its own “Newhart”-like twist (with a little “St. Elsewhere” tossed in). The finale marked an odd, yet fitting ending to a show that never stopped to catch its breath.
“Futurama” slowed down in its final outing for a love story that was strangely appropriate for a program that could be deceiving sappy at times (despite reprobate robot Bender's frequent exhortations to bite his shiny metal bottom). We got to see 20th century throwback loser Fry and one-eyed mutant beauty Leila grow old together before being thrust back to the future.
“Futurama,” of course, had more than one ending in its time: The cartoon survived cancellation by Fox in 2003 to come back five years later as a series on Comedy Central. Given its animated format where characters never have to grow as old as Professor Farnsworth, a return would seem possible – even if producer David X. Cohen recently shut the door on another mission for the Planet Express crew.
But if we learned anything this year, it’s never say never to comedy comebacks – especially with expanding media platforms giving us new ways to experience old favorites.
“Arrested Development,” another cult comedy prematurely canceled by Fox, got new life on Netflix in what was probably the most anticipated sitcom event of the year. The new episodes disappointed some, while others of us laughed until it hurt – even if the jarring final scene proved far from funny. There are indications, thankfully, we haven’t seen the last of the Bluths.
One of the enduring draws of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” is that many sketches don’t have traditional endings. Neither, apparently, does the comedy troupe: The five surviving members plan to reunite for a London stage show in July, nearly 40 years after signing off the TV show with a giggly non-sequitur (“That was a party political broadcast on behalf of the Liberal Party”).
While “The Office” closed this year, Ricky Gervais revived his grating David Brent character from the original UK version of the show with a series of YouTube videos in which supposed guitar lessons give way to self-indulgent songs. Brent, who always fancied himself a star, can’t give up the stage, a decade after the final “Office” special.
The end of long-running shows, for those of us who watch too much television, can mean saying goodbye to friends of sorts (even a clueless dolt like David Brent), familiar faces reliable for a good time, delivered in half-hour doses. Both superb and subpar finales can leave us wanting more – even if we can never be sure these days whether we’ve had the last laugh.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.