[WARNING: SPOILERS FOR MANY THINGS]
TV finales are always risky. No matter how good the show may be, a bad finale can turn everything sour. Sometimes they fall completely flat, like Seinfeld’s trip to jail, and other times they’re completely nuts, like St. Elsewhere’s… well, if you don’t know then we’ll let you read about it yourself.
Years later, finales are often revisited so that critics can make a definitive statement on whether or not they actually worked, but we wanted to capture those initial feelings. So we looked at online engagement during the original airdates of 30 different shows to see how the internet initially reacted when it was time to say goodbye
Before we start, though, it is important to realize that sentiment here is focused on millions of opinions. While critics’ reviews are taken into account, looking at large swaths of social media means that the numbers here largely reflect the opinions of people who at least had a passing interest in the show. Objectively, it’s hard to say that The Big Bang Theory was a better show than The Shield, but our metric of online engagement offers a much more accurate comparison between what each show’s core audience felt about the conclusion when it happened.
Now, let’s begin with the earliest controversial ending we have on here: The Sopranos. The notorious finale that included Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” onion rings and a black screen out of nowhere was a shock to viewers, with some thinking their TVs were on the fritz.
But despite how polarizing this ending seemed at the time, its online engagement was pretty strong. You can see that 68% positive sentiment is quite good and makes it seem like the audience was satisfied with how everything turned out even if that last shot will forever remain a point of contention.
Of course, The Sopranos ended before social media truly blew up. In 2007, Facebook had a scant 20 million users and Twitter was still in its infancy; the hashtag hadn’t even been invented yet! The various digital peanut galleries weren’t as vocal about controversial finales as they are now.
For example, Lost was another show with a highly polarizing finale -- an inscrutable ending to what had become a largely inscrutable show -- and was released in 2010.
This is after social media had begun to grow, and “The End” did score lower at 63%. But while that is not stellar, it’s definitely better than the very vocal critics would have had you believe back then. (And definitely more favorable than retrospective reviews, which have been much harsher.)
Now, looking at social engagement is not an exact science and the tricky thing about finales is that a good finale can lead to a lot of negative sentiment, because viewers’ sentiments are sadness over it ending. That means sometimes the data needs to be further scrutinized to make sure the sentiment is being properly interpreted.
That is why there is a caveat when looking at show like Breaking Bad, for example. This is a series that is widely considered about as close to perfection as is possible, including the way in which the finale wrapped it all up. While its use of “Baby Blue” didn’t reinvigorate Badfinger as much as The Sopranos helped Journey, it was still overall a very fitting end to such an acclaimed series.
So why does its finale’s sentiment rank around the middle? Digging deeper, we found that the overwhelming amount of negative reactions were not from disappointment with the episode, but that there were no more left; a lot of crying emojis and sadness that Walt’s story was finally over (but at least we have the movie coming up, right?).
When we start moving towards the finales with higher negatives, though, we begin finding series whose ends elicited less sorrow and more outrage.
Game of Thrones is, obviously, the biggest target right now. Both critics and fans had serious issues with not just the last episode but the whole last season (this petition to have “better” writers redo the show is over halfway to its goal of three million signatures), and that is borne out by the data. It is one of only seven shows that dip below 60% of positive sentiment, and we did not find the same kind of online eulogies that a show like Breaking Bad was offered.
The opinion of critics and viewers is, obviously, not always in sync -- at 59%, the Girls finale was a failure for many fans, but the final season sits at nearly 90% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. But especially at the extremes, there are shows where the critics and the audience were in near agreement.
The Leftovers, with a 99% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes for its final season, is fairly in line with a finale that had our highest positive sentiment of 86%, and the final season of Gilmore Girls, with an 87% Fresh score, is pretty close to its 82% finale. (And was good enough to inspire a Netflix sequel.)
On the opposite end, it’s not easy to find many people who vigorously defend the final episodes of True Blood or Dexter. Not only were these once beloved shows panned in their final seasons (44% and 35%, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes), but both are almost guaranteed to show up on any list of the worst finales ever, especially in the case of lumberjack Dex.
Similarly, Two and a Half Men, despite long being the target of critics, remained incredibly popular with viewers. But even that unshakable fanbase couldn’t support a finale which includes no less than two grand pianos falling from the sky.
And then there is the sad tale of How I Met Your Mother. It maintained respectable reviews in its final season (especially for a sitcom that ran nine years), and also enjoyed its best ratings ever. Then tragedy struck when its finale, what the entire premise had been built around, was given the kind of twist that many deemed callous and a legacy destroyer. Some (former?) fans say it was so bad it managed to sully all previous 207 episodes.
This case best illustrates the true power of a finale: the possibility to retroactively redeem, or ruin, an entire show with only one episode.
But is this really possible? Watch that last scene one more time and decide for yourself.