from Nick Suss
March 25, 2014, 4:34 p.m.
In eager anticipation of this week’s upcoming finale of the great sitcom How I Met Your Mother, we at StoriesHouse (READ: Nick) decided that it would be fitting to honor some of the other great sitcom finales of history. This is the first of the seven-part countdown for the site. Don’t forget to air your grievances or compliment us in the comments. Probably grievances.
So How I Met Your Mother is ending. That makes all of us sad. I will write significantly more on the topic after the finale, and will likely return to the podcast in order to accurately voice my opinion, but this series of articles is far more than just anticipation. This is a countdown of epic proportions. This is the countdown of my personal top-7 sitcom finales of all time. Of course, my list is going to be biased based on preference of shows I like and finales I’ve actually seen, sorry M.A.S.H. fans, but I think the list does a good job of encompassing important, significant, touching and funny finales. Toward the end of the week, I will do a quick honorable mention section, but that will be later as to not ruin the guessing game as to which series will finish later on the list. So without further ado, let’s start with number seven.
No. 7: The Finale – Seinfeld
Without a doubt, this is the most divisive finale on my countdown. I know that more people hated this finale than young children hate Brussels sprouts, but it would be a crime not to put this finale on the countdown. Why, you may ask yourself? I’ll tell you why. Even though this finale thematically didn’t fit with the rest of the show, its outlandish nature was actually a perfect cap on the run of one of the three greatest sitcoms in the history of American television.
Here’s the thing about the Seinfeld finale, it was ridiculous. From start to finish, the entire episode was unfathomably stupid. But so were most episodes of Seinfeld. To criticize this episode for being unbelievable is to miss the point of Seinfeld. But this episode wasn’t maligned because of its ludicrousness, it was despised because it didn’t quite fit. As I will explain in a finale to come later on in this list, series finales don’t need to be all-encompassing. That was the fault of the Seinfeld finale. It tried to do too much. Because of the size and cultural importance of Seinfeld, the show’s last hurrah couldn’t have been just another episode or else it would have been disappointing. But it should have been. The stakes were too high. The premises were too broad. The scale was too wide. Everything about the context and plot of the episode was bigger than the show, just as the build-up to the finale was bigger than the actual finale. Seinfeld was in many ways the best show of its time. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement, but history airs in Seinfeld’s favor. The finale, therefore, was so big simply because the following was so big. The show faltered because the expectations were so high. There hadn’t been a TV finale as important as Seinfeld’s finale since Cheers, but Seinfeld was a different beast. Cheers had plot ends to tie up and characters who grew. Seinfeld didn’t. The finale seemed weak because Seinfeld was like life. And there is no poetic way to end life. There was no good way Larry David could have ended Seinfeld.
That being said, he came pretty darn close.
Let’s stop focusing on the poorer elements of the finale and start thinking about the positives. Every guest star in the world came back and impacted the plot. Whatever loose ends the show had, which were few and far between, were tied up nicely. Characters that had never had the chance to interact were thrust into situations where they had to, creating comic hilarity. Callbacks abounded. And, most importantly, the best factor of every Seinfeld episode was allowed to play its symbolic course one last time.
Let’s start this analysis with the guests and work downward in my claims, shall we? The list of guest stars in this episode is so long that it takes up more than a page on the Wikipedia link. Everyone from mainstays like Newman and Frank Costanza to frequent returnees like Tim Whatley and Kenny Bania to one-time stars like The Soup Nazi and the Bubble Boy came back and every cameo in between. But the brilliant part wasn’t that all of these characters showed up, it was that all of the characters were given one last opportunity to impact that plot before the show ended. No minor role played a minor role. There were no small characters. Every cameo played a part in sentencing these four horrible, horrible people to the fate they deserved. The truest jury of their peers imaginable came back to show them exactly who and what they had been since the very beginning of the show: horrible human beings. But the cameos though. If I had to pick the best cameo in the finale, I’m probably going with Babu Bhatt’s return to U.S. soil. His storyline was one of the funniest in Seinfeld history and the resolution that was given was perfect. But, like almost every other cameo, it was but a blink of an eye in length. No cameo overshadowed any other. For that alone, the episode could have been deemed a success.
But that wasn’t the only thing the episode did well. The minor details were brilliant. Naming the judge of their trial Art Vandelay was one of the greatest nods to a show’s fans in the history of television. Tying up the loose ends of how George won the contest by revealing he, characteristically, had cheated may have been the best moment of the entire episode. Throwing Jackie Chiles and Sidra together was one of the best moves the show could have done, re-emphasizing yet another catchphrase the show popularized one last time. But there was one thing more important than every other factor combined.
More than anything else, this show should be praised because it did what only Seinfeld could do: intermingle four plots seamlessly on top of each other without confusing a single viewer. It would be a fair assessment to say that no show before Seinfeld or since has woven such complicated plots on top of each other with any measure of success. (As a frame of reference, it is fair to say that most sitcoms try to use three plots per episode with a main plot, and two minor ones which can be quickly resolves. Some shows even shorten that number to two. Four is difficult. Seinfeld managed to frequently balance four and even five in 22 minutes.) While some of the plots were minor, they were some of the most important occurrences of the show. Kramer’s water-logged ears caused the plane to go down and was one of the last plots resolved in the show. Ever. Elaine’s need to call her friend Jill was brought back up over and over again and went down as one of her last jokes. Jerry and George’s pilot being picked up by NBC was both a great callback and the catalyst for the plot of the show. And then there was the trial. Inside of the trial there were ulterior motives from every character. This episode was so convoluted, yet it was so simple to understand. The episode’s writing truly is one of the most underrated of any episode ever. It balanced all of the hype and all of the humor into one package. And it was a good one at that.
But I can think of six better.