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Pop Culture Happy Hour picks TV's best finales

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The TV shows "Barry," "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "Succession" are all wrapping up this month. And, you know, ending a TV series is not easy. You have to wrap up the story, leave the characters somewhere satisfying, give the fans what they want, you know, up to a point. It is a lot to balance. But sometimes a show will get it just right. So what are the best ever TV finales? And what makes a finale great anyways? Well, these are the kinds of questions the crew at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast like to tackle. So here are the co-hosts, Stephen Thompson, Linda Holmes and Aisha Harris sharing their favorite finales.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: So I came down to a couple picks, and I finally landed upon a show that I've only watched from beginning to end once but has stuck with me even a few years later and is something I will definitely go back and rewatch at some point, which is "The Americans," the very slow-burn FX series about a couple of KGB agents who are living undercover in Virginia. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. You know, they have that - on the surface - perfect, idyllic suburban life in the '80s, but they are, of course, undercover spies.

What I love about the finale is that it has everything that we've loved about the rest of the series. It takes its time. And this was a show that always took its time. And there is an 11-minute sequence where they are confronted by Stan Beeman, who was an FBI agent who lived right next door to them. They become really good friends, but Stan has finally figured it out, and he confronts them at gunpoint. And this scene is just heartbreaking, and I want to just play a little brief moment here where Stan just kind of breaks down.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

NOAH EMMERICH: (As Stan Beeman) You made my life a joke.

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Philip Jennings) You were my only friend in my whole [expletive] life. For all these years, my life was the joke, not yours.

HARRIS: First of all, you can just hear the way he says, you made my life a joke. And after six seasons, you know that he feels that way. He feels completely duped. And then the rest of the scene is Philip and Elizabeth kind of alternating between BS'ing Stan and not being truthful about what they were doing. And the way that tension is played is just so absolutely perfect - like, one of the greatest scenes of all time. And it ends with, like, this, planting of a seed that Stan's wife, Renee, might be one of them.

And there's just all these other moments, like whether it's Philip saying, we need to leave Henry, our other son, behind because he knows nothing about any of this, and he has a chance to live a normal life. And Elizabeth lets off this like, gasp-slash-guffaw that just - there's just so much inside that little noise that she makes and shows how, unlike Philip, she has always been sort of the more detached and cool personality who was able to separate her morals from what her job was, which is to kill a lot of people in service of the KGB.

There's a moment where we have "With Or Without You" playing by U2, and Paige gets off the train. She's supposed to be going with them to leave the U.S. And as soon as Elizabeth notices it, at that same exact moment, you hear Bono go, (vocalizing).

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: And it's just like - it is so dramatic. It's, like, maybe a little more on the nose than "The Americans" usually is. But it's such a gut punch. It's not just a great ending, but it's also probably one of the best episodes of the entire series. So when you can put it in your probably top five of that show itself, to me, that's what makes it such a great series finale. So that's my pick - "The Americans." And after rewatching this episode again, I am so excited to go back and rewatch it all from the beginning because, oh, my goodness, one of the greatest shows. I love it.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Aisha, this was my first pick. You got to it first, and that's fair. But, man, everything you said was exactly correct. This was a slow-burn series. You were expecting this finale to be explosive. It wasn't. It was all internal combustion. And, you know, nobody dies. And again and again, we've seen this system chew up characters that we love, that we don't know. Both sides on this struggle are playing with human connections, exploiting human connections like love and lust and friendship, as they - as we heard in that clip. And both sides are willing to destroy people to keep going, which is why that moment when Paige steps off the train is so wrenching because it's something she chooses. It's a choice that none of these characters have had - have been able to avail themselves of. And that's why it is literally - you gasp when you see that...

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Bono or not.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: I know.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: That is an exceptionally good series finale. Thank you very much, Glen. So what did you pick as your favorite series finale - other than "The Americans," of course?

WELDON: My choice here is "Newhart."

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Yes.

HARRIS: I was wondering if someone was going to pick that.

WELDON: This sitcom ran on CBS from 1982 to 1990. Bob Newhart, legendary comedian whose series before that, "The Bob Newhart Show," had run on CBS from 1972 to 1978. In that first series, he had played Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist, and in the newer one, the '80s one, he played Dick Loudon, a really kind of dull-as-dishwater how-to author and owner of an inn in Vermont surrounded by a lot of quirky, kooky local townsfolk.

The reason this finale is considered iconic is because of its use of the medium of television and how it plays to the audience in a way that hadn't really been done before. It's been done a lot since, but at that time, it hadn't been done before. So here's what happens. After eight seasons, "Newhart" ends with him waking up on the set of the old "Bob Newhart Show." He is back in the Chicago apartment. He's sharing a bed with Suzanne Pleshette, who played Bob Hartley's wife, Emily, on that old "Bob Newhart Show." And he tells her he had this weird dream where he ran an inn in a very quirky Vermont town. And now, evidently, to film this, they had kept the secret from the audience and from a lot of the crew. So when the lights come up and the "Newhart" audience is sitting in those seats and they see the "Bob Newhart Show" set, you get a little bit of laughter...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEWHART")

BOB NEWHART: (As Robert Hartley) Honey.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...And then you get applause.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEWHART")

NEWHART: (As Robert Hartley) Honey. Honey, wake up. You won't believe the dream I just had.

WELDON: Now, if you're sitting it from the outside, if you had never seen "The Bob Newhart Show," what's happening is this audience is applauding light fixtures.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Wallpaper.

WELDON: They're applauding a bookshelf headboard. But, of course, they're not applauding that. They're applauding themselves for recognizing it. They are applauding the show for making a twist, but the laughter that starts as soon as you see the set has this very weird but very quick build. It's not explosive. It's confusion, recognition, realization and then, frankly, self-congratulation. It is the very definition of meta. Seconds later, when they realize that Suzanne Pleshette is there, too, she gets the explosive thing. She gets 15-second ovation all to herself, which is nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEWHART")

SUZANNE PLESHETTE: (As Emily Hartley) All right, Bob.

(LAUGHTER)

PLESHETTE: (As Emily Hartley) What is it?

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Because that's the moment - right? - when it all does really come together, and people are going, oh, I see. I get it now. But the thing is, that's what people remember. It is so big and so clever that that last minute and a half overshadows not just the finale episode, but I would say eight seasons of show before that.

HOLMES: I mean, I think you're absolutely right that there's something to be said for a series finale that is essentially the show's entire reputation.

HOLMES: And I think you're right that it started off as a very down the middle sitcom, so this makes sense to me.

HARRIS: Yes.

HOLMES: All right. Stephen Thompson, what is your pick for best series finale?

THOMPSON: The criteria that I took into this process was favorite, degree of difficulty...

WELDON: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...Payoff of the world building, true to the overall story and a true ending. I love a true ending. I don't necessarily want my favorite shows to be rebooted if they end on that perfectly satisfying note. And the one I picked is fairly recent - January, 2020 - "The Good Place." It's one of my favorite shows of all time, not just of recent years, an extremely thematically ambitious, warm and constantly surprising comedy. If you have not seen "The Good Place," first of all, don't let me spoil it. Go and watch all four seasons right now. But the show, for those who need a recap, I guess - Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto are four people who have died. And they have been put through a series of afterlife experiences controlled by a demon played by Ted Danson. By the time you get to the finale, the show has resolved that all of these people are living happily ever after in paradise. And they've even, in a preceding episode, sorted out that one of the central problems with a perfect paradise-based afterlife is that because it never ends, you are just drifting off. And, like, existence becomes meaningless.

And so they've established, leading into this finale, that there is a way for you to walk through a portal and end your afterlife, which is a really heady concept and one that doesn't necessarily track as a happy ending. In this finale, it is wrapping up the afterlives of these four people. And they don't all decide to walk through the door, but several do. And it handles it in a way that feels so true to these characters, allows you to gather up just the sheer depth and breadth of their afterlife experiences while still establishing that part of what is giving meaning is that they have reached a satisfying end to their existence.

And so it is a really philosophically rich story. But it's still, along the way, grappling with conflict within that. Chidi and Eleanor are in love in the afterlife, and Chidi wants to leave it before Eleanor does. And how they sort that out and the conversation that they have over one of the most beautiful needle drops - "Spiegel Im Spiegel" by Arvo Part is the needle drop for the scene in which Chidi kind of explains to Eleanor some of the meaning behind it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD PLACE")

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (As Chidi) There's one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean, where it came from and where it's supposed to be.

THOMPSON: It is very hard to talk about this without crying. It is even harder to watch it without crying. My favorite ending to one of my very favorite TV shows of all time.

HARRIS: I'm so glad someone mentioned it...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Because it really is - like you, I was also very, very skeptical about how it would end. And, whew, man, it feels great, but also sad (laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah. It's true. It is exactly that. And I salute you, Stephen, for getting through it. I thought we were going to lose you there in the middle.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: But, you know, you did great. You did great, buddy. What I chose could not be a harder turn from the finale of "The Good Place" in that it is sort of the anti-the-finale-of-"The Good Place." I chose the finale of "Veep." You know, it's funny - I do not always feel like I am the natural audience for "Veep." It is so incredibly acidic. It is so incredibly gnarly and vulgar.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: With that said, you know, if you didn't watch it, Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the vice president of the United States. She is an incredibly craven, awful person surrounded by other craven, awful people who are her staff.

You follow her over several seasons as she tries to escape this terrible existence as the vice president. A bunch of different twists and turns take her to a point where, in the finale, she is at the convention trying to get the nomination for president. And she goes through this terrible trial because she's trying to be nominated while there's an incredible scandal brewing off to the side. And you keep thinking, is this scandal going to get her? Do I want her to become president? Like, what is the satisfying finale here?

I find that in finales, 98% of the time, a show will warm itself up 15 degrees in the finale, at least. It will give itself a little bit more of, like, in the end, everybody loved each other and was friends, right? That is not what this show does remotely at all. They put their foot on the accelerator to hell because what happens in this finale - and, again, if you have not seen it, be warned - her faithful aide this entire time is Gary, played by Tony Hale, who carries her bag. All he wants to do is please her and help her. He's given his life to her. All she does is abuse him, and he still loves her. And there have been these, like, very, very tiny moments where they've allowed her to be kind to him for 10 seconds. And then she always immediately is horrible to him. But it's this very, like, abusive employment relationship. And what she does is she sets him up to take the fall for her scandal. And the last thing you see of him in that part of the story - he's being dragged away by the FBI because she has set him up. It is the most vicious, awful, monstrous thing she's done in the entire show. And they simply refuse to change who she is in the finale.

Then they go 20-plus years later, her funeral, where, you know, you get to see what has kind of become of all the people. And, in a way, it does give you a little bit of that typical satisfying finale where you kind of get to see, like, many years later, here's what happened. You know, some of it is what you would expect. Her staffers have turned into middle-aged jerks instead of young-ish jerks. Her daughter is watching her funeral on television and serving margaritas. But then, at the very end, they show that Gary, who is presumably now out of whatever legal trouble she got him into - he looks terrible, but at the very end of her funeral, he comes up to her casket and says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")

TONY HALE: (As Gary Walsh) You'd hate the flowers. But I brought the Dubonnet.

HOLMES: Which is exactly the kind of thing he always worried about for her. You would hate the flowers. But he brought her favorite lipstick, and he puts it on top of the casket. In a way, you can find a note of warmth in it that she didn't make him not decent, right?

WELDON: Yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: He stayed the person that he was. But it's a terrible, terrible, monstrous thing that she's done to him. And he has suffered whatever consequences. I find this finale irresistible because of all the things that it refuses to do. It refuses to make warmth and love the ending because it wouldn't be the right ending for this show. This show, you got to keep everybody horrible until the last minute 'cause that's the origins of this show. And for that ice-cold bravery, I chose "Veep."

WELDON: Excellent choice - a show with a courage of its convictions, stuck to it. It did warm up from Kelvin zero to Kelvin 0.15, and I am here for it. I love that ending.

KHALID: That was Stephen Thompson, Linda Holmes and Aisha Harris sharing their favorite TV show finales on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.