Wolf Files: Sitcom Finales

If you haven't heard about the final episode of Friends, how does it feel to be in deep cryogenic storage, and will you be defrosted in time to find out if Ross and Rachel get back together?

But if you're sufficiently over-caffeinated with tributes to the Central Perk gang, let's talk about the finale of everything but Friends.

Until 1977 and the era-defining climactic "group hug" on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, TV shows rarely made a big deal about final episodes. They couldn't. They were just canceled — often for good reason.

Back in 1969, when Capt. Kirk entered his final ship's log, he was trapped in a woman's body. Over in Bedrock, Fred Flintstone was last seen arguing with an invisible (to everyone else) space alien named "Gazoo."

And what happened to Welcome Back, Kotter post-John Travolta? Producers had hoped to build a fifth season on the marriage of Horshack in the infamous episode "Oo, Oo, I Do!" But the nuptials turned out to be the Sweathogs' swan song.

The After-M*A*S*H

In 1983, the final episode of M*A*S*H changed TV forever when a record-setting 125 million people tuned in, making it the most-watched show ever.

After 11 seasons, the Korean War comedy came to an end in a teary, 2½-hour lovefest, with Hawkeye suffering a nervous breakdown, Father Mulcahy losing his hearing, and Klinger falling in love and vowing to stay in Korea with the woman he loves, after years of wearing a dress and trying every ploy to get sent home.

Critics lambasted the show as embarrassingly sentimental and self-congratulatory, even before the final helicopter air-lifted Hawkeye from the 4077th, revealing a rock message left by B.J. that spelled out "Goodbye."

Nevertheless, ever since, big comedies can't go out without a big farewell ratings grab, putting writers under intense pressure to give fans one more crowd-pleaser.

A few months ago, on the final episode of Sex and the City, we learned the real name of Carrie's on-again, off-again boyfriend, previously known only as "Big." But did we really get enough to justify the hype?

In the weeks to come, we'll see the finale of Frasier, not to mention The Chris Isaak Show and Angel. As we prepare for one goodbye party after the next, let's look back at some of TV's biggest farewells.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977): When a new management team takes over WJM-TV, bombastic anchorman Ted Baxter is convinced he'll be fired. Instead, it's everyone but Ted who gets the ax.

The episode famously closes with Mary, Lou, Murray, Ted, Sue Ann and Georgette embracing in TV's most famous group hug.

"We'll all need some Kleenex," says Ed Asner as the curmudgeonly newsman Lou Grant.

"There's some on Mary's desk," says Georgia Engel as Georgette, prompting the cluster of flesh to migrate en masse.

The news team walks out the door while singing, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," with Mary pausing at the newsroom door before flicking off the lights.

Newhart (1990): In one of the most surreal moments in TV history, Bob Newhart ends his show by waking up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette — who played his wife on the old Bob Newhart Show.

"Honey," Newhart says, "you won't believe the dream I just had. I dreamt was an innkeeper a crazy little town" — implying that Newhart, a TV show about a Vermont Innkeeper, was just a dream in the mind of his former character, psychologist Bob Hartley.

Newhart was so bent on keeping the ending a surprise that he actually cooked up a fake ending and fed it to the tabloids. In it, he died and went to heaven, where he met God, played by George Burns.

Roseanne (1997):

Roseanne also went out with an "it was all a dream" ending, but the results were more of a nightmare.

Up until the final episode, viewers had been led to believe that the blue-collar Conner family had won the lottery and that Roseanne's TV husband Dan (John Goodman) had survived a heart attack.

But in the finale, Roseanne reveals in a bizarre voice-over that the show's entire final season was all fiction that she wrote as therapy after Dan died. Her husband's apparent survival had been just part of her fantasy.

In the voiceover, Roseanne slips back and forth between herself and her character, talking about the origins of the show and her relationship with the characters, in a monologue that might have been even more confusing than the troubled star's personal life at the time.

When Roseanne says, "My sister in real life is gay," it sounds as if she's talking about her real-life sister. She's actually referring to her on-screen sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), who had suffered many man problems throughout the series.

Seinfeld (1998): Chief writer Larry David vowed never to allow Seinfeld the slightest drip of sentimentality, and the show went down making fun of itself all the way.

It begins with George and Jerry gloating over their good fortune after NBC picks up their TV pilot — a show with no plot, just like Seinfeld itself.

When Jerry tells his parents, his father mocks TV. "It's all crap on television," he says. "The only thing I watch is Xena: Warrior Princess — do you ever watch that?"

The show ends with Jerry and friends on trial for witnessing a carjacking and doing nothing to stop it. A parade of former characters testify to their bad behavior, and we last see Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer in jail, bickering as usual. Cheers (1993): Sam and Diane flirt with marriage one more time. Woody is elected city councilman and Rebecca marries her plumber boyfriend.

But just as Sam agrees to move West with Diane, he realizes that the friends he's leaving behind at the bar are the closest thing he has to a family — and he can't go. He goes back, flicks off the bar lights and when someone tries to come in for a nightcap, he says, "Sorry, we're closed."

Happy Days (1984):

Seven years after Fonzie literally and figuratively "jumped the shark," he attempted something much harder — adopting an 8-year-old boy.

In the Happy Days finale, Fonzie seeks to adopt an orphan. Meanwhile, Joanie and Chachi decide after a steamy date that it's time to tie the knot, propelling the short-lived spin-off Joanie Loves Syndication, or something like that.

Cosby (1992): Cliff and Claire Huxtable literally dance off the air, waltzing off the set and out the studio door, as if to tell viewers, "Goodbye, this is the end."

The feel-good episode includes Cliff fixing the perpetually broken doorbell and the dyslexic Theo graduating from New York University. Gilligan's Island (1967): Even after 98 episodes, Gilligan never got off the island, and he and the Skipper never changed their shirts. The castaways were finally rescued years later in a series of TV movies, only to be stranded on the same island on a reunion cruise.

The Brady Bunch (1974): Mr. and Mrs. Brady never talked about sex with their squeaky-clean bunch. What do you expect from their final episode but complete denial?

There is no talk of change or moving on. Remember, that's why we loved the Bradys. They never dealt with real-world problems, except for that time Marcia bumped her nose … or when Pete's voice started to change.

The finale 1974 episode entails Bobby trying to sell hair tonic. The concoction turns Greg's hair orange, just days before graduation. As always, madcap comedy ensues. Robert Reed, who played patriarch Mike, found the whole premise so objectionable that he boycotted the episode. He was kind enough to return for countless TV reunions.

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Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.